Play Therapy

What is Play Therapy

Play is the primary way that children learn about the world, understand how different things work, express their thoughts and feelings, develop their physical skills, develop their mental skills, and develop effective social skills and bondsIn the context of play, children practice new roles, express emotions, try to make sense of experiences, and deal with both reality and fantasy.  Play therapy differs from regular play in that the therapist helps children express what is troubling them when they do not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings and to address and resolve their own problems. In play therapy, toys are like the child's words and play is the child's language. For the child, play is a serious, purposeful business through which he or she develops mentally, physically, and socially.  

Benefits of Play Therapy

  • Play therapy creates a safe atmosphere where children can express themselves, try new things, learn more about how the world works, learn about social rules and restrictions, and work through their problems. 
  • Therapists use play as a means to understand children because it is a reflection of the child’s feelings, thoughts, experiences, perceptions and even conflicts.
  • Play therapy gives children an opportunity to explore and open up more than usual.
  • Play helps children to process trauma and gain a sense of control over the event.
  • Play provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their development.
  • Play can involve the use of the imagination.  This can help a child to learn to overcome fears, learn social skills, control impulsivity etc.
  • Children can communicate things through play that might otherwise remain unconscious.
  • Children do not have the ability to communicate themselves as effectively verbally, so play is a form of effective communication.
  • Play is very non-threatening and neutral.  As a result, it can help build the therapeutic relationship, lower defenses, and access information that you might not be able to access.
  • Play Therapy offers an easier alternative for engaging children compared to talk therapy because play is fun.
  • It is unique for the child to have an adult play with them in such a manner that resembles play therapy.

Who Play Therapy is For

Play therapy is one of the primary counseling interventions used with children between the ages of 2 and 12 years.  Play therapy is often the treatment of choice for this age group because:

  • The child’s cognitive development is limited,
  • The child’s ability to verbalize his or her thoughts and feelings is limited,
  • Play is an integral part of the child’s life, and
  • Play is a natural mode of learning and relating for the child.

The Typical Session  

Consistency is important and sessions are scheduled in a manner that provides a feeling of safety and stability for the child. If possible sessions are scheduled for the same day and time each week and occur for the same duration. The frequency of sessions is typically one time per week and ranges from 45 – 50 minutes in length. The number of sessions and duration of treatment varies according to treatment objectives of the child.

Parent Involvement and Updates 

Sessions with parents are important opportunities to keep the therapist informed about the child's current functioning and for the therapist to offer some insight and guidance to parents. At times, the therapist will provide suggestions about parenting techniques, about alternative ways to communicate with their child, and will also serve as a resource for information about child development. Details of child sessions are not routinely discussed with parents. If the child's privacy is maintained, it promotes free expression in the therapist's office and prompts a sense of trust in the therapist. Therapists will, instead, communicate to the parents their understanding of the child's psychological needs or conflicts.

The Therapeutic Process

As the child plays, the therapist begins to recognize themes and patterns or ways of using the materials that are important to the child. Over time, the clinician helps the child begin to make meaning out of the play. This is important because the play reflects issues which are important to the child and typically relevant to their difficulties. The child will transition through four stages of play therapy: exploration, testing for protection (therapeutic relationship building and trust), working stage (fantasy play and patterns and themes are present), and termination.


The therapist will keep the parent/guardian updated when goals are met and it comes time for termination.  The therapist will develop a closing plan with the parent and child to help the child adjust and prepare for termination.  Termination frequently occurs when the child's symptoms have subsided for a stable period of time and when functioning is adequate with peers and adults at home, in school, and in extracurricular activities, prompting the focus of treatment shifting away from problems and onto the process of saying goodbye. Moreover, in keeping with the therapeutic process of communicating thoughts and feelings, this stage is an opportunity for the child to work through how he/she feels about ending therapy and about leaving the therapist.

Follow these links for additional resources on play therapy:

For more information about play therapy use the link below to read more on the Association for Play Therapy website.


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