What Is Play Therapy?

Cute little Asian girl playing with wooden toy train in the living room at home

d3sign / Getty Images

What Is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy and can be effective in helping children through emotional and mental issues.

Children often use play to express themselves and navigate the world and play therapy takes advantage of this. Play therapy is primarily used with children. Although, it can also be used with adults. It is typically used with children who are aged between 3 and 12.

The primary goal of play therapy is to help children who might struggle with expressing themselves or their emotions to express themselves through play.

A play therapist will guide a person through play therapy in a free and safe environment where they feel most comfortable expressing themselves. Play therapists use play activities a child might enjoy from painting to dancing to board games. At times play therapist will ask other family members or parents and guardians to also get involved in the playtime activities.

Types of Play Therapy

There are two main forms of play therapy used by play therapists: 

  1. Directive Play Therapy: With directive play therapy, the therapist takes a hands-on approach and leads the child through guided play activities to help them express themselves. They’ll typically give specific instructions and supervise the child as they go through it. 
  2. Non-directive Play Therapy: Non-directive play therapy makes use of a less controlled environment. The therapist leaves the child to engage in whatever play activities they might enjoy and express themselves with limited interference. 

Techniques 

Many different techniques can be applied during play therapy. The technique used during a therapy session largely depends on your child’s needs and what play mediums they feel most comfortable using.

A typical play therapy session usually lasts between 30 and 45 minutes. During a play therapy session, the therapist will create a comfortable and safe environment for the child to play. The therapist will then observe the child’s interactions with the toys that are provided.

As the child grows more comfortable in the therapist’s playroom, more specific play activities that target the issues the child is dealing with will be introduced. Some of the most common techniques used by play therapists across the world include: 

  • Using building blocks
  • Using art
  • Sand play 
  • Board games 
  • Play with dolls 
  • Puppet play
  • Tea party play 
  • Card games 
  • Strategy games like chess or checkers 
  • Hide-and-seek 
  • LEGO play

What Play Therapy Can Help With

Play therapy is particularly beneficial for people who struggle with communicating and expressing themselves in a positive and healthy manner.

Children who have been abused or experienced extremely traumatic or stressful events might benefit from play therapy to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives.  Children with certain disorders which hamper their emotional and social expressions typically benefit greatly from play therapy.

These could include children with behavioral disorders or learning disabilities. There has been some research into the effectiveness of play therapy on children with the following conditions:

Benefits of Play Therapy 

People are often dismissive of play therapy and the benefits they hold. Concerned parents often find it hard to understand what benefits their children gain from “just playing.” However, the fact is that with or without the guidance of a therapist, children like to communicate through play, whether you might have noticed it or not.

A child playing violently with toys might be dismissed as aggressive when in reality, he might be mirroring a violent domestic situation he has been witnessing.

Here are some of the benefits of play therapy:

  • Play therapy gives children who are having a hard time communicating verbally to express themselves through play activities. For instance, a child who refuses to speak might instead draw or paint out their thoughts or needs.
  • It creates a space where a child will feel comfortable being themselves instead of other more traditional forms of psychotherapy.
  • It allows the child to take charge of their therapy process. Effective play therapy allows the child to use toys and mediums they are most comfortable with and go at their own pace.
  • It helps children understand their emotions, especially if they had struggled with doing this before.
  • It helps children build up their communication and social skills with time. After several sessions, a child who wasn’t speaking might start to utter several phrases.

Effectiveness 

Further research into the effectiveness of play therapy still needs to be carried out. Most traditional forms of therapy might not connect with children who are as young as 3 to 12 years old.

In a 2009 study on the effectiveness of play therapy with aggressive children, researchers divided a group of students with a history of aggressive behavior into two groups. One group was exposed to play therapy and the other group was used as a control group. At the end of the study, the researchers found that the children who had been exposed to play therapy showed significant improvement in aggressive behaviors over the children in the control group.

A 2005 analysis of 93 studies conducted between 1953 to 2000 on the effectiveness of play therapy with children also supports the theory that it’s an effective method of therapy for children. The review found that this form of therapy produced positive effects, even more so when the parents of the child in therapy were involved. It also found that this form of therapy appeared to be effective across age and gender.

Things to Consider 

While a play therapist will take the lead during play therapy, the child’s parent or guardian also has an important role to play.

The play therapist will typically have a joint consultation with the parent and guardian and the child and also separate consultations with all parties involves. This is done to completely understand the child’s needs. When looking for a play therapist for your child, it’s important to ensure they have the relevant experience and expertise. 

How to Get Started 

If you have a child who might benefit from play therapy or know someone who could you should get started by getting in touch with a licensed psychologist or psychotherapist who has expereience dealing with children, and with play therapy. Play therapy is typically done over several sessions, it’s also important to work with someone with who your child feels absolutely comfortable. 

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Center for Play Therapy , University of North Texas. What is play therapy? 2021

  2. College of Education & Human Development, Georgia State University. What is play therapy? 2021

  3. Ray DC, Blanco PJ, Sullivan J M, Holliman R. An exploratory study of child-centered play therapy with aggressive childrenInternational Journal of Play Therapy.2009;18(3), 162–175. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014742

  4. Bratton S, Dee R, Tammy R & Jones L. The Efficacy of Play Therapy With Children: A Meta-Analytic Review of Treatment Outcomes. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 2005 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.36.4.376