Play therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach, predominantly used for children ages 3-12 that allows them to use play to explore their thoughts and emotions, as well as freely express repressed thoughts and emotions. Play therapy can be most effective if a child is unable to or does not want to talk about their problems. Play and creativity operate on impulses from outside an individual’s awareness – the unconscious. Both qualitative and quantitative research has shown that play therapy can be extremely beneficial in treating various problems that children have, from physical and sexual abuse to other life stressors like death and divorce. Recent research by Play Therapy United Kingdom (PTUK) suggests that 71% of the children referred to play therapy will show a positive change. The goal is to help children learn to express themselves in healthier ways, become more respectful and empathetic, and discover new and more positive ways to solve problems.
Play Therapy Defined
Play therapy is a form of counseling or psychotherapy in which play is used as means of helping children express or communicate their feelings. Play therapists use a variety of creative arts and play techniques to alleviate mild to moderate and chronic psychological conditions in children. The chosen techniques can also depend on what the child chooses. Whatever setting the play therapy must be conducted in is confidential, safe, and caring. A child must feel physically and emotionally safe. Play therapy can be used as a primary intervention alongside other therapeutic techniques and has been used to treat various disorders, from behavioral, social, and emotional. Play therapy can be both directive, non-directive, and a mixture of the two. Directive play therapy is where the therapist leads the way while non-directive is where the child decides what to do in the session (within safe boundaries). Sessions may last from typically 30 to 45 minutes and they may be with individuals or groups of children. Play therapists are not the same as therapists who have specializations in art, music, and drama. Play therapists have a greater depth of skills and experience and many complete the required criteria to become certified play therapists. Furthermore, play therapy is utilized to help children cope with difficult emotions and find solutions to problems.
Toys and Materials
While the ideal setting for play therapy to occur is a fully-equipped playroom, that is not always the case. The most important aspect is that a child has access to play materials that are selected to encourage expression. Toys used in play therapy should be specifically selected. Play therapy is not used to pass the time away or occupy a child until they can verbally engage with the therapist. The use of toys and what the child does with the toys is communication (this again is why not everyone is a play therapist and specific training is needed). Therefore, careful attention should be given to selecting play materials that aid in the following:
- Exploration and expression without verbalization
- Success without prescribed structure
- Exploration of real-life experiences
- Expression of a wide range of feelings
- Expressive and exploratory play
- Testing of limits
Categories of Toys
Real-life and Nurturing
Doll family, dollhouse, baby bottle, variety of puppets, animal families, cars, money, cash, register, kitchen food, medical kit, phone, etc.
Acting-out, Aggressive, Scary Toys (or not?)
Toy soldiers, guns (colored plastic-not real looking!), scary/aggressive puppets and animals (alligator, shark, etc), rubber knives, foam swords, handcuffs, etc.
Creative expression and emotional release
Sand, water, paints, craft materials, clay, musical instruments, magic wand, dress-up clothes, etc.
Why Use Play Therapy
In many cases, children’s language development lags behind their cognitive development. Sometimes play therapy can be beneficial for teenagers as well as adults. Through play, children can communicate what is happening in their world through their play. Play therapy allows trained mental health practitioners who specialize in play therapy to assess and understand children’s play. By confronting problems in the clinical play therapy setting, children find healthier solutions. Play therapy allows children to change the way they think about, feel toward, and resolve their concerns (Kaugars & Russ, 2001). Even the most troubling problems can be confronted in play therapy and lasting resolutions can be discovered, rehearsed, mastered, and adapted into lifelong strategies (Russ, 2004). The symbolic function of play is the most important aspect of play therapy. The use of toys enables a child to transfer fears, fantasies, anxieties, and guilt to objects rather than people. Through this process, a child can distance themselves from their own feelings and reactions because the play allows them to feel safe by distancing themselves from traumatic events and experiences. Children are not overwhelmed by their own actions because the acts are taken place in fantasy. Acting out through play a frightening experience or situation symbolically gives a child the space to change the outcome of those experiences in play. This helps children move toward an inner resolution that they are then better able to cope with or adjust to the problem. A major function of play therapy is the changing of what might be unmanageable situations through a symbolic representation, which then provides children the opportunity to cope.
Setting Limits in Play Therapy
Setting limits in play therapy is a vital part of the play therapy therapeutic process. While the play therapy relationship has minimal limits, the boundaries are there and are necessary. If there were no limits (a permissive relationship) a child may not feel valued, safe, or accepted. Boundaries provide predictability and stability. Messiness in play therapy is accepted and exploration is encouraged, while persistent patience is the guiding principle throughout play therapy. The structure of therapeutic limits is part of what makes the experience a real-life relationship. Limits in play therapy have both therapeutic and practical benefits in that they preserve the therapeutic relationship, facilitate the child’s opportunities to learn self-responsibility and self-control, among many other dimensions, and provide the child and the therapist with a feeling of emotional security and physical safety (Landreth & Bratton, 1991). This dynamic provides the emotional security that children need and it enables them to explore other emotional dimensions they may have hidden in their other relationships.
Center for play therapy. (2018).
Definition of play therapy. (2018). PTUK.
Landreth, G., & Bratton, S. (1991). Play Therapy. Eric Digest.
Mental Health professionals applying the therapeutic power of play. (2018). Association for play therapy.
Play therapy. (2018). Psychology Today.