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What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a form of treatment that helps children who are experiencing social, emotional, behavioral, and relationship disorders to express their emotions, improve their communication abilities, and learn to solve problems.

This kind of therapy honors a child’s unique developmental level and looks for ways of helping by observing and interacting with how they play, which is the natural expressive “language” of children. Play therapy is most often used for children ages 4-12, though it can also be used in varying forms with teenagers and adults, as well as with children and their parents or caretakers.

Play therapy is recognized as an evidence-based practice by professional organizations for anxiety, disruptive behaviors, and victims of abuse. Research shows that play therapy is effective in treating a variety of mental health and behavior issues. Play therapy research dates back over 100 years, with more rigorous study in the last few decades. Across issues that have been studied, play therapy consistently demonstrates positive effects with few exceptions.

Why Play Therapy is Used

Children often have trouble putting their thoughts into words but they often act out their feelings during play. A child who has lost a loved one may not be able to express that grief, but they can use a puppet for instance, to talk about missing someone. This natural expression gives the therapist an opportunity to help explore and resolve that issue. The overarching goal of play therapy is to decrease symptomatic behaviors and improve a child’s overall ability to function.

Some common issues addressed in play therapy include:

  • Trauma and crisis
  • ADHD
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Grief and loss
  • Aggression
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Social issues
  • School-related problems
  • Divorce
  • Physical and learning disabilities
  • Anger control

Common issues addressed in play therapy

Types of Play Therapy Techniques

There are as many ways to engage children in play therapy as there are ways to play. Therapists use toys, art, storytelling, puppets, music, dance, and other forms of play to engage children and free them to express themselves. Some specific types of play therapy exercises include:

The therapist role-plays situations the child is anxious about, such as the first day of school.

Color Your Life
A therapist asks the child to draw their life, using colors to represent feelings.

Plush Doll Play
Dolls and plush toys can be used to observe how children comfort and soothe themselves.

Toy Telephone Play
A toy phone can be used for conversations that a child may feel uncomfortable having.

Magic Wand Play
The child is given a magic wand and makes wishes relate to a real-life problems they have.

Self-Control Games
The therapist plays a game like Simon Says to promote paying attention and self-control.

Benefits of Play Therapy

Play therapy provides a safe, consistent therapeutic environment in which a child can experience full acceptance, empathy, and understanding from their therapist, and process inner experiences and feelings through play. A child’s experience within the counseling relationship is the factor that is most healing and meaningful in creating lasting, positive change.

There are many different ways that Play Therapy can benefit children including:

  • Direct or indirect learning
  • Self-expression
  • Improved relationships
  • Forming healthy attachments
  • Releasing negative emotions
  • Reducing stress
  • Solving problems creatively
  • Building self-esteem

Can Play Therapy Happen Online?

Play therapy can be equally beneficial when conducted virtually. Instead of going to an office, children and caregivers can do therapy from their home, school or any safe location that works for the family. Typically, children use the items they have in their own environment, such as toys, dolls, or art materials to interact with their therapist.

There are a few advantages to online therapy for children and parents:

  • Children may feel more comfortable at home than in a professional office space.
  • Kids have grown up with technology, so talking online may be second nature to them.
  • There is more flexibility around scheduling appointments and not needing transportation.
  • Some therapists charge less for online therapy since there are fewer overhead costs.
  • Children may have better access to therapists when they’re able to see someone online.