What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is child psychotherapy that treats childhood emotional and behavioral problems, and is conducted in the natural language of children – through play. Play therapy can help prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and help a child achieve optimal growth and development. It is widely viewed as an important, effective, and developmentally appropriate mental health treatment. Play therapy has proven to be an effective therapeutic approach for people from all age groups, though minors respond particularly well to this type of treatment. 

Children naturally communicate and work through their challenges through play. Children learn about their world, themselves, and others through play. Children do not possess the words to problem-solve or express their emotions as adults do, and therefore share their inner world and actively problem-solve through their engagement in play. The therapist makes various play items available to the child during sessions and engages therapeutically with the child to assist the process. The child interacts with play items in a symbolic manner that allows the therapist to learn about the child’s specific thoughts and emotions that the child may not be able to express verbally and/or directly.

A major aspect of child therapy is the therapeutic relationship between child and therapist. At the start of therapy, the child must first develop a safe, trusting relationship with the therapist before the child can fully utilize the therapeutic process. The therapist has been trained to work with the child in a manner that will allow the child to feel safe, understood, and accepted.

Play is considered to be especially important for the healthy development of children who have experienced stressful events or past trauma. Children who have experienced trauma may find it challenging to communicate to others that they need support. The effects of trauma tend to reside in the nonverbal areas of the brain, while an individual’s capacity to communicate and process adverse events resides in the brain’s frontal lobes. Research demonstrates that the physical and role-playing activities associated with play therapy help move traumatic memories and sensations from the nonverbal brain areas to the frontal lobes, which enables the child to process, communicate, and resolve their experiences of trauma. 

Parental/Caregiver participation is crucial in play therapy and typically parents/caregivers are interviewed before the child begins treatment for the therapist to understand their concerns about the child, identify the child’s interests and strengths, and to obtain a history of the child’s development. Ongoing consistent communication between parents/caregivers and therapists is essential to supporting the child’s therapeutic process.