What You Need to Know About Play Therapy

Play Therapy Week 2019 has sadly come to an end. I look forward to this week every year and being able to share my love of play therapy with other professionals, colleagues and parents. I also use this time to reflect on my work with children, adolescents and families. I continue to be immensely grateful for the work I get to do that is so wonderfully suited to my personality. Helping children develop socially and emotionally through play is the most fulfilling work I could imagine.

To wrap up the week, I want to share a little about play therapy; why I use it, how it works, and to hopefully answer some questions for parents, caregivers or other mental health professionals who may not fully understand the work I do with children and teenagers.

 Even among other mental health professionals, play therapy remains a bit of a mystery for those who do not work with children. I have encountered questions and criticism from others over the years who have not had the privilege of seeing the therapeutic powers of play in action. I have also met more and more therapists in my local area who are curious about play and how to use it effectively. The play therapy community continues to grow and it’s an exciting time to be in the field! I am always happy to share my experiences and answer questions about my passion for play in helping children heal.


What is play therapy? Play therapy is a type of psychotherapy which uses play, toys, sand, art and other symbolic or creative materials to help a child work through emotional and behavioral issues they may be experiencing and to build resiliency and self-esteem.  The Association for Play Therapy has a great website with a more clinical definition of play therapy that you can find here.

 Play therapy is both an empirically and evidence-based treatment model. You can find a whole database of research about play here.

Very little grows on jagged rock. Be ground. Be crumbled so wildflowers will come up to you..jpg


What goes on in the playroom? Parents and caregivers may be curious about what exactly it is your child is doing in the play room. You may hear loud noises, see us walk to wash our hands after a messy activity, or find sand on your child after their session. During our special playtime (the term your child and I will use to define our time together) we may focus on one activity that takes the whole session or move busily from one activity to the next. Play therapists like stuff, and any of us who have been doing this work for a while have amassed a large collection of games, toys, art supplies and sand miniatures for our children to use to express and process thoughts and emotions.

Play therapists are trained to track, reflect, and mirror a child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors in order to help children feel heard and understood. Questions are usually off limits, and talking all together is optional. Your child will be allowed to make messes, limits are placed sparingly, and your child does not have to clean up their mess.

I use a combination of both non-directive and directive Child Centered Play Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Sand Tray Therapy and Expressive Arts Therapy to help children identify and manage thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Though it may seem like we are “just playing” everything in the play room has been specifically chosen in order to facilitate change in a variety of ways depending on your child’s current experiences. Underpinning all of my work with any of my clients is unconditional positive regard and radical acceptance of them, just the way they are.


You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. r.jpg

Why I use play therapy? For children, play is their natural language. Through non-directive play, children are free to work through emotions and situations which are important to them. Play is the equivalent of an adult coming in to talk or “vent” about their day and to acquire more helpful ways of seeing themselves and others. Children are not able to verbalize their feelings, as their prefrontal cortex, has not fully developed yet.  When using more directive play I can target in on specific experiences, emotions, thoughts or behaviors which may be problematic to the child.

 Why should everyone who works with children use play? Children need to play to learn. They need to experience and manipulate toys, art, clay, etc. in order to make abstract thoughts and feelings concrete. Based on Piaget’s model of development, children are not able to engage in abstract thought until age 11 or 12. Expecting a child with a developmental age of less than 12 to verbalize their feelings and why they may feel that way is like asking a fish to fly.

Without playing or using expressive arts with children I would argue that we aren’t doing much to help a child learn to manage emotions, thoughts and behaviors which is so important for their healthy development.

Are all play therapists the same? There are dozens of play therapy models within the practice, and range from child focused to more behavioral or family systems approaches. As with adult individual or marriage therapists you may seek out, each play therapist's training and treatment modality may be different. Its always important that your child’s therapist explain to you how they work with children and answer any questions you have about their treatment approaches. You and your child should feel comfortable with your play therapists knowledge and ability to connect in order to facilitate growth.

  Is there special training needed to become a play therapist? Any therapist who has completed their Masters degree can begin to use play therapy with children. However, our code of ethics as therapists and counselors states that we will not use any therapeutic model until we have had sufficient training. This of course, can cause some gray area in what is “sufficient.” To be certain that your child’s play therapist has the qualifications needed, don’t be afraid to ask about training or certifications. Registered Play Therapists (RPT) have had at least 150 hours of play therapy training, supervision, and extensive experience as well as continued yearly trainings in play therapy needed to keep their certification. If possible, I would recommend taking your child to a play therapist who has this certification or working toward it so that you can feel more confident that they have had adequate training in working with a variety of child clients and presenting issues.

What issues are treated with play therapy? In my practice I use play therapy for children experiencing anxiety, ADHD, sensory processing issues, trauma, depression, grief, divorce, low self-esteem/self-worth, adoption or attachment issues, family dynamic and relationship issues, and social skills deficits. Play therapy can also be beneficial for children with Autism, developmental delays, or certain medical diagnoses which a child may need help coping with.

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How can play therapy help children? Through play therapy and the special relationship built with a child’s therapist, children learn to problem solve, become more self reliant, increase resiliency, name and process thoughts and feelings, learn new (and usually more socially acceptable) ways of getting needs met, increase coping skills, and replace maladaptive thoughts about themselves and others with more adaptive ones. Children learn they are capable and lovable, just the way they are. This is the foundation of contentment and success for which they can build the rest of their lives.

If you have a child who is experiencing any of the issues mentioned above, play therapy may be right for your family. Email me to schedule an appointment or to get more info about how play therapy may help your child.