Play Therapy: What You Need To Know

By Alexandra Newmarch, Provisional Psychologist and Chiu Lau, Principal Psychologist.

What Is Play Therapy?

Play Therapy is a specialist form of, or approach to, therapy that has been specially designed for working with kids. It is built upon two principles:

  1. Play is the natural language of children
  2. Play has enormous therapeutic value

It can be difficult to get a direct answer to a question around the child’s worries, fears, or frustrations – sometimes because the child doesn’t have the words or the concepts to express it, sometimes because they don’t even know. But most children can play, and their play tells us a lot.

Children instinctively use play to process what’s happened to them, or what they have seen. They ‘play it out’, in the same way that an adult might ‘talk it out’. For example, a child who is in a car accident might use their own toy cars to re-enact the accident over and over again as they try to make sense of the experience. In the therapy-room, the therapist comes alongside the child as they use the toys to think about their challenges, problems, and experiences.

The Play Therapist will have a ‘tool kit’ of toys and materials that the child will be able to use and play with. This commonly includes things like art, music, puppets, dramatic play, storytelling and sand play. The things that the child does gives the therapist information for what’s going on for them, but the main therapy occurs as the child works out their problems through play. Everything that is done in the therapy-room has meaning, and sometimes this will be engaged with directly, and sometimes indirectly. But either way, the child is doing important work, and change will happen.

Does Play Therapy work?

In a word, yes! There is an increasing body of research (lots of it from the UK) showing substantial improvements in children who have received Play Therapy. Sometimes, it takes a while to see improvement. Play Therapy is rarely a quick-fix to a problem, because it moves at the child’s pace, and seeks long-term, enduring change. Sometimes, things can even look worse before they look better. It’s like tidying a kid’s messy bedroom. Often, you end up making more mess, before everything gets sorted out.

Why/When Might Your Child Need It?

Play Therapy is helpful for children experiencing a wide range of behavioural, emotional, and social problems, such as anger, anxiety, bullying, trauma, grief, and parental separation/divorce. It is typically used for children between the ages of about three and twelve, although the techniques (especially art and sand play) and principles can be used with older children too, in slightly different ways.

What Happens In Sessions?

It’s up to the child! The therapist creates a warm, friendly environment where the child feels accepted just as they are, where they are free to choose what they want to do or talk about. The therapist reflects back the themes and content of child’s play and conversation to help the child gain insight. The child leads the way, and the therapist follows where they lead, providing a safe anchor to reality. Limitations are minimal, revolving around the need to keep the child, therapist, and toys safe/unbroken.

Children generally gravitate towards their interests, and the mediums that help them to express what they want the therapist to know, and what will help them to heal. Some therapists may incorporate worksheets and exercises into the therapy to target specific issues or problems. Some therapists don’t. In the same way that the things an adult does or says in their therapy session are kept confidential, so too are the things a child says, does, or makes. Generally, the therapist will try and have check in sessions over the course of the therapy to talk about how the child is progressing, how the parent is going, and perhaps some techniques and strategies that the parents can use at home.

In summary:

  • Play Therapy is a specialist form of therapy for kids to help them express and “play out” the difficulties they’re experiencing
  • Play Therapy is led by the child
  • The Play Therapist provides the child with toys to use, and a warm, caring, safe environment
  • Change tends to be slow but enduring


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, shyb.

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