How Play Therapy, Treats and Benefits Children and Some Adults

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

What is play therapy?

Play therapy is form of therapy used primarily for children, That's because children may not be able to process their own emotions or articulate problems to parents or other adults.

While it may look like an ordinary playtime,play therapy can be much more than that.

A trained therapist can use playtime to observe and gain insights into a child's problems. The therapist can then help the child explore emotions and deal with unresolved trauma. Through play, children can learn new coping mechanisms and how to redirect inappropriate behaviors.

Play therapy is practiced by a variety of licensed mental health professionals, like psychologists and psychiatrists, It's also practiced by behavioral and occupational therapists, physical therapists, and social workers.

In addition, the Association for Play Therapy offers specialized training programs and advanced credentials for licensed mental health professionals, school counselors,and school psychologists.

Benefits of play therapy

Acoording to the professional organization Play Therapy International , up to 71 percent of children referred to play therapy may experience positive change.

While some children might start off with some hesitation, trust in the therapist tends to grow. As they become more creative or more verbal in their play.

Some of the potential benefits of play therapy are:

  • Taking more responsibility for certain behaviors

  • Developing coping strategies and creative problem-solving skills

  • Self-respect

  • Empathy and respect for others

  • Alleviation of anxiety

  • Learning to fully experience and express feelings

  • Stronger family relationships

Play therapy can also encourage use of language or improve fine and gross motor skills.

If your chid has a diagnosed mental or physical illness, play therapy doesn't replace medications or any other necessary treatments. Play therapy can be used alone or alongside other therapies.

When play therapy is used

Although people of all ages can benefit from play therapy, it's typically used with children between the ages of 3 and 12. Play therapy may be helpful in a variety of circumstances, such as:

  • Facing medical procedures, chronic illness,or palliative care

  • Developmental delay or learning disabilities

  • Problem behaviors in school

  • Aggressive or angry behavior

  • Family issues, like divorce, separation, or death of a close family member

  • Natural disasters or traumatic events

  • Domestic violence, abuse,or neglect

  • Anxiety,depression,grief

  • Eating and toileting disorders

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

How does play therapy work?

There's a bit of a communication gap between children and adults. Depending on age and stage of development, children simply don't have the language skills of adults. They may feel something, but in many cases, they either can't express it to an adult or don't have a trusted adult to express it to.

On the other end, adults can misinterpret or completely miss the child's verbal and nonverbal cues.

Children learn to understand the world and their place in it through play. It's where they're free to act out their inner feelings and deepest emotions. Toys can act as symbols and take on greater meaning- if you know what to look for.

Since the child can't adequately express themselves in the adult world, the therapist joins the child in their world, on their level.

As they play, the child may become less guarded and more apt to share their feelings. But they aren't pressured. They're allowed to do so in their own time and with their own method of communication.

Play therapy will differ depending on the therapist and the particular needs of the child. To begin, the therapist may want to observe the child, parents, or teachers.

After a thorough assessment, the therapist will set some therapeutic goals, decide on what limits may be necessary, and formulate a plan for how to proceed.

Play therapists pay close attention to how a child handles being separated from the parent, how they play alone, and how they react when the parent returns.

Much can be revealed in how a child interacts with different types of toys and hoe their behavior changes from session to session. They may use play to act out fears and anxieties, as a soothing mechanism, or to heal and problem-solve.

Play therapists use these observations as a guide to the next steps. Each child is different, so therapy will be tailored to their individual needs. As therapy progresses, behaviors and goals can be reassessed.

Play therapy techniques

Sessions typically last 30 minutes to an hour and are held once a week or so. How many sessions are needed depends on the child and how well they respond to this type of therapy. Therapy can take place individually or in groups.

Play therapy can be directive or nondirective. In the directive approach, the therapist will take the lead by specifying the toys or games that'll be used in the session. The therapist will guide the play with a specific goal in mind.

The nondirective approach is less structured.The child is able to choose toys and games as they see fit. They're free to play in their own way with few instructions or interruptions. The therapist will observe closely and participate as appropriate.

Sessions must take place in an environment where the child feels safe and where there are few limitations. The therapist may use techniques that involve:

  • Creative visualization

  • Storytelling