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Play therapy: Types and techniques

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

A little boy playing with some toys.

What is play therapy?

Play therapy helps young children express their emotions and process their experiences through a variety of creative and explorative activities. It can be used by itself or alongside other forms of treatment.

Many people associate the word “play” with activities like sports or board games. But play can involve pretty much any activity where the sole purpose is enjoyment, alone or with others.

How does play therapy work?

Children often lack the verbal or cognitive skills to express their feelings or experiences. Play, however, is a natural form of expression they use to communicate their feelings.

In play therapy, registered play therapists meet children at their level, speaking their language during sessions. The emphasis that play puts on relationships and experience positively impacts brain development.1 As children explore their concerns, the therapeutic relationship helps them feel seen, heard, valued, and accepted.

Play therapists gain valuable insights through observation. For instance, they may observe how a child handles separation from their caregiver, explores toys, or acts out stories.

Play-based therapy spaces generally contain a variety of toys, games, and figurines. As a result, their toys can become symbols representing people, places, thoughts, feelings, desires, or conflicts.

Goals of play therapy

The goals of play-based therapy include helping children:

  • Understand and express their feelings in a healthy way
  • Regulate their emotions
  • Process stressful or traumatic experiences
  • Communicate more effectively
  • Improve their problem-solving skills
  • Learn better social skills and behaviors

Who is play therapy for?

Most children who benefit from play therapy are between the ages of three and 12. However, this type of therapy can also be adapted for infants, toddlers, adolescents, or adults.

Play therapy for children vs. for adults

While child-centered play therapy is the most common form, it can also benefit some adults. The main differences lie in communication styles, goals, therapist roles, and activities used.

Children naturally communicate through play, while adults usually talk. Play therapy for kids focuses on learning and development, with the therapist taking a more directive role. Play therapy for adults often address unresolved childhood experiences, with the therapist serving as a facilitator and incorporating expressive arts.

Types of play therapy

There are two major types of play therapy:

  1. Directive play therapy: The therapist guides the session with certain goals and outcomes in mind. They introduce specific activities or toys to help a child learn new skills and make new connections.
  2. Nondirective play therapy: The child mostly guides the session. The therapist may place specific toys in the playroom, but it’s up to the child to decide how to play. They may also adjust their methods to reach goals through the child’s favored play activities, while still aiming for specific outcomes.

 Some of the ways directive and nondirective play therapy can happen include:

  • Individual sessions: A therapist works with one child at a time.
  • Group sessions: One or more therapists work with multiple children at once.
  • Family sessions: A therapist works with one or more children alongside their family members. This might involve parents, adolescent or adult siblings, or grandparents, in working toward specific outcomes.

Play therapy embraces various approaches, each tailored to meet the unique emotional and developmental needs of children. This may involve combining other types of therapy with it.

Cognitive behavioral play therapy (CBPT) combines CBT techniques with play therapy. It helps children learn to identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors through play. The therapist may create scenes from the child’s life and uses techniques like role playing, desensitization, and modeling to help the child develop coping skills and positive behaviors.

Gestalt play therapy focuses on the present moment and encourages children to express their feelings and thoughts through play. The therapist helps the child become more aware of their emotions and experiences, promoting self-discovery and personal growth. This approach emphasizes the importance of the therapeutic relationship and the child’s ability to solve their own problems.

Animal-assisted play therapy involves the use of animals, such as dogs or horses, in play therapy sessions. The presence of an animal can help children feel more comfortable, reduce anxiety, and facilitate communication. The therapist incorporates the animal into play activities, helping the child build trust, develop empathy, and improve social skills.

Browse our directory to find a therapist who specializes in play therapy.

Common play therapy techniques

Specialists use a wide variety of activities to engage children in therapeutic play.

Sandbox play therapy uses a sandbox and miniature toys to create scenes that represent the child’s inner world. The therapist encourages the child to express their feelings and experiences through the toys in the sand. The goal is to observe and interpret the child’s play, helping them gain insight and resolve emotional issues.

Storytelling in play therapy involves telling a story that relates to the child’s situation. The therapist may tell a story, or encourage the child to create their own. Through storytelling, children can explore their emotions, develop problem-solving skills, and gain new perspectives. The therapist may use props, puppets, or other tools to enhance the storytelling experience.

Role play therapy involves acting out scenarios or situations with the therapist or other participants. Children can explore different roles, perspectives, and emotions in a safe and supportive environment. Role play helps children develop problem solving skills, practice social interactions, and express their feelings more effectively. The therapist may guide the child through various scenarios and help them find alternative solutions or coping strategies.

Other common play therapy activities include:

  • Making art
  • Playing imaginatively
  • Dancing
  • Making music

Play therapy themes

The themes that take shape during play are like mirrors reflecting a child’s inner world. They might play out scenarios of power and control with superhero figures, or recreate family dynamics with dolls. These themes help therapists understand their struggles, like conflicts at school or family changes. They’re not just playing—they’re communicating through symbols and actions.

Common themes include:

  • Control and empowerment
  • Family and relationships
  • Fear and anxiety

Toys used in play therapy

Stereotypical depictions of play therapy show kids using puppets or dolls to reenact past traumas. Dolls and puppets may be helpful, but therapists many provide other types of toys, including:

  • Figurines of people and common objects (often called “miniatures”)
  • Games
  • Stuffed animals
  • Dress-up clothes
  • Kitchen sets
  • Cars
  • Dollhouses
  • Doctor’s kits
  • Blocks

Toys aren’t used solely for reenactment. Children can also use toys to create new scenarios that help them solve problems or express feelings.

A child who’s lost an older sibling, for instance, may not be able to express their sadness. However, they may feel comfortable saying their teddy bear is sad because they miss their friend. This gives the therapist an opportunity to discuss loss and grief in a way the child understands.

What can play therapy help treat?

Play therapy is frequently associated with treating children who have experienced trauma. It’s also proven effective for conditions and scenarios including:

Is play therapy evidence-based?

Yes, play therapy is an evidence-based approach to treating children’s mental health issues. Studies show it can significantly reduce negative emotions and behaviors in children, especially those in preschool and elementary school.2

The Association for Play Therapy keeps track of many studies about play therapy. Between 2000 and 2023, 137 studies explored the ways in which play therapy helps children with a variety of issues.3

Find a play therapist for your child

Play therapy is an age-appropriate way for your child to learn how to regulate their emotions, recover after trauma, and solve their problems. Browse our provider directory to find a play therapist in your area.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.