Play therapy: Definition, benefits, types, techniques
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 08/17/2023
The importance of play in a child’s development cannot be overstated. Play is an innate process by which children express themselves as they develop a variety of abilities, including emotional, social, cognitive, and gross and fine motor skills.
Although some adults may associate play with specific activities, such as sports or board games, play can involve pretty much any activity where the sole purpose is enjoyment, alone or with others.
Play is especially important for children, but it is also important for the well-being of grown-ups. For adults, play can help relieve stress, strengthen relationships, improve physical health, and sharpen cognitive abilities.
Renowned play therapist Dr. Gary Landreth wrote, “In the playroom, toys are used like words and play is the child’s language.” Long before children can express themselves with words, they express their inner world through play. Play is how children communicate, learn, process, and problem solve.
Play therapy is a treatment approach that helps children process their emotions and experiences by utilizing the child’s native language: play. Play therapists specialize in understanding and interpreting the child’s expression of their inner world by observing patterns and themes in the child’s play.
Play therapy spaces generally have a wide array of toys, games, and figurines available to the child to play with and manipulate. Because children often don’t have the verbal or cognitive skills to talk about their feelings or experiences, the objects they play with serve as symbols—for people or places in their lives, thoughts and feelings, desires, and conflicts.
As play therapy progresses, children can learn how to regulate their emotions, process stressful or traumatic events, communicate, and solve problems. Play therapy can be utilized as a primary treatment or as an adjunct to other approaches.
Most children who benefit from play therapy are between the ages of three and 12. However, play therapy can be adapted for infants and toddlers as well as for adolescents and adults.
There are two major types of play therapy:
- Directive play therapy: In directive play therapy, the play therapist guides the session. For example, the play therapist may introduce a specific activity or new toys for the child to play with. With directive play therapy, the therapist has certain goals and outcomes in mind and uses play to help the child learn new skills and make new connections.
- Nondirective play therapy: This type of play therapy is largely guided by the child. The play therapist may place specific toys in the playroom, but it is up to the child to decide what to do and how to play. There are certain outcomes still in mind for the child, but the therapist adapts their approach to achieve those results through the child’s preferred play activities.
Directive and nondirective play therapy can take place in multiple therapeutic settings, including:
- Individual play therapy: A play therapist works with one child at a time.
- Group play therapy: One or more play therapists work with multiple children at once.
- Family play therapy: A play therapist works with one or more children from the same family and involves others in the family, such as parents, adolescent or adult siblings, or grandparents, in working toward specific outcomes.
Play therapists use a wide variety of techniques to engage children in therapeutic play. Common techniques include:
- Telling stories
- Making art
- Imaginative play
- Making music
- Using toys
Stereotypical depictions of play therapy often limit toys to puppets or dolls used by children to re-enact past traumas. Although dolls and puppets may be helpful, a variety of toys can be used for play therapy, including:
- Figurines of people and common objects, often called “miniatures”
- Dolls and stuffed animals
- Dress-up clothes
- Kitchen sets
- Doctor’s kits
Toys are not always used for re-enactment alone. Instead, children can use toys to create new scenarios that help them solve problems or express their emotions.
For example, a child who lost an older sibling may not be able to express their sadness. However, they may feel comfortable saying that their teddy bear is sad because they miss their friend. This creates an opportunity for the play therapist to engage the concepts of loss and grief in a way that the child understands.
Although play therapy is perhaps most associated with treating children who have experienced trauma, it has proven effective for a variety of conditions and scenarios, including:
- Anger management
- Conduct disorder
- Conflict resolution
- Dementia (for adults)
- Intellectual disabilities
- Low self-esteem
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
- Social skills deficits
Play therapy is often used in concert with other forms of therapy, including:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps people identify unhelpful or negative thought patterns that affect their emotions and behaviors.
- Gestalt therapy: Gestalt therapy focuses on the present moment and takes a holistic approach to healing.
- Trauma-informed therapy: Certain therapies, such as prolonged exposure therapy, EMDR, or somatic therapy, have proven effective for people who have survived traumatic experiences.
Play therapy is an age-appropriate way for your child to learn how to regulate their emotions, recover after trauma, and solve their problems. Click here to find a play therapist for your child near you.
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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.