What is play therapy?

Play therapy is a type of psychotherapy primarily used in children. Since children may not yet have the words to express their feelings and experiences, play is the best way for them to learn and communicate. Play is their natural way of expressing themselves and understanding the world, which is why play therapy is so effective.

This article will discuss the benefits of play therapy, when and how to use it, and where to start if you think play therapy is right for your child.

The benefits of play therapy

Play therapy has many benefits. Play therapy can help children:

  • Take responsibility for your actions and develop more successful strategies
  • Find new, creative solutions to problems
  • Respect and accept yourself and others
  • experience and express their emotions
  • Develop empathy and respect for others
  • Learn new social and relationship skills
  • Develop self-efficacy (more confidence in your own abilities)

Play therapy can also encourage the use of language and the development of fine motor skills.

Does play therapy work?

An analysis of more than 100 studies showed that play therapy has moderate to high positive effects. In addition, play therapy has been shown to be equally effective across age, gender, and conditions under treatment. The positive outcomes of play therapy are further amplified when an active parent is involved in the child’s therapy.

When using play therapy

Play therapy has been shown to help children with a variety of social, emotional, behavioral, and learning problems. Many times, problematic behaviors are the result of life stressors such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, or natural disasters. Behavioral problems (eg, misbehavior) that children may develop are the result of their exhaustion of coping mechanisms.

Play therapy is commonly used to treat people with a variety of mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder and panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • frustrated
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism Spectrum
  • emotional management
  • Academic, Social and Physical Learning Disabilities
  • trauma
  • sad

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Adult play therapy

While play therapy is especially effective for children ages 3-12, teens and adults can also benefit from play therapy techniques. More recently, play therapy has been used for adults in mental health and other healthcare settings. Because play therapy harnesses creativity and imagination, patients may feel secure and more distant from traumatic or threatening experiences.

How does play therapy work?

Play therapy uses activities and materials that allow children to express themselves (such as clay, blocks, puppets, action figures, dolls, finger paintings, or other art supplies and toys). While it may look fun and game to outsiders, it’s not. A trained play therapist uses play time to observe and gain insight into a child’s inner conflict, unresolved trauma, and relationships.

Using pretend characters, stories or art, children have a safe outlet to process and express their feelings and perceptions about the people, relationships and events around them. As children lead lessons, play can help them feel more confident in their abilities. Through play, they practice problem solving and develop new coping behaviors and social skills.

Types of

There are two main types of play therapy:

  1. Guided play therapy: In guided play therapy, the therapist takes an active role by constructing and selecting play materials. They may encourage children to use props to develop “pretend” scenarios, express their feelings, or engage them in conversations about their current life situation.
  2. Non-directive play therapy: In non-directive play therapy, the therapist provides children with an encouraging environment to choose their own toys and materials. The child leads the play session, and the therapist acts as an interested, non-judgmental bystander.


There are many types of techniques that can be applied in play therapy classes. The therapist may choose different games and activities based on the problems the child is having or their age and ability.

Techniques may include a variety of methods, including but not limited to:

  • Play with toys or objects, such as using balls, dolls, babies, phones, wands, blocks, medical or sensory objects such as water or sand
  • Creative arts such as clay, painting, painting, dance/movement or music
  • Storytelling or metaphors, such as externalizing play (creating a story or character that represents one of the child’s problems) or reading therapy (discussions involving reading or other forms of literature)
  • role-playing, such as using costumes, masks, superheroes or puppets
  • Imagery and fantasies, such as guided imagery (visualizing a positive, peaceful environment) or dollhouse play
  • Games involving communication, self-control, cooperation, strategy, or games of chance

example of play therapy

Whatever techniques are chosen to be used in play therapy, they are designed to help children become aware of their feelings and learn to express their emotions, manage anger, improve self-control, reduce fear, anxiety, and depression, increase empowerment, and improve their resolution problem ability. Some examples of play therapy are:

  • Feeling word play: The therapist will ask the child to write down names of feelings that a person their age might have. After writing or drawing these feelings on a piece of paper, the therapist may tell a story about themselves that includes many positive and negative feelings and ask the child to place poker chips on each feeling to show what is expressed in the story different feelings, and different amounts of each. The therapist can then repeat the exercise using non-threatening stories about the child. Then the child will tell the next story, and the therapist will put down the chips. Repeat this process until the issues raised have been discussed.
  • The puppet creates a symbolic client: If the child is afraid, the therapist may show the child the puppet, tell the child that the puppet is afraid, and reassure him that it is safe. Next, the therapist will ask the child to help calm the puppet. The puppet may be a safe object for the child throughout treatment. The therapist may ask the puppet questions and have the child respond, which may be less of a threat to the child.
  • Broadcasting the News: During this event, the therapist introduced a news program starring the therapist and the child as “expert guests” on the news program. In this scenario, the therapist pretends to be a young child and calls into the news program to ask expert questions (related to the child’s problem). The child must then answer the question as an expert, thus solving their own problem.

How to get started

To begin play therapy, it is important to find a licensed mental health professional with experience in play therapy. Play therapy requires extensive and specialized training and supervision. The Play Therapy Association provides a directory of registered play therapists who have completed training and earned a certificate in play therapy.

It is also important to find a play therapist that you and your child are very comfortable with. Before introducing them to your child, make sure you research the therapist you are considering, ask for advice, and discuss their approach with the therapist.

Choose the right therapist


Play therapy is a well-researched technique that can help children who may be struggling with mental health or behavioral issues. When children have exhausted their coping mechanisms, they may show it. Play therapy addresses these issues by providing a healthy and safe outlet.

Through play, children use toys, props, art, and other media as their language to express their feelings, process their experiences, and learn new coping strategies and behaviors. Play therapy has many benefits, including supporting healthy development and promoting learning.

VigorTip words

No parent or caregiver wants to see their child struggle with mental health or emotional distress. A trained play therapy mental health professional can provide a safe space to help your child deal with difficult emotions and learn healthier behaviors.

Talk to your pediatrician if you think your child might benefit from play therapy. Your pediatrician can evaluate your child and make an appropriate referral to a licensed mental health therapist.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does a play therapist do?

    Play therapists are trained mental health professionals who use toys or other mediums to provide safe play spaces. During playtime, the therapist can act as a guide, or just be present and let the child guide their therapy. They may use toys or other mediums to act out or create stories that help explain what they are going through.

  • What is the main focus of play therapy?

    The main focus of play therapy is getting children to use play to process their feelings or experiences. Through play therapy, children can overcome difficult feelings and develop their social and problem-solving skills.

  • How do you explain play therapy to your child?

    Talking to your child about having play therapy can be difficult, but it’s important to stay positive and encouraging. Try to keep it casual and informal to help reduce their anxiety or apprehension.

    Depending on your child’s age, you can explain in age-appropriate language. For younger kids, you might say it’s a special space where they can play with toys or play games with new friends and get a feel for it.

    For older children, you can ask what their expectations are and explain that they can control what they want to do or talk about with a counselor.

  • How do I become a play therapist?

    Becoming a play therapist requires a master’s or doctoral degree in the field of mental health, general and professional clinical experience, supervision, and professional licensure in mental health.

    With additional specialized training, mental health professionals can earn certification as a Registered Play Therapist (RPT), Registered Play Therapist Supervisor (RPT-S), or School Registered Play Therapist (SB-RPT) from the Association for Play Therapy (APT). ).