For children, playing is an innate activity that fosters emotional expression through imagination, creativity, symbols, and fantasy. Through play, children naturally develop relationships, build social skills, express personal fears, concerns, and desires, and learn how to cope with various forms of stress and stimuli (Pietrangelo, 2019).
Play stimulates creative thinking and exploration, regulates emotions, boosts ego, and expands self-actualization, self-expression, and self-efficacy. It also allows children to experience a sense of control and accomplishment while providing the opportunity to actively problem solve and balance new ideas and conflicting needs.
While most children realize that something is negatively affecting or distressing them, they often do not have the same cognitive ability required to label, verbalize, or express emotions as adults do (Koukourikos et al., 2021). Utilizing the child’s primary form of communication instead, play therapy incorporates games, activities, creativity, and play to help address and resolve various problems and emotional needs. Essentially, what talk therapy is to adults is the same as what play therapy is to children. Through play therapy, children are able to communicate symbolically, express emotions through toys and actions, and work through difficult emotional and psychological needs without the added challenge of attempting to verbalize what they feel internally.
What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy is a theory-based, structured approach that builds upon the innate learning and communication styles of children. Through play therapy, play therapists help children express what is bothering them when they do not have the verbal skills or knowledge required to convey their thoughts and feelings. In play therapy, toys are thought of as the child’s words and play as their language (Lilly et al., n.d.). The therapeutic relationship that develops between the child and play therapist during play therapy can provide a powerful and impactful emotional experience needed for healing. In addition, play therapists are able to promote cognitive development, adaptive behaviors, and coping skills, and provide professional insight regarding the thinking patterns of the child.
While the therapeutic benefits of play have been recognized and utilized for decades, formalized play therapy and the National Center for Play Therapy were established by Garry Landreth in the late 1980s. Landreth dedicated his career to researching and conducting play therapy, believing in a child’s innate potential for growth, change, and healing (Lilly et al., n.d.). Focusing on the unique therapeutic relationship, the objectives of play therapy are targeted towards a child’s capacity to self-actualize and help the child to:
Develop a more positive self-concept
Assume greater self-responsibility
Become more self-directing
Become more self-accepting
Become more self-reliant
Engage in self-determined decision-making
Experience a feeling of control
Become sensitive to the process of coping
Develop an internal source of evaluation
Develop greater emotional identification and expression
Develop empathy and respect for how others feel
Learn social and relational strategies
Benefits of Play Therapy for Children
Emotional Expression and Processing
Play therapy allows children to express their emotions freely and without fear of judgment. The play therapy process and the unconditional acceptance and positive regard provided by the play therapist help to create a safe environment where emotions can be explored. Trained play therapists are able to recognize and reflect the emotions that are expressed through the child’s play. This helps the child to better express and label their pent-up or unidentified emotions while developing a broader and deeper understanding of their emotional experiences. The emotional regulation developed in play therapy results in the utilization of more effective and flexible defense mechanisms and coping skills (Shroff, 2023).
Children communicate, discover the world, and seek to understand themselves and others through play. In turn, play therapy encourages children to broaden their imagination and utilize creativity while testing and recognizing their limits. Given the development of their cognitive and verbal abilities, it is difficult for children to identify, label, and confront their thoughts and feelings. Through this unique play process, children are able to express concerns, challenges, and anxieties and work to understand their complex thoughts and feelings in a way that makes sense in their world (Shroff, 2023). Play therapists are trained to observe and reflect on the play behaviors seen in play sessions, ultimately assisting children in their communication development and expression.
Building Self-Esteem and Confidence
Within play therapy sessions, children have the ability to dictate how they play and to pick what they play with from a wide variety of toys, materials, and games. This level of autonomy facilitates an environment where children are encouraged and able to grow in their self-assurance and self-esteem. Play therapy also encourages play mastery and skill mastery, which positively impacts one’s self-confidence and self-worth (Shroff, 2023). The increased levels of confidence and assurance formed in play therapy can then be translated into additional environments.
Resolving Trauma and Anxiety
Play therapy can effectively help children work through trauma and anxiety. In play sessions, children are able to safely revisit, act, or play out, and process their traumatic or anxiety-provoking experiences. With the help of a play therapist, who is trained to identify traumatic themes or experiences that occur in play, children can gradually work through their complex thoughts and feelings. The curative process of play in addition to the safety and security found in the therapeutic relationship allows children to gradually integrate their experiences into their story and, ultimately, work towards healing (Shroff, 2023).
Problem-solving and Coping Skills
Play therapy encourages the development of problem-solving skills. In play sessions, the child leads the way and the play therapist follows. Play therapists are trained to possess a deep respect for the child and their ability to solve problems on their own if given the opportunity. In play therapy, the responsibility to make choices and to enact change is the child’s. This encourages children to think critically and creatively to overcome any obstacle or challenge that arises in the playroom. They can problem-solve and play out different strategies or techniques, with the support and assurance from the play therapist, until they are satisfied with the outcome. Through this process, children develop problem-solving skills that can be applied to real-life situations (Trotter, 2013).
Play therapy also encourages the development of effective coping skills and strategies. Through play therapy, children learn to recognize and manage their emotions and behaviors, leading to increased self-control and a greater ability to regulate themselves outside the playroom. Healthy coping skills are modeled and learned through play and the therapeutic relationship. Additionally, play therapy can help decrease disruptive behaviors such as aggression, defiance, and impulsivity and increase helpful behaviors such as self-regulation, communication, and expression by addressing the underlying emotional and social issues.
Through play, children develop empathy, understanding, trust, and shared experiences, which are vital for building and maintaining healthy relationships. The trusting and positive relationship that is developed between the play therapist and the child during play therapy plays an essential role in the child’s treatment. Built on acceptance and respect for the child, the therapeutic relationship is key in providing the safe space needed for the child to learn, grow, and heal (Shroff, 2023). The play therapist seeks to explore the world, social interactions, thoughts, and feelings with the child in a way that allows them to better understand and navigate their life. This therapeutic relationship can then serve as a model for the child and can help strengthen outside relationships present in the child’s life.
For some, family play therapy could be beneficial to incorporate alongside individual play therapy. When a child is struggling, it is often important for each member of the family to be seen, heard, understood, and supported as an individual and within the context of the family unit. The environment cultivated within family play sessions encourages growth and healing within the family system and within familial relationships (Trotter, 2013). Family play therapy helps to externalize identified issues, decrease ineffective coping skills and defense mechanisms, and increase healthy communication and expression. While play is how children communicate, it is not only for children. Play fosters joy, fun, and creativity which helps to strengthen relationships of all kinds.
Is Play Therapy Right for Your Child?
Although everyone can benefit, play therapy is especially appropriate for children ages 3 through 12 years old. Play therapy is an appropriate intervention for many social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties or disorders including:
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
Domestic violence, abuse, or neglect
Research also supports the effectiveness of play therapy with children experiencing problems related to:
Divorce, separation, or family dissolution
Grief and loss
Academic and social development
Physical and learning disabilities
Eating and toileting
Hospitalization and chronic illness
Exposure to violence
Natural disasters or traumatic events
Life transitions or stressors
Speech difficulties or disorders
If your child is struggling, presenting with pervasive difficulties at home or school, having a challenging time adjusting, struggling socially or with peers, frequently sad, angry, anxious, or worried, often experiences outbursts or acts of aggression, appears out of control or does not seem like themselves, or you are not sure how to help your child, play therapy could be for your family.
Play is an innate and important part of childhood and child development. Play therapists are trained to help children express themselves, their troubles, and their feelings through play, rather than words. The curative factors involved in play therapy are further reinforced through the therapeutic relationship. Trained play therapists strive to establish a therapeutic relationship that is built upon safety, trust, and authenticity.
Play therapy can help children learn new social and relational skills, develop self-efficacy and self-assurance, become more responsible for behaviors, develop creative solutions to problems, utilize more successful strategies, develop respect, build acceptance of self and others, learn to label and express emotions, increase communication skills, cultivate empathy for self and others, and decrease distressing symptoms and maladaptive behaviors.
Play therapy is often the preferred form of therapy for children ages 3 through 12. Through cultivating a safe and nonjudgmental environment, play therapists gain insight, through various forms of play, into a child’s inner workings, stressors, and difficulties. With this knowledge, play therapists can work with the child to reduce symptoms, increase healthy coping and communication skills, and achieve treatment goals. Heritage Counseling has multiple trained play therapists on staff and offers play therapy in both the Dallas and Plano locations. For a play therapy consultation or to inquire about availability and scheduling, please call the Heritage Counseling office at (214)-363-2345.
Koukourikos, K., Tsaloglidou, A., Tzeha, L., Iliadis, C., Frantzana, A., Katsimbeli, A., & Kourkouta, L. (2021, December). An overview of play therapy. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8812369/
Lilly, J., O’Connor, K., & Krull, T. (n.d.). Play therapy makes a difference. Association for Play Therapy. https://www.a4pt.org/page/PTMakesADifference/Play-Therapy-Makes-a-Difference.htm
Pietrangelo, A. (2019, October 11). Play therapy: What is it, how it works, and Techniques. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/play-therapy
Shroff, A. (2023, July 29). Play therapy: What are the benefits?. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/children/what-is-play-therapy
Trotter, K. (2013). Family play therapy. In N. R. Bowers (Ed.), Play therapy with families: A collaborative approach to healing(pp. 91–112). Jason Aronson.