What is Play Therapy?

By Jen Taylor | Children 0-5

Jul 18

Play Therapy? Are you unsure of exactly what that means? When people ask what I do for a living and I them I am a Play Therapist, I almost always get the response, “What is that?” Well, there are a lot of ways to explain it, but the most basic one is that I use toys, art, and games to help children who have going through something difficult.

Explaining Play Therapy

Play therapy is a type of mental health counseling for children (primarily) that uses a specially designed playroom to help children express feelings without relying on words. It is a developmentally sensitive approach to treating children that allows a child to take the active role in what is expressed during counseling by using dolls, puppets, real-life toys, art and games.  Here is a look at my play therapy room in Cordova, TN.


How Does Play Therapy Work?

There are many ways to conduct play therapy sessions. Most sessions are either directive or non-directive. Directive play therapy means that the therapist chooses an activity (an art project, game, or role-play) that is designed to help a child deal with a specific problem. My Inside Out Feelings Activity is an example of a directive play therapy intervention designed to teach children how to label feelings and identify how it impacts their body. In non-directive play therapy, the child chooses all of the activities and the therapist responds during the play in ways that help facilitate the expression of emotion or that promote self-esteem in the child.

Will Play Therapy Help My Child?

Play therapy works best on children ages 3-11; however, it can be used with older children, especially if the child has a history of trauma or has a developmental delay. In addition, play therapy has been used with adults, for marriage counseling and for seniors. Play therapy works for a variety of presenting problems including impulsivity, anger, mood disruptions, aggressive behaviors, anxiety, depression and all sorts of trauma. Most children will seem some benefit from play therapy.

What If My Child Doesn’t Play?

That’s OK! In non-directive play therapy, choosing not to play is an allowable choice. It is not viewed as non-compliance or defiance. In fact, a child that is able to exert his power and choose not to play is actually communicating a lot of valuable information to the therapist. By allowing this behavior in the playroom, the therapist is demonstrating that the child really is in charge of the therapy and building an essential level of trust for the more difficult work that will come later. In all of my experience, I have not met a child that doesn’t start playing after a few sessions.

Play Therapy Appointments

In play therapy, there are often a few other things that are worth knowing before your first appointment.

  • Children are not expected to clean up the toys. It is okay if they “make a big mess” and actually that is another way that the child communicates information about their world in therapy.
  • You can expect to be given information about the general themes of the child’s play but will not get specific information about what the child does during sessions (unless there is an immediate safety concern or an issue of possible abuse or neglect that needs to be reported).
  •  You are asked not to prompt the child to “be good” or to “have fun.” These sessions may seem like a lot of fun, but children are actually doing tough work and may have sessions that are not fun at all for them.
  • Along the same lines, refrain from asking, “did you have fun?” at the end of sessions. A more appropriate response would be, “ I will be waiting here for you” and then “You’re finished. Now it’s time for us to go (whatever is next).”

How Long Will Play Therapy Take?

  • Sessions are usually  scheduled for 45-60 minutes.
  • Most children see the maximum benefit from therapy within 16-20 sessions.
  • However, some children benefit from only 6-8 sessions.

Children with a history of trauma or a more severe mental health diagnosis may participate in therapy for longer periods of time. The specifics of your child’s treatment plan will be individually created based on your specific needs and re-evaluated during parent consultations held regularly throughout the treatment.

Where Can I get More Information?

The Association for Play Therapy is the main resource. Here you can search for a Registered Play Therapist (a person with specialized training and supervision). They now have a parent resource center as well.  Their website is www.a4pt.org . They also produce this really funny video  called Introducing Andrew.



About the Author

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com


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