Play therapy is an evidence-based approach to mental health therapy that helps children and teens (and even adults) to heal, build self-confidence, and better understand the world around them.
Play therapy is an intervention that’s often misunderstood. Many assume it’s “just playing.” And sometimes that is exactly what we’re doing, but playing can make amazing things happen.
Here’s a primer on play therapy and the importance of play for all of us.
Why play therapy is empowering for children
Play is the language of children. For children who developmentally don’t have the words to explain how they feel or why they feel this way (which is most young children, even up to teenagerhood), play is their language.
When a child plays, they are in control of the situation, which is empowering. They make the rules. They explore, and can be who or what they want to be.
This is what we do in play therapy for children and teens. We give the child control in order to help them regain their power and confidence in a safe and controlled setting. Toys are often utilized as tools for the child to safely explore. It gives them a layer of protection.
For example, a child may use a toy dog to bite and attack other toys in the playroom while a dinosaur toy growls at him. The therapist will track the student’s verbal and non-verbal behavior, respond intentionally, and set limits as needed. Through the process of play, children can heal.
The most important part of play therapy is the non-judgemental, empathetic, and positive relationship between the student and therapist. That relationship is the key to growth and change.
Applications of play therapy for children and teens
Play therapy is versatile and can be used with people of all ages, cultural backgrounds, and experiences. It can be a beneficial therapeutic intervention for anyone who has experienced trauma. It’s also helpful for individuals experiencing:
- Family changes (such as divorce/separation, death, or the addition of a new sibling)
- Social concerns (such as not getting along with others, or difficulty making friends)
- Behavioral issues (such as not following the rules at home and/or school, getting physical with others, or bullying)
- Academic issues (such as school avoidance, or doing poorly in school).
Play therapy interventions can be used with children and teens who have mental health diagnoses or special needs, including anxiety, depression, autism, ADHD, and others.
What play therapy looks like in practice
Play therapy for teens
As a Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC) who specializes in play therapy in a high school setting, my office contains things that may remind you of childhood. Everything has a purpose.
- Games like Uno and Candyland are used to help build rapport with students, and help them to feel comfortable opening up to me.
- I have a small tray of sand on my coffee table. Many students find that sand is calming and feels good when they are using their hands in session.
- I have a bin of miniature toys next to the sand where you might find a toy that reminds you of someone or something in your life. My students will often pick one up, and we discuss what that reminds them of.
Students might want to put together a scene of a recent situation in the sand tray using a few items from the miniature bin. This activity gives them a new perspective, and also distance from the actual situation so it often becomes easier to talk about. For example, if a student picks up a troll from the bin, I might ask why they chose to look at that item. Maybe they name it after someone they have recently had an issue with. Next, they have a conversation with the troll, about something they want to say but are scared to say to the actual person. Most of this happens with little prompting, and it is truly a therapeutic game changer.
The other section of my office has art supplies like paper, markers, paint, beads, magazines, and stickers. As play therapists, we also integrate the creative arts. Students can use beads to create a bracelet that has a powerful and positive word on it. Or the therapist may introduce journaling to a student, and have them decorate the cover to personalize it for themselves, or even start bullet journaling with them.
My students often bring their own art supplies and will work on projects during sessions. I highly encourage this, as using art is a great coping skill, and it also gives me a window into what’s going on with them. I am able to ask questions about the art and observe the student while they are creating. This is something teachers can do in the classroom as well, especially if the teacher has interest in the creative arts and utilizes this in their lessons.
Play therapy for younger children
If you walked into a private practice play therapy office it would likely look a little different from mine, especially a practice that sees young children. They may have more toys on the floor so that smaller children have easy access to them. They likely have dress up items, and pretend play items like a doctor bag, dolls, handcuffs, a cell phone, and a dollhouse.
During sessions with younger children, a play therapist may let the child guide the session (this is called Child Centered Play Therapy). The therapist follows the child’s lead in play, observes the play, validates any feelings the child has, and sets boundaries when necessary.
In play therapy, the child has the opportunity to learn about, understand, and accept themselves in a judgment-free space. It can be a useful technique in helping them to learn, heal, and grow.
“What is important is not the therapist’s wisdom, but the wisdom of the child; not the therapist’s direction, but the child’s direction; not the therapist’s solution, but the child’s creativity.” (Landreth, 2005, p.108).
Prioritizing play: advice for parents and educators
Play is imperative for the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical wellbeing of children. In recent years, there has been a large increase in academic demands and decrease in play and free time for our youth in America. As parents and educators, we need to make sure our children have a healthy balanced schedule, which should include free time and play.
We also need to keep an eye on the amount of screen time our children (and this goes for all ages) get each day. Screen time is not created equal. It can be a useful tool for learning, but it also takes away a lot of our children’s ability to be creative and productive, and can cause significant self-esteem problems, especially in older children and teens.
I encourage parents to limit screen time to a small amount per day, or allow it just on weekends. At first, children may struggle to find things to do. But the benefits are tremendous and we often see changes quickly.
Children’s natural instinct is to play. Play is how they work through problems and experiences in a safe and controlled way. They can explore feelings and face fears. It is also a way for us to fully engage with children, whether it be in the classroom or in our living room. Play is necessary if we want well-balanced, confident, and happy children.
We all need to make time to play
Play is an activity that we all need in our lives. The positive results are endless: boost in mental health and happiness, increase in connection to your world, increase in social skills, conquer fears, and build self-esteem are just some benefits that come from this magical activity.
In today’s busy and often overscheduled world, we need to make time to play. What does this look like for you? It might be taking time to journal, going hiking, gardening, or taking a class at the gym. Maybe you enjoy crafting activities like beading, drawing, or painting. Play helps lower stress levels, and don’t we all need a little of that?
Play therapy resources
The governing board for Registered Play Therapists (RPT) is the Association for Play Therapy (a4pt). If you are interested in learning more about play therapy, or interested in finding a Registered Play Therapist in your area, please visit the Association’s website at a4pt.org.
Association for Play Therapy. 2023. “Mental Health Professionals Applying the Therapeutic Power of Play”. 10/30/2023 <A4pt.org>
American Academy of Pediatrics. 2007.“The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds”. 10/30/2023
Landreth, Garry L.. “The Play Therapist”. Play Therapy, The Art of the Relationship. Edited by Psychology Press, 2005, 108.