Understanding play therapy: The benefits of play therapy for children

Therapy can help people of all ages become better attuned to their emotions, process events impacting their well-being, and learn helpful coping skills. However, for young people like children and adolescents, specified approaches might be needed to make sure that the therapeutic process is accessible and effective for them.

One such approach is play therapy, which is a facet of child therapy that involves using toys, games, and other play to facilitate emotional communication and processing. Play therapy allows children to conceptualize their feelings and communicate them in a way that’s comfortable and makes sense to them.

Why Would a Child Need Play Therapy?

Children, especially those who may not have developed the verbal and cognitive skills necessary for traditional talk therapy, can benefit significantly from play therapy. 

Play is a natural and essential way for children to communicate and make sense of their experiences. Through various play activities, such as drawing, storytelling, or using toys, children can project their thoughts and feelings in a non-threatening and enjoyable manner. 

This approach is particularly effective in helping children explore and process difficult emotions, traumatic experiences, or challenging life circumstances. Play therapy provides a safe and supportive environment where a child can build trust with the therapist, fostering a therapeutic relationship that encourages emotional healing and personal growth. 

Additionally, play therapy allows therapists to gain insights into a child’s inner world, helping them tailor interventions to address specific needs and promote overall well-being. Overall, play therapy serves as a valuable tool in helping children navigate and overcome emotional struggles, fostering mental and emotional development.

What Do They Do in Play Therapy? How Does Play Therapy Work for Children?

The fundamental idea behind play therapy is that children may not have the verbal capacity or knowledge to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences as effectively as adults. In play therapy, trained professionals, such as play therapists or child psychologists, create a safe and supportive environment where children can freely engage in various forms of play, including art, games, and imaginative activities. 

Through play, they can communicate and process emotions, experiences, and challenges in a way that makes sense to them. The therapist observes the child’s play, paying attention to themes, patterns, and symbolic representations that may emerge. These observations help the therapist gain insights into the child’s inner world and can guide interventions to address emotional or behavioral issues.

Play therapy can be effective in addressing a wide range of concerns, such as anxiety, trauma, behavioral difficulties, and social challenges, fostering emotional growth and enhancing a child’s coping skills. The approach is adaptable to various therapeutic theories and techniques, making it a versatile and valuable tool in supporting the well-being of children.

What Is an Example of Play Therapy?

One detailed example of play therapy would be if a child was brought to therapy because they were struggling with anxiety and were having difficulty adjusting to their parents’ recent divorce. 

In the play therapy sessions, the therapist fosters a supportive environment filled with various toys, art supplies, and games. During the initial sessions, the child can initially be resistant or hesitant about verbalizing or communicating their feelings. Instead, they engage in symbolic play, using action figures to represent people, perhaps family members, and have the dolls act out scenarios, such as their parents’ divorce

Over time, the therapist might introduce other therapeutic interventions tailored to the child’s needs, such as drawing activities to explore their emotions or storytelling to process their experiences. As the therapeutic relationship strengthens, the child will eventually develop coping mechanisms and learn to navigate their emotions in a healthier way, fostering emotional healing and resilience in the face of challenging life changes.

What Are the Two Major Types of Play Therapy?

There are two main types of play therapy: non-directive play therapy and directive play therapy. Both types of play therapy recognize the importance of play as a natural medium for children to communicate and process their emotions. 

Non-directive play therapy, also known as child-centered play therapy, is rooted in the belief that children naturally communicate and make sense of their experiences through play. In this approach, the therapist creates an environment where the child is free to choose from a variety of toys and activities. 

The child takes the lead in the play session, expressing themselves symbolically and metaphorically. The therapist observes and interacts with the child, providing reflective responses and validation without directing the play. The goal is to foster self-discovery, emotional expression, and personal growth within the child.

Directive play therapy involves the therapist taking a more active role in guiding the play session. The therapist may introduce specific activities, games, or structured interventions to address identified therapeutic goals. 

Directive play therapy is more structured and goal-oriented, with the therapist providing guidance, instruction, and sometimes interpretation during the play process. This approach is often used when there is a need for more targeted interventions, such as addressing specific behavioral issues or helping the child develop certain skills.

The choice between non-directive and directive play therapy depends on the individual needs and goals of the child, as well as the therapeutic approach preferred by the therapist.

Is Play Therapy Used for ADHD?

Yes, play therapy can be a beneficial approach for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For children with ADHD, play therapy can help address various aspects of their challenges, including impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficulties with attention and focus. 

It’s important to note that while play therapy can be a valuable component of an overall treatment plan for ADHD, it is often used in conjunction with other interventions such as behavioral therapy, parent training, and, in some cases, medication. The specific approach and techniques used in play therapy will depend on the individual needs and preferences of the child.

Play therapy sessions are designed to be engaging and interactive, allowing the child to express themselves in a safe and supportive environment. Therapists may use toys, games, art materials, and other creative activities to facilitate communication and help the child develop coping strategies to help them manage their ADHD. 

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What Is the Difference Between Play Therapy and Therapeutic Play?

Play therapy and therapeutic play are two related but distinct approaches in the field of psychotherapy, particularly when working with children. 

Play therapy is a broad umbrella term that encompasses various therapeutic techniques where play is the primary medium for communication and expression. It involves the use of toys, games, and other creative activities to help children explore and express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a safe and supportive environment. 

Trained therapists can employ different theoretical frameworks within play therapy, such as psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, or humanistic, tailoring their approach to the child’s unique needs.

On the other hand, therapeutic play refers to using play as a type of intervention within the broader context of play therapy. It involves structured play activities designed to address particular therapeutic goals. Therapeutic play can be directive, where the therapist guides the child towards specific outcomes, or non-directive, allowing the child to take the lead in the play process. However, they are purposefully integrating play into the therapeutic process to reach a specific goal.

The distinction lies in the level of structure and intentionality within the play interactions. While “play therapy” is a comprehensive approach that encompasses various theoretical orientations, “therapeutic play” specifically focuses on using play as a deliberate and targeted therapeutic tool to achieve predefined objectives in the context of a therapeutic relationship.

What Are Examples of Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral play therapy (CBPT) is an approach to therapy that combines cognitive behavioral principles with the use of play techniques to help children explore and understand their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. In CBPT, therapists engage children in various play activities to help them with emotional expression and exploration. 

One example of CBPT is the use of therapeutic games to teach children problem-solving skills and coping strategies. Through board games or role-playing activities, therapists can help children identify and practice more adaptive ways of thinking and behaving in different situations. 

Another example involves the use of storytelling and imaginative play to address specific issues or challenges the child may be facing. By incorporating narrative techniques, therapists can guide children in re-framing negative thoughts and emotions, fostering a more positive and resilient mindset. 

Additionally, the use of art and creative expression in CBPT allows children to communicate their feelings non-verbally, promoting emotional awareness and providing an outlet for self-expression. Overall, cognitive behavioral play therapy aims to enhance a child’s emotional and cognitive development by integrating therapeutic interventions within a play-based context.

The ability to identify and process one’s emotional experiences is an important skill for children to learn, especially when they are feeling big emotions and don’t know how to express them. Play therapy helps them get in touch with these emotions and outlet them in healthy, productive ways. If you’re concerned about your child’s emotional well-being, consider reaching out to a child therapist and setting up an appointment. 

The qualified child and play therapists at Thriveworks’ TherapyLand can work with your child to find ways of expressing and processing emotions that work for them.

Table of contents

Why Would a Child Need Play Therapy?

What Do They Do in Play Therapy? How Does Play Therapy Work for Children?

What Are the Two Major Types of Play Therapy?

Is Play Therapy Used for ADHD?

What Is the Difference Between Play Therapy and Therapeutic Play?

What Are Examples of Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy?

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  • Bratton, S., & Ray, D. C. (2000). What the research shows about play therapy. International Journal of Play Therapy, 9(1), 47–88. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0089440

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