Key Takeaways

  • Play therapy is a research-backed method that helps children communicate the thoughts and feelings they may not yet have the vocabulary to describe.
  • Through play therapy, children can learn to problem-solve in healthy ways and develop coping strategies for challenging emotions.
Just like adults, children can have difficulties with their mental and emotional well-being. But because of their developmental stage, children often lack the ability to identify and express their inner experiences.  To meet children where they are, therapists cannot always rely on traditional therapy methods. Instead, many of these mental health professionals use something called play therapy.  This research-backed approach helps children harness the power of play to communicate the thoughts and feelings they may not yet have the vocabulary to describe. Through intentional play, children can learn to problem-solve in healthy ways and develop coping strategies for challenging emotions.

The basics of play therapy

According to the Association for Play Therapy, play therapy is “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.” More simply put, play therapy is a way for children to safely express themselves by doing something they’re already familiar and comfortable with: playing.  Play therapy was first used in the early 1900s and builds upon the natural ways children learn about themselves and the world around them. It differs from regular play in that it is goal-directed and used to resolve or prevent problems a young person is experiencing.  As early as 1909, Sigmund Freud was using aspects of what we now consider play therapy in his work with a young patient who was living with a phobia. In the 1930s and 1940s clinicians began implementing play therapy techniques to help children strengthen relationships and release troubling emotions. The mid-20th century brought about the introduction of child-centered, non-directive play therapy that informs many of the play therapy techniques therapists use today.

The benefits of play therapy

For most children, play is an inherently safe space. It’s something they do naturally and that they truly enjoy. In playing with others, they begin to develop social skills and learn about others’ experiences. For these reasons, play therapy allows children to communicate their thoughts and feelings and express themselves more fully. Therapists who are certified in play therapy follow the child’s lead and use what they observe in the child’s behavior to gain insight into the child’s inner world.  In creating an environment where a child feels free to explore, play therapists can help children overcome a wide range of behavioral issues and emotional challenges like anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship difficulties. 

How does play therapy work?

Let’s take a look at the case of a seven year old girl we’ll call Sara who was referred for therapy due to heightened anxiety and refusing to go to school. Recently Sara’s beloved grandmother passed away and her father was seriously injured. Since then, she’s had a hard time being by herself. During her first session, she was hesitant to move away from her mother. As mom and the therapist conversed, the therapist paused to smile warmly and tell Sara she could play with any of the toys in the room she liked. Slowly, by the end of the session, Sara had moved off the couch and away from her mother and had taken a few toys off the shelf.  Over the course of the next few sessions, Sara began to show greater confidence in separating from her mom. She frequently played with a family of dolls and communicated about the imagined thoughts and feelings of each one. During one session, Sara expressed the daughter doll’s worries about getting ready for school and leaving the injured father doll behind. The therapist listened and asked questions to help Sara connect this play to her own experiences. In time, Sara learned that what she was feeling was OK and that she, like the doll, could go to school knowing her dad would be safe. 

Directive and non-directive play therapy techniques

There are two broad categories of play therapy — directive and non-directive. In directive play therapy, a therapist will guide the experience and provide structure. In joining the child in play, the therapeutic relationship becomes a tool to support change in other relationships in a child’s life.  Individual activities like painting, drawing, or sculpture can be used for non-directive play therapy. During these sessions, the therapist provides a safe and supportive environment but is more of an active observer. They will ask and answer questions, and reflect what they observe as a means of helping the child or teen increase their awareness of their emotional state. Play therapy techniques vary depending on the needs of the child. But some of the most common tools and materials used in play therapy include:
  • Puppets 
  • Art supplies like paint, crayons, clay, colored pencils, and markers
  • Craft supplies like popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners
  • Dolls and other pretend domestic objects 
  • Books 
  • A pretend phone
  • Sand trays 
  • Board games 
  • Dress-up supplies 

Play therapy for different age groups

Play therapy is generally recommended for children and teens ages 3 to 12 years old. The techniques a play therapist will use will vary depending on the age of the child.  Younger children may respond better to more directive techniques than older children. Teens and adolescents, on the other hand, often prefer independent play while their therapist observes.  No matter the age of the child, an effective play therapist will always tailor the session to the unique needs of their client. And while play therapy is most often used with children, some research shows that it can be helpful for adults, too. 

Find a play therapist with Rula

At Rula, we know that many parents struggle to find mental healthcare for their child. We’re here to make it easier to get the right support for your family.  If your child is experiencing an emotional or behavioral challenge, we can help connect you with a certified play therapist who takes your insurance in just a few seconds. And since our network of therapists offers virtual care, you and your child can connect with them from the comfort of home.  Our extensive network of 8,000+ therapists means that your child can be seen this week.

Child & pediatric therapists near you

New York, NYHouston, TXRancho Cucamonga, CAAustin, TXChicago, ILLos Angeles, CADallas, TXJacksonville, FLCharlotte, NCHuntsville, AL – Find your city

More From Rula

April 18, 2024
What causes low self-esteem? Six ways to feel better about yourself

If you have low self-esteem, there are things you can do to boost your confidence.

April 17, 2024
Understanding existential anxiety and how to cope

For people with existential anxiety, life’s big questions can cause extreme distress.