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Healing through Play: What is Play Therapy?

Jan 12, 2024
Play Therapy
Are you considering therapy for your child, but don't think the structure of talk therapy will be effective for your kiddo? Play therapy is an effective and dynamic approach to therapy in a safe and expressive environment.

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a non-directive, client-centered intervention that utilizes play and other creative activities as the primary medium for communication between therapist and client. Play therapy clients are typically children, though there is a growing body of research showing the effectiveness of interventions like sandplay therapy for adults, too. 

Grounded in the understanding that play is a natural form of self-expression—and the native language of children—this method allows individuals, especially those who may struggle with verbalizing their thoughts and emotions, to communicate, explore, and process their feelings in a safe and non-directive environment. 

Play therapists often use toys, art, and/or sensory materials like sand and water, among a literally unlimited number of other objects, to facilitate children’s expression of emotions, help them resolve conflicts, and promote their personal development. By engaging in play, clients can naturally process their emotions and learn to develop new coping mechanisms, fostering emotional healing and growth. 

Play therapy is considered an effective modality for addressing a wide range of psychological and emotional challenges in a developmentally appropriate and highly engaging manner. Play is an extremely versatile medium, and while, at its core, play therapy is a nondirective therapy, specific interventions like CBT and psychoeducation can also be incorporated into play therapy sessions, depending on the child’s specific strengths and needs. Play therapy can be tailored to address specific issues such as trauma, anxiety, grief, or social difficulties, allowing individuals to process and cope with these challenges at their own pace. 

More than “Just” Play

While on the surface it may appear simple, play itself is a powerful tool for emotional expression, communication, and healing. Play therapy involves intentional and purposeful interactions guided by trained therapists who provide a supportive environment for clients to work through complex issues, traumatic experiences, or developmental challenges. Recognizing the depth and purpose behind the play allows therapists to interpret and respond to the symbolic language of play, uncovering underlying concerns, and facilitating meaningful therapeutic progress. 

Parent Roles in Play Therapy

In play therapy, parental involvement is crucial for the intervention to succeed. Parents play a vital role as collaborators, advocates, and facilitators in their child's journey toward emotional well-being. Collaboratively working with the play therapist, parents gain insights into their child's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors expressed through play. This allows parents to provide consistent support at home, reinforcing the therapeutic goals and strategies. Additionally, parents can receive guidance on engaging in purposeful play with their children outside the therapy sessions, strengthening the parent-child bond and promoting a secure attachment. 

Play Therapy for Trauma and Loss

Play therapy can serve as a compassionate form of therapy for children grappling with trauma and loss. Within the therapeutic setting of play, both children and adults can navigate their emotions and experiences using toys, art materials, and creative/sensory materials. This non-verbal approach provides a secure space for clients to explore and comprehend the complexities of trauma and grief. The therapist establishes a supportive environment that enables clients to reenact and reshape their narratives, fostering a sense of control and empowerment. Through play therapy, individuals can externalize their internal struggles, facilitating the gradual exploration and understanding of traumatic events or the experience of loss. 

Play Therapy for Challenging Behaviors

Play therapy is an effective and dynamic approach for addressing behavioral issues in children by providing a safe and expressive outlet for understanding and modifying problematic behaviors. Through various play techniques, children can symbolically act out their feelings, frustrations, and conflicts, offering therapists valuable insights into the root causes of their behavioral challenges within a safe environment where they are fully accepted as they are. Play therapy helps children develop essential social and emotional skills, teaching them alternative ways to express themselves, cope with stress, and navigate interpersonal relationships. By engaging in purposeful play, therapists guide children in exploring and understanding their behaviors, fostering healthier patterns, and empowering them to make positive choices. This approach not only addresses the surface-level behaviors but also delves into the underlying emotional and cognitive processes, to facilitate lasting behavioral change and promote overall well-being.

Play Therapy for Developing Social Skills

Play therapy is a valuable intervention for developing social skills in children, as it provides an engaging platform for practicing and refining interpersonal interactions. Through various play activities, children can explore and experiment with different social scenarios, improving their communication, cooperation, and empathy. Therapists use play to teach and model appropriate social behaviors, such as taking turns, sharing, and expressing emotion. Play therapy also helps children navigate the complexities of relationships, fostering skills like conflict resolution and problem-solving. By creating a safe and supportive environment, play therapy encourages children to build confidence in their social abilities, enhancing their capacity to form meaningful connections with peers and navigate social situations successfully. The interactive and child-centered nature of play therapy makes it an effective tool for promoting social skill development in a developmentally appropriate and enjoyable manner.

Play Therapy for Neurodivergent Children

Play therapy can be particularly affirming for neurodivergent children, as it embraces diverse modes of communication and expression. Recognizing and respecting the unique sensory experiences, communication styles, and interests of neurodivergent individuals, play therapy provides a flexible and inclusive environment where they can engage in activities that suit their preferences. The non-directive nature of play therapy allows neurodivergent clients to express themselves authentically, utilizing various play tools and creative outlets to communicate their thoughts and emotions. Therapists tailor interventions to accommodate different sensory needs and communication styles, fostering a positive and affirming therapeutic experience. By embracing neurodiversity in play therapy, practitioners validate the individuality of neurodivergent clients, promoting self-discovery, emotional regulation, and social skill development in a way that aligns with their unique strengths and preferences.

Will Play Therapy Work for My Child?

While many children benefit from the non-directive nature of play therapy, some families find that more structured forms of pediatric psychotherapy. Some highly verbal children and adolescents prefer talk therapy and benefit from more structured, directive sessions. Each child is unique, and as our therapists get to know them, we will guide you toward the type of therapy that will work best for your child.