Play Therapy: Uses, Benefits & Techniques

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Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy primarily used for children. Since children may not yet have the verbal language for their feelings and experiences, play is their best way to learn and communicate. Play is their natural way of expressing themselves and making sense of the world, which is why play therapy is so effective.

This article will discuss the benefits of play therapy, when and how it is used, and where to start if you think play therapy would be right for your child.

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Benefits of play therapy

The benefits of play therapy are numerous. Play therapy helps children:

  • Take responsibility for their own behaviors and develop more effective strategies
  • Find new creative solutions to problems
  • Respect and accept yourself and others
  • Live and express your emotions
  • Cultivate empathy and respect for others
  • Acquire new social skills and relational skills
  • Develop self-efficacy (gain confidence in one’s own abilities)

Play therapy can also encourage the use of language and the development of fine motor skills.

Is play therapy effective?

Analyzes of over 100 research studies show that play therapy has moderate to high positive effects. Additionally, play therapy was found to be equally effective across age, gender, and conditions being treated. The positive results of play therapy are further amplified when an active parent is involved in the treatment of the child.

When play therapy is used

Play therapy has been shown to help children with a wide variety of social, emotional, behavioral and learning issues. Often, problem behaviors are the result of life stressors, such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, or natural disaster. What may appear as behavior problems in children (eg, acting out) are the result of having exhausted their coping mechanisms.

Play therapy is commonly used to treat people with a variety of mental health issues, including:

Adult play therapy

Although play therapy is particularly effective for children ages 3 to 12, adolescents and adults can also benefit from play therapy techniques. More recently, play therapy has been used with adults in mental health and other health settings. Because play therapy uses creativity and imagination, the patient may feel a sense of safety and more distance from a traumatic or threatening experience.

How does play therapy work?


Play therapy uses activities and materials (such as clay, blocks, puppets, action figures, dolls, finger paints, or other art supplies and toys) that allow the child to express himself. While this may sound like fun and games to an outsider, it’s not. A trained play therapist uses play time to observe and better understand a child’s internal conflicts, unresolved traumas, and relationships.

By using pretend characters, stories or artwork, children have a safe outlet to work through and express their feelings and perceptions of the people, relationships and events around them. Since the child leads the session, the game helps him to feel more confident in his abilities. Through play, they practice problem solving and develop new coping behaviors and social skills.

Types

There are two main types of play therapy:

  1. Directive play therapy: In directive play therapy, the therapist takes an active role in structuring and selecting play materials. engage in conversations about his current life situation.
  2. Non-directive play therapy: In nondirective play therapy, the therapist provides an environment that encourages the child to choose his or her own toys and materials. The child directs the play session where the therapist acts as an interested, non-judgmental spectator.

Techniques

There are many types of techniques that can be applied in a play therapy session. The therapist can choose different games and activities depending on the problem the child is facing or their age and abilities.

Techniques can include a variety of approaches, including but not limited to:

  • Game of toys or objects such as the use of a ball, doll, baby, telephone, magic wand, blocks, medical or sensory objects such as water or sand
  • creative arts such as clay, drawing, painting, dance/movement or music
  • Narration or metaphors such as externalizing play (creating a story or character that represents one of the child’s problems) or bibliotherapy (discussing reading or other forms of literature)
  • Roleplay like using costumes, masks, superheroes or puppets
  • Imagery and fantasy such as guided imagery (visualization of positive and peaceful settings) or dollhouse play
  • Games that incorporate communication, self-control, cooperative, strategy or chance games

Examples of play therapy

No matter which technique is chosen for use in play therapy, they are intended to help a child become aware of and learn to express their feelings, manage anger, improve self-control, reduce fear, anxiety and depression, increase self-reliance and improve problem-solving skills. Here are some examples of play therapy:

  • The feeling pun: A therapist will ask a child to write down the names of the feelings that a person of his age might have. After writing or drawing the feelings on pieces of paper, a therapist can tell a story about themselves that includes many positive and negative feelings and have the child put poker chips on each of the feelings to demonstrate the different feelings expressed in the story, as well as different amounts of each feeling. The therapist can then repeat the exercise using a non-threatening story about the child. The child will then tell the following story for the therapist to put down poker chips. This process is repeated until the issues presented are discussed.
  • Puppet to create a symbolic customer: If a child is afraid, a therapist can show him a puppet, tell him that the puppet is afraid and reassure him of his safety. Next, the therapist will ask the child to help comfort the puppet. The puppet can become a safety object for the child throughout the therapy. The therapist can ask the puppet questions instead and ask the child to respond, which may seem less threatening to the child.
  • Spread news: In this activity, the therapist presents a news program featuring the therapist and the child, who is the “expert guest” on the news show. In the scenario, the therapist will pretend to be a younger child calling on the news to ask the expert questions (regarding the child’s problems). The child must then answer the questions as an expert, thus solving his own problems.

How to start

To begin play therapy, it is important to find a licensed mental health professional who has experience in play therapy. Play therapy requires extensive and specialized training and supervision. The Association for Play Therapy offers a directory of licensed play therapists who have completed their training and are certified in play therapy.

It’s also important to find a play therapist that both you and your child feel completely comfortable with. Be sure to research the therapist you are considering, ask for recommendations, and speak with the therapist about their approach before introducing them to your child.

Summary

Play therapy is a well-documented technique that can help children struggling with mental health or behavioral issues. When children have exhausted their coping mechanisms, they may seem to act out. Play therapy addresses these issues by providing a healthy and safe outlet.

Through play, children use toys, props, art, and other mediums as language to express their feelings, process their experiences, and learn new coping strategies and behaviors. Play therapy has many benefits, including supporting healthy development and facilitating learning.

A word from Verywell

No parent or caregiver wants to see their child struggle with mental health or emotional distress. A mental health professional trained in play therapy can provide a safe space to help your child deal with difficult feelings and learn healthier behaviors.

If you think your child could benefit from play therapy, talk to your pediatrician. Your pediatrician can assess your child and provide an appropriate referral to a licensed mental health therapist.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does a play therapist do?

    A play therapist is a trained mental health professional who uses toys or other means to provide a safe play space. During play time, a therapist can serve as a guide or simply be present and allow the child to direct their session. They can use toys or other materials to play with or create a story that helps explain what they are going through.

  • What is the main goal of play therapy?

    The main goal of play therapy is for children to use play to process what they are feeling or experiencing. Through play therapy, a child can overcome difficult feelings and develop social and problem-solving skills.

  • How do you explain play therapy to a child?

    Talking to your child about play therapy can be difficult, but it’s important to be positive and supportive. Try to make it casual and informal to help reduce their anxiety or apprehension.

    Depending on the child’s age, you can explain it using age-appropriate language. For the younger ones, you can say this is a special space where they can play with toys or play games with their new friend and experience feelings.

    For older children, you can ask them what their expectations are and explain that they are in control of what they want to do or want to discuss with their counsellor.

  • How to become a play therapist?

    Becoming a play therapist requires obtaining a master’s or doctoral degree in the field of mental health, general and specialized clinical experience, supervision and a professional license in mental health.

    With additional specialized training, a mental health professional can earn the titles of Registered Play Therapist (RPT), Registered Play Therapist (RPT-S), or Registered School-Based Play Therapist (SB-). RPT) from the Association for Play Therapy (APT).

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