What is play therapy? Benefits for children and adults


Play therapy is a form of psychological treatment that may involve playing with toys, role-playing, and games. Therapists observe someone during play to better understand their behavior.

Play therapy can be helpful in treating mental health issues or behavioral disorders. It can also be a support tool for people with developmental differences, such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Although play therapists work primarily with children, they sometimes use this treatment to interact with teenagers and adults as well.

A variety of licensed professionals perform play therapy. These can include social workers, counselors, and psychologists. Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of play therapy for children and adults.

Play therapy is a tool originally from the field of psychotherapy, or talk therapy. This involves a trained therapist observing a client as they perform and following their lead.

The approach is based on the idea that children communicate unconsciously through play. This means that they reveal things about themselves without realizing that they are doing so.

It is through play that children learn to interact with the world and develop skills. As such, it is a natural means of self-expression for them.

During play, a child can directly or symbolically act on their feelings, allowing a therapist to better understand their emotional state. Playing together provides a safe environment for this to happen, allowing people to express things they might otherwise find difficult.

Participation in a shared activity also promotes trust between therapist and client, creating a therapeutic relationship. This can be especially useful for children, who may be wary of strangers.

Play Therapy International (PTI) reports that up to 71% of children who receive play therapy show benefit. Sessions usually last 30 to 45 minutes.

Therapists most often use play therapy for children, but it can also help adults in certain circumstances. the Association for Play Therapy (APT) states that mental health practitioners can use it to help treat a range of conditions, such as:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • behavioral disorders, such as conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)

It can also help resolve new behavioral issues that arise due to life events, such as bereavement, divorce, or a traumatic experience.

Play therapy can also be a supportive intervention for people with neurodevelopmental differences. This could include those who have:

  • autism
  • ADHD
  • learning disabilities

Play therapy does not “cure” these conditions, but rather provides emotional support and teaches skills that help children learn and socialize.

Research indicates that play therapy can:

Helping Autistic Children Build Skills

A little study 2018 explored the effects of play therapy in 20 autistic children. After 2 years, the children experienced a significant improvement in their behavioral and developmental skills.

The authors suggest that play therapy can help children with autism in their social interactions. However, research on a larger group of children is needed to confirm whether play therapy is effective.

Reduce learning disruption in ADHD

A little study 2017 of three first graders found that child-centered play therapy helped reduce ADHD symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, intrusive behaviors and oppositional behaviors.

The children participated in three sessions per week for 6 weeks. The therapy seemed to help in varying degrees, ranging from small to large improvements.

However, this was a very small study looking at three specific cases. This may not reflect the effectiveness of play therapy in a larger population.

Reduce ODD symptoms

ODD is a condition in which a child is constantly hostile and uncooperative towards peers and authority figures. A clinical trial 2019 involving 45 children with ODD found that, compared to no treatment, individual and group play therapy improved ODD symptoms.

Children receiving play therapy had one session per week for 8 weeks. At the end of the study, parents, caregivers, and teachers reported a reduction in ODD-related behaviors. These improvements lasted at least 2 months, suggesting that play therapy can create lasting changes. However, more research is needed to confirm this.

There is not as much research on the benefits of play therapy for adults. Older research suggests it can:

Improving mental health in older adults

A experience in 2001 observed how play therapy affected a small group of elderly people in a nursing home. They underwent play therapy involving creative writing, music, art, games, and sandbox therapy. After committing to one to two sessions per week for 6 to 10 weeks, participants:

  • more socialized with others
  • seemed to have better self-esteem
  • seemed to have lower rates of depression
  • showed interest in solving problems, such as feeling lonely

However, this is based on observations rather than data.

Facilitate trauma management

Play therapy cuts adult alertness and provides a relaxed environment, says a old American Counseling Association article from 2010. This allows adults to safely examine their feelings and bring up threatening topics.

For example, the article mentions an exercise that helped victims of domestic violence to express how they felt about their abusive relationship.

Fostering Communication in Developmental Disabilities

Adults with intellectual disabilities may have few opportunities for validation and emotional expression, notes a old newspaper article from 2003. The authors cited two case studies indicating that play therapy can have a positive effect on various aspects of psychological health, including emotional well-being.

Below are play therapy techniques with examples of their use.

General play with toys

the old journal article from 2010 shows that play therapy can involve allowing the child to play with toys in one of three categories:

  • Real Toys: These break the ice and target withdrawn or introverted children. They include things like:
  • Aggressive toys: These promote the release of anger and hostility. They include things like:
    • Strings
    • toy guns
    • super hero figures
  • Creative toys: These provide a way to express a wide range of emotions. They include things like:

While the child is playing, the therapist tries to interpret what he is feeling. These interpretations guide play, allowing the therapist to test whether their theory is correct. The child’s reaction will either reinforce or reject his interpretation.

Once the therapist understands what play means, they will guide them to help the child in different ways. For example, they can help them learn how to solve a problem or overcome an emotion.

Play the game

Play is a technique that therapists can use with older children, adolescents, and adults. A old journal article from 2008 reports that following the rules can help a distracted person focus their attention. Games are also a socialization tool, teaching people how to take turns and be a graceful loser or winner.

Play a role

Playing a role in a drama can help a child who has been through a traumatic event, notes the old journal article from 2008. Instead of reliving the event, a child symbolically processes it through characters in a staged narrative. This role play can help them move towards inner resolution.


Listening to or reading a story allows children to see how others have overcome problems similar to theirs. A older review case study from 1999 suggests that they can then apply what they have learned to their own real-life situation.


In sand board play, a therapist provides a child with a board, sand, and miniature toys to create a scene or play world. study 2017 involving seven children between the ages of 7 and 10 indicated that the technique can help victims of sexual abuse.

In the study, the theme of children’s play was violence and expressed the need for protection. He also encouraged the creation of situations with positive results.

A play therapist may have a master’s degree or higher, as well as a bachelor’s degree in a mental health field, such as:

  • social work
  • advice
  • psychology

Once a person is qualified, they register as a play therapist. This indicates that they have completed additional coursework and clinical supervision in play therapy. APT offers a training program that gives people “registered play therapist” status.

Play therapy is a form of psychological treatment that uses play to allow people to express unconscious feelings or things they find difficult to put into words. According to the PTI, 71% of children who receive it experience a positive change.

The potential benefits include a reduction in behavioral problems that stem from anger, grief or trauma. Play therapy can also help people with developmental differences solve problems or learn useful skills in daily life.

If someone wants to try play therapy, they can seek out a licensed play therapist. In the United States, the APT issues these qualifications.


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