What is Play Therapy and How Does it Work?

Child play

Therapy plays a pivotal role in the field of mental health, offering a means to navigate emotional turmoil, understand and manage behavioral issues, and improve overall well-being. 

It serves as a tool for self-discovery and personal growth, providing individuals with the skills necessary to overcome life's challenges.

Among the various therapeutic approaches available, one stands out for its unique methodology and target population - Play Therapy.

Specifically designed for children, play therapy utilizes the universal language of children-play, to facilitate communication and enable them to express their feelings and experiences in a safe and supportive environment. 

This introductory discussion will delve into the intricacies of play therapy, exploring its benefits, and criticisms, and ultimately highlighting its significance in child mental health. 

Children Therapists in Colorado

Naomi Kettner, LPC, NCC

Naomi Kettner, LPC, NCC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 452-4374
Jenifer Seas, LCSW

Jenifer Seas, LCSW

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 452-4374
Cassondra Chagnon, LPCC

Cassondra Chagnon, LPCC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 481-3518
Melissa Peterson, LPC

Melissa Peterson, LPC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 345-2424
Margot Bean, LCSW

Margot Bean, LCSW

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 345-2424

Understanding Play Therapy

Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy that utilizes play, a child's natural medium of expression, as a means for understanding and communicating with children. 

This therapeutic approach allows children to express their experiences and feelings through a natural, self-guided, and self-healing process. 

Play often serves as a critical conduit for children to express their experiences and acquired knowledge. 

Consequently, it becomes an essential tool for them to understand, accept, and appreciate themselves and others.

The concept of play therapy has been in existence since the early 20th century, with pioneers like H. G. Wells recognizing the therapeutic value of play. 

However, it was not until the 1940s that play therapy became formalized, largely due to the work of child psychoanalysts such as Anna Freud and Melanie Klein. 

Key theories underpinning play therapy include psychoanalytic theory which posits that unconscious desires, experiences, and emotions influence behavior, and humanistic theory which emphasizes the inherent worth of the individual and the importance of free will. 

Each theory offers a different lens through which to view the function of play in a child's development and mental health. 

The Role of a Play Therapist

A play therapist is a professional who has undergone extensive training to understand and guide children's play in therapeutic settings.

Play therapists typically possess a master's or doctoral degree in psychology, social work, counseling, or a related field, and they must complete additional coursework and supervised clinical experience specifically in play therapy. 

Additionally, many choose to become Registered Play Therapists (RPT) through the Association for Play Therapy, which requires even more specialized training and experience.

The responsibilities of a play therapist involve creating a safe environment for children to express and explore their feelings through play. 

They observe the child's play behavior and themes and use this observation to gain insights into the child's problems. 

The therapist may also guide the play, helping the child address and resolve their problems. 

A session with a play therapist typically involves a variety of toys and games, which are chosen to reflect a broad range of life experiences, and may include dolls, art supplies, sand trays, and more. 

The therapist will allow the child to lead the play, intervening only to guide the process or provide the necessary structure. 

Each session is an opportunity for the child to explore feelings, replay traumatic or stressful life events, and experiment with different behaviors in a safe environment. 

Who Can Benefit from Play Therapy?

Play therapy is primarily designed for children between the ages of 3 to 12 years, although it can be adapted for teenagers and even adults. 

The rationale behind this age focus is that play is the natural language of children, and it's during these formative years that they are most likely to express their feelings and experiences through play. 

However, with appropriate modifications, adolescents and adults can also benefit from the therapeutic aspects of play.

Play therapy has been shown to be effective for a wide range of issues and conditions. 

These include but are not limited to autism, ADHD, grief and loss, trauma, anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues such as aggression or social withdrawal. 

Play therapy offers a non-threatening environment for individuals to express their feelings and cope with emotional distress. 

How Does Play Therapy Work?

Play therapy is a methodical process that begins with an initial assessment of the child's needs, which often involves interviews with parents or caregivers. 

The therapist then uses this information to create a treatment plan tailored to the child's unique situation. 

The child and therapist meet regularly (usually weekly) in a playroom, where the child is allowed to play with minimal interruptions and guidance. 

The therapist observes the child and may participate in the play, but the child leads the way. 

This unstructured approach, known as non-directive play therapy, allows the child to freely express their feelings and thoughts.

Conversely, in directive play therapy, the therapist takes a more active role, guiding the play and introducing specific therapeutic activities.

Toys and materials in play therapy are carefully chosen to encourage creative expression and exploration of issues. 

Commonly used items include sand trays, miniatures, art supplies, puppets, dolls, and games. 

These toys serve as the child's words and play is their language. 

For example, a child might use a dollhouse to recreate a traumatic event or use a sand tray to express feelings of chaos or control.

Activities in play therapy can range from drawing and painting to role-playing scenarios with puppets or dolls. 

Each activity is designed to help the child explore emotions, develop social skills, solve problems, reduce anxiety, and learn new ways of thinking and behaving. 

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The Benefits of Play Therapy

Play therapy offers a host of benefits that span emotional, cognitive, and social dimensions. 

Emotionally, it provides a safe space for children to express and explore their feelings, helping them gain self-understanding and learn to manage emotions effectively. 

Cognitively, play therapy can enhance problem-solving skills and stimulate creativity, as children experiment with different scenarios and solutions in the play environment. 

Socially, play therapy can help children improve their communication skills, understand others' perspectives, and develop healthier relationships. 

The long-term impact of play therapy is significant; by addressing emotional and behavioral issues early in life, play therapy can prevent further complications and set the stage for healthier emotional and social development in the future. 

It is a powerful tool that can equip children with the resilience and coping skills they need to navigate life's challenges. 


In conclusion, play therapy is a potent therapeutic approach that leverages the natural language of children - play, to facilitate emotional healing and cognitive growth. 

It offers a safe and nurturing environment for children to express their feelings, enhance problem-solving abilities, and improve social interactions. 

While it may not be the most suitable option for all situations, and despite some criticisms, its positive impacts on a child's development can't be overlooked. 

Play therapy's ability to address emotional and behavioral issues early in their onset is crucial, as it sets the foundation for healthier emotional and social development later in life. 

Indeed, the benefits of play therapy extend far beyond the therapy room, providing children with the resilience and coping skills they need to face life's challenges head-on.

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July 13th, 2024

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