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Play Therapy

Play therapy is a theoretical model that capitalizes on children’s natural ability to learn about themselves, their relationships, and the world around them. Through play therapy, a child is given psychological distance from their problems, allowing them safety to express their thoughts and feelings, process their current struggles, experiment with different roles and endings, and learn emotional regulation and problem solving skills. In order to accomplish this, the therapist may introduce the child to various modalities including; storytelling, puppets, dramatic play, music, dance, sand play, art, board games, and sensory play (Axline, 1947; Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002).

Why Play?


Play is a child’s first language; the toys are the words. It is how children make sense of their world and their experiences. Play is how children learn, explore their surroundings, and develop skills and their personality. Engaging in play is fun, stress relieving, and helps children connect with those around them. it helps to expands self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization, and self-efficacy (Landreth, 2002; Russ, 2004).

Why Play in Therapy?


Adults often struggle verbalizing their emotional experiences and past traumas; this struggle is even more potent for children who are still learning how to use language to express themselves. Play in therapy offers children a way to express their thoughts and feelings without the pressure of finding the right words for the adult to understand them.


play therapy offers a treatment method that provides psychological safety


Through play, therapists help children to develop more adaptive emotional, social, and cognitive skills as well as help to provide understanding and resolution of inner conflicts related to their current or past experiences (O'Connor & Schaefer, 1983; Pedro-Carroll & Reddy, 2005; Reddy, Files-Hall, & Schaefer, 2005). A unconditional positive relationship with the therapist can provide a corrective emotional experience that is necessary for healing (Moustakas, 1997)

Is Play Therapy Effective?


Play therapy has been empirically validated through many case studies, research studies, and anecdotal reviews. The effectiveness of play therapy is dependant upon the family’s commitment to change.


Meta-analytic reviews of over 100 play therapy outcome studies (Bratton, Ray, Rhine, & Jones, 2005; LeBlanc & Ritchie, 2001; Lin & Bratton, 2015; Ray, Armstrong, Balkin, & Jayne, 2015) have found that the over-all treatment effect of play therapy ranges from moderate to high positive effects. Play therapy has proven equally effective across age, gender, and presenting problem. Additionally, positive treatment effects were found to be greatest when there was a parent actively involved in the child's treatment.

How Does Play Therapy Work?


Play therapy allows professionals specialized in play therapy to observe and assess the child while they play to develop an understanding of the child’s world view and current struggles. Play therapy can then be utilized to help children learn emotional regulation and problem solving skills. Play therapy also aids children in changing the way they think about, feel towards, and resolve their concerns. Lasting solutions can be discovered, rehearsed, mastered, and adapted into lifelong strategies. (Kaugars & Russ, 2001; Moustakas, 1997; Reddy, Files-Hall, & Schaefer, 2005; Russ, 2004).

What Happens During Play Therapy?


At times the child is invited to explore the playroom and decide what modality they would like to engage in while the therapist stays attuned, available, and engaged in what the child is doing, their emotional reactions, and the goals of play therapy. At other times the therapist may offer suggestions in activities, art, or therapeutic board games that are more goal directed. Typically these therapist-directed session will not occur until a strong therapeutic relationship has been created between the child and therapist.


Play therapy session may be for the child individually, the child and parent, or the family as a whole.

How will Play Therapy Benefit my Child?


Play therapy helps children to: become more responsible for behaviours, develop new and creative solutions to problems, develop respect and acceptance of self and other, learn to experience and express emotions, cultivate empathy and respect for the thoughts and feelings of others, learn new social skills and relational skills with family members, develop self-efficacy and self-esteem.

How Long Does Play Therapy Take?


Play therapy sessions are typically 45 minutes in length, dependant upon the child’s attentional capacity. Sessions are held weekly for a minimum of 4 weeks dependant upon symptoms observed at home and school. Research suggests that an average of 20 play therapy sessions are typically required to resolve the concern. However, each child and their unique experience has a different length of treatment (Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002).

What Type of Problems Does Play Therapy Address?


Play therapy can be accessed to reduce the effects of trauma, grief and loss, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, academic and social concerns, attachment concerns, separation anxiety, parental divorce/separation, parent-child relational concerns, and behavioural concerns.

How May my Family be Involved in Play Therapy?


Families play an important role in children's lives; naturally they plan an equally important role in the healing processes. The interaction between children's problems and their families is always complex. Sometimes children develop problems as a way of signalling that there is something wrong in the family. Other times the entire family becomes distressed because the child's problems are so disruptive. In all cases, children and families heal faster when they work together.

The play therapist will make some decisions about how and when to involve some or all members of the family in the play therapy. At a minimum, the therapist will want to communicate regularly with the child's caretakers to develop a plan for resolving problems as they are identified and to monitor the progress of the treatment. Other options might include involving a) the parents or caretakers directly in the treatment by modifying how they interact with the child at home and b) the whole family in family play therapy (Guerney, 2000).

How is Individual Play Therapy Different From Family Play Therapy?


Individual play therapy focuses on healing and strengthening individual children. Through the play as well as the special therapeutic relationship, the therapist helps children to accept their emotions, develop trust and confidence, and improve their behaviour. The therapist usually meets separately with parents to give them insight into their child’s world view and emotional experience, update them on the child’s progress towards treatment goals, and provide recommendations and support. When children and families do meet together, either to talk or to play, sessions usually focus on helping parents to understand and more effectively parent their child.


 Family therapy focuses on the enrichment of family relationships and the healing of the family as a whole. Family therapists help family members to deepen their emotional bonds, communicate more effectively, and create more harmonious living environments. Towards these ends, therapists practice play therapy in a variety of formats. They might hold play sessions with siblings, engage in play with an individual parent and child, or play games with the entire family together. They may also engage in individual play with children, with the purpose of developing a deeper understanding of their concerns in order to communicate them to other family members.

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