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What is Play Therapy?

When searching for a child therapist, most adults have questions about play therapy.  Parents and caregivers see their children playing at home, at the playground, even at the grocery store.  Kids play all day!  This can lead to questions about why play is important and how play therapy is different from a child’s natural play.  Additionally, caregivers sometimes wonder what happens in the play room and whether they will be expected to participate in their child’s sessions.  The answer is that play therapy will look different from child to child, depending on their age, their development, and their reason for coming to counseling.  The fundamentals of play therapy, though, are the same.

Why does play therapy work?

On the most basic level, play therapists recognize play as essential for adults and children.  In our busy world, it is easy to assume that play is the opposite of work and therefore should be allowed only after the real work is done.  In reality, play opens the door for work to begin.  True play decreases anxiety and elevates mood for all people.  Whether it is a game of tennis or a pretend tea party, play helps to release energy, increase imagination, and strengthen relationships.  All of these are important for a healthy, balanced lifestyle. 

In addition to seeing play as a form of self-expression, play therapists see it as an opportunity for self-discovery.  Especially for children, play is a way of working through difficult emotions and testing new ideas.  While adults might be able to think through an action and consequence, children need to experience things physically in order to understand their meaning.  Because their language skills are still developing, children use physical objects, like dolls or crayons, to make meaning from the world around them.  Play is the child’s first language, and toys are their words. 

Young Boy with Play Therapist
Young Girl and Play Therapist with Finger Puppets

What happens in a play therapy session?

In the play room, the therapist focuses her energy and attention on the meaning behind a child’s play.  When given the right materials, children naturally use play to recreate difficult situations in a safe way.  For example, a child may use dolls, animals, or trucks to symbolically reenact the loss of a loved one.  The therapist, meanwhile, narrates and gently guides the child’s play to help her understand her feelings of loss. The child might repeat this activity over several sessions, using play to act out her stages of grief.  In the same way, gently guided art activities can help a child express deeper emotions than she can with words alone.  

Games with rules have a place in the play therapy room as well.  Games like Uno or Sorry help school-aged children explore concepts such as turn taking, competition, and fairness.  A therapist can use these games to help children practice self-control, increase self-esteem, and understand another’s point of view.  These games can also make difficult conversations less intimidating and more comfortable for tweens and teens.

What is the caregiver’s role in play therapy?

Most of the time, successful play therapy involves the caregiver.  For very young children, adults are often invited into the play room to focus on bonding and positive interactions through play.  This is sometimes the case with school-aged children as well, though it becomes less common with adolescents.   The play therapist does everything she can to make this a comfortable, positive experience for both the child and parent. 

Successful therapy also involves parent coaching.  Occasional caregiver-only appointments are important for working through parenting frustrations.  During these sessions the play therapist will help caregivers develop routines, behavior strategies, and activities designed to meet their child’s needs outside the play room.  Sometimes during these sessions, it becomes clear that the caregiver’s own past is influencing their relationship with the child.  In these situations, the play therapist can help caregivers find an adult therapist to work through difficult experiences.  Together the play therapist and the caregiver act as a team to help the child overcome past challenges and develop resilience. 

Any of our therapists on staff are happy to talk with you about questions you may have about therapy, mental health in general or how to get started with a therapist.  You can get in touch with us at the email or telephone number at the top of the page, or by using our Contact page.

Gina Hebb, MA, is our child therapist and she sees children ages 3 and up.  She can answer questions you may have about getting your child into therapy and how it works.  You can read about her by clicking “Counselors” above, or use this link: Our Counselor Profiles.

You may also be interested in reading about Child Therapy as well.

The images below are of our play therapy room at the Littleton counseling office:

 

registered play therapy
play therapy
sand therapy