The ABCs of Play Therapy

The term ‘play therapy’ suggests a fun, enjoyable and pleasurable experience. Individuals are usually curious about how a seemingly frivolous experience can be therapeutic and helpful for clients. This blog post will address key questions about play therapy and attempt to demystify some of the ideas around this therapeutic modality. Play therapy is an integral part of my work with my clients across all developmental stages of life and for today’s blog post, I will be focusing on play therapy for children from 3 to 12 years of age.

About Play Therapy 

Play therapy is a developmentally-appropriate medium for working effectively with children and has been defined as “the use of play as a means of establishing rapport, uncovering what is troubling a person (often a child), and bringing about a resolution” (American Counselling Association, 2020). As Dr. Garry Landreth, a renowned play therapy researcher and author explains, “Toys are like the child’s words, and play is the child’s language.” As children develop their socio-emotional and learning capabilities, they are also growing their vocabulary bank and relying on words to facilitate this work may not be sufficient. During play therapy, the therapist acknowledges that children need a safe space to express themselves in more ways than words. Through the use of toys and materials specifically selected for the purpose of play therapy, the child is able to communicate in both non-verbal and/or verbal ways for the therapeutic work to happen. 

In the presence of a therapist who creates a safe space for the child, the therapist also builds a gentle structure to help children learn to make meaning of their experiences, gain self-awareness, and learn valuable tools that can help them to navigate the challenges and issues they are experiencing. Therapists well-trained and experienced in play therapy incorporate observations of the child’s play, assess the child, and individualize treatments for each and every child. 

What can you expect in a play therapy session? Similar to counseling for adults, children attend weekly play therapy sessions, each lasting an average of 45 to 50 minutes. Together with their therapist, the child will be in a room set up with specially selected toys and materials. The therapist will then facilitate therapy through the play medium.  

Benefits of Play Therapy 

Play therapy is a unique modality that can benefit children with a wide variety of emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal challenges, ranging from mild to more severe issues. Children who are undergoing adjustment and transitory issues such as parents’ separation or divorce, grief and loss, or school transitions from pre-school to primary or elementary school can benefit from play therapy. Additionally, children who are on the autism spectrum, who have experienced trauma, abuse, and/or neglect, or have attention-deficit issues, anxiety, aggression, conduct disorders and obsessive-compulsive behaviours, just to name a few, can expect to see improvements in their overall mental health and well-being through play therapy with a therapist well-versed in play therapy. 

Play therapy is empirically supported to be an effective modality for children. In a meta-analytic study that reviewed 93 controlled outcome play therapy studies, Bratton and colleagues (2005) found support for play therapy as an effective intervention for children’s issues across age, gender and context. 

Considerations in Play Therapy

Mental health professionals who practice play therapy have the appropriate educational background and training in mental health and child development. Additionally, these professionals or therapists are well-trained in play therapy and have supervised experience using this therapeutic approach. The therapist should be someone who is approachable and one whom the parent/caregiver and the child feel comfortable working with. It is also important to seek a therapist who knows how to work in tandem with parents as this therapist-parent/caregiver partnership is a crucial piece to supporting the child’s therapeutic progress. 

In my next blog post, I will be sharing how play therapy can benefit adolescents and adults based on some personal insights and reflection. 

References:
Association for Play Therapy (2020). Retrieved from www.a4pt.org
Bratton, S. C., Ray, D., Rhine, T., & Jones, L. (2005). The efficacy of play therapy within children: A meta-analytic review of the outcome research. Professional psychology: Research and Practice, 36(4), 376-390

Written by:
Isabelle Ong, Ph.D., LPCA, NCC (USA)
Clinical Mental Health Counselor & Psychotherapist for Individuals, Children, Adolescents and Couples