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What is Play Therapy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy which involves the use of undirected play to address psychological issues. This technique is most commonly used in children between the ages of three and 11, although it can also be used with adults and people who are developmentally disabled. This mode of therapy is especially effective for children because they are naturally expressive and playful, and unlike adults, they do not need to be taught how to play.

A typical course of play therapy starts with a meeting with the child's parents to discuss the child's issues. The parents may be concerned with a behavioral problem like shyness, acting out in class, or bedwetting, or they may want to support a child through a difficult transition like a move or divorce. Next, the therapist is introduced to the child, and the child is introduced to a play area which contains a selection of toys. At this point, the parents are usually excluded from the session so that the child will feel more free.

When a child starts to explore the available toys, the therapist takes note of which toys the child interacts with, and how the child interacts with them. The therapist does not offer prompts or suggestions about what to play with or how to play, because he or she wants to see the child's natural, underlying psychological state. As sessions progress, the therapist will help the child use play to work through psychological issues.

Use of toys is also utilized in some other types of child therapy; child therapists who specialize in working with victims of abuse, for example, may ask children to use toys to express themselves. In this situation, however, the therapist provides specific directions, like “arrange the dolls to show me your family,” or “how does the mother doll talk to the father doll” to prompt responses which can be used in therapy. This technique is slightly different from true play therapy, in which the child is allowed to work freely, without suggestion or interruption.

Children are allowed to leave therapy sessions early, and they will not be forced to play. Working with children can be uniquely challenging, as a child may make progress one day, and regress the next. Therapy requires patience and a commitment to long term treatment. When the child's issues have been resolved, the therapist will prepare the child for separation so the course of therapy can end.

Psychotherapy professionals who are interested in play therapy can take courses and pursue certification with a professional organization. Some teachers may also opt to integrate play therapy into their classrooms, taking courses designed for educators who work with young children. Every therapist uses different techniques, and it's important for people to be aware that every therapist cannot work with every child, and that a child may need to try several therapists to find someone he or she feels comfortable with.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By stolaf23 — On Jan 14, 2011

In any kind of therapy, it is important that children feel they are in an environment where they are entirely safe. In play therapy, children might be able to feel safe more easily than in a more serious-seeming therapy involving having to sit still and discuss.

By accordion — On Jan 11, 2011

I read somewhere that play therapy can be especially helpful for determining if a child has a learning disability, such as dyslexia, or has a condition on the autism spectrum. In those cases, of course, the therapy cannot always be strictly "play", but might revolve around reading a picture book together or working on spelling activities.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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