What is Play Therapy?

What is Play Therapy? How does it work? How can play help my child? These are questions that I get asked all the time so I thought, it was time to write a blog post about it!

Play Therapy is the most developmentally appropriate therapeutic approach for supporting children aged 3-12 years. In play therapy toys act as the child’s words and play is the child’s language. Play Therapy builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them. It allows children to make their internal world external. In Play Therapy, a safe, free, and protected space is created to provide the opportunity for children to work through (integrate and make sense of) deeper emotional fears, anxieties, trauma and experiences that may be driving observable behavioural symptoms. Children are given permission to express themselves in whatever way they are comfortable, using the therapeutic selection of toys and creative materials in the special playroom.  The role of the play therapist is to provide the safety, consistency, and relationship through which the neural rewiring in the brain can occur.

Play Therapy has been around for a while, with the first recorded use of therapeutic play dating back to 1919! The approach is informed by a number of psychological theories such as Psychodynamic, Humanistic, Interpersonal, Behavioural, Adlerian, Gestalt, Family Systems Theory, developmental and attachment, Strengths-Based, Solution Focused and utilises a Rogerian person centred approach. The most important contributions to modern practice have been from Virginia Axline, Garry Landreth, The Guerneys (Filial Therapy, Play Therapy for parents to do with their children), Rise Van Fleet and Sue Bratton.


Different types of Play Therapy

Before we get into understanding more about how and why play therapy works, it’s important to understand that there are different types of Play Therapy. The two main types of Play Therapy are Non-directive Play Therapy and Directive Play Therapy.

Non-Directive Play Therapy involves allowing the child to direct the course of treatment, with the therapist acting as a tracker or follower. The child is given the opportunity to lead the direction of the session, choosing the therapeutic toys and topics of conversation. The therapist observes and instead of trying to solve the child’s problems by giving advice and suggestions, creates a supportive space in which children can work through deeper emotional fears and build resiliency around their experiences.

At times children may require a slightly more directive play approach when working on a set of skills or processing a specific traumatic event. In these sessions, the therapist may use therapeutic storytelling, therapy games, narrative themes, directed sand tray, and art therapy activities, mindfulness training and body awareness activities, and assign certain characters for role plays, dolls or puppets.

A skilled Play Therapist will adopt a mix of both approaches according to the child’s circumstances and behaviour.


Other Play Therapy treatments include:

  1. Autplay: suitable for Autism Spectrum Disorders – uses a combination of directive play therapy, behavioural approaches, social skills training, and parent involvement.
  2. Theraplay: attachment based directive play therapy involving parent and child. Suitable for where there has been early trauma or attachment difficulties.
  3. Filial Therapy: A Clinical Play Therapist teaches parents how to run special therapeutic play sessions for their own children.
  4. Trauma-Focused Integrative Play Therapy: An intensive 10 session trauma processing model following a specific event, combining directive play therapy assessments and techniques, non-directive play, mindfulness,  neuroscience, and emotional regulation skills training.


What happens in Play Therapy?

The content of Play Therapy sessions entirely depends on the approach adopted by the therapist, the identified needs of the child and other varying factors. During Play Therapy, children are given strategies to cope with difficulties they face in life in which they may feel powerless to process or change. The sessions aim to provide a more positive view of a child’s future life in a way that they are able to understand and integrate back into their real world and relationships.

Play Therapy sessions typically last between 30 to 45 minutes. A variety of techniques are used according to the child’s wishes and the discretion of the clinical play therapist. These may include creative visualisation, therapeutic storytelling, drama and role play, the use of puppets and masks, sand trays, art, music, dance and movement, and clay work.


Is Play Therapy suitable for my child?

Play therapy is suitable for children aged 3-12 years who have experienced social, emotional, or behavioural difficulties. These may include meltdowns, early trauma experiences, experiencing high stress environments, anxiety, separation anxiety, depression, grief, hyperactivity, concerns related to adoption or foster care, chronic illness or disability, inattention, trauma (including abuse), oppositional behaviours, aggression, attachment issues, school refusal, attention deficit problems, violence, selective mutism, and/or obsessive-compulsive behaviours. Play Therapy and, specifically Filial Therapy, is also suitable for children whose parents are feeling overwhelmed, anxious and wanting to feel more confident in their parenting skills.

The involvement of parents is very important in the process of Play Therapy. After the initial assessment to determine suitability, a skilled Play Therapist will maintain regular contact with the parents/carers via scheduled meetings and phone catch ups and weekly feedback sheets, in order to work as a united team when tracking progress at home and in sessions.


What makes Play Therapy effective?

A whole body of research over the last 40-45 years has been conducted on Child Centred Play Therapy and Filial Therapy which has shown strong efficacy for these models as successful therapeutic interventions for children and families. Research also indicates that progress in family and child functioning tends to be long-lasting. The therapeutic play process provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows the expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their developmental level.


Some Play Therapy benefits include:

  1. Reduced cortisol and stress responses, and an increase in dopamine and oxytocin (aiding pleasure and relationships)
  2. Opportunities to explore cause and effect outcomes, learn problem-solving skills, and become a flexible, creative thinker
  3. Builds mastery experiences and self-esteem!
  4. It promotes self-expression, optimism, and wellbeing
  5. Allows exploration of personal narrative and brain integration through trauma processing
  6. Promotes self-regulation and nervous system resiliency, and allows the opportunity for whole brain integration (connected to a healthy brain).
  7. Allows safe testing of limits, trying out new behaviours and emotions, collaboration and social skills practice.

Wondering what kind of items you can find in a therapeutic playroom? Check out our online store to see some of my favourite, most used items such as:

  • The Hoberman sphere (used for aid self-regulation and mindfulness skills)
  • Social-emotional children’s books (aiding whole brain integration – through pictures, emotions and words we explore emotional/social concerns and solutions)
  • Sensory products (help support brainstem regulation and grounding)
  • Weighted products (help support brainstem regulation and grounding)


Where can I get more information?

The Association for Play Therapy is a great place for finding out more information on Play Therapy and what it is. Their website is: www.a4pt.org. To find out more about the types of Play Therapy I offer such as Child Centred, Autplay, Theraplay, Filial, Trauma-Focused Integrative Play Therapy, Sandtray, please visit my website at: www.artisticrevolutions.com.au and follow me on social media!