Jennifer Trinkle Therapy
Therapy for children and former children
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Articles by Jennifer Trinkle on parenting kids and teens and on therapy.

What is play therapy and how does it work?


It may seem fairly obvious on the surface that therapy with children uses play, art, and movement versus traditional talk therapy techniques (falling back on that old therapy cliché How does that make you feel? just doesn’t cut it for kids—or most adults!). However, you may have some questions about the process.

What is play therapy?

Play therapy is is a structured, theoretically based approach to therapy with children that works through the primary way kids communicate and learn:  play! A play therapist learns what might be going on with a child internally by paying attention to and supporting her or his imaginative explorations. With the therapist’s support and careful interventions, the child can work through difficult feelings and behaviors and unconscious conflicts or blocks. 

Play therapy runs on a continuum from non-directive, in which the child is generally in charge of the play with very few restrictions, to more structured directive models in which the therapist follows a particular protocol and guides the child’s play with a clearly defined behavioral change in mind. My approach is generally non-directive, though I may sometimes choose an activity or a particular toy to highlight if I believe it will be helpful for the child.

My child therapy training and approach are psychodynamic and relational in nature. I consider important relationships in the child’s life as well as unconscious defenses and processes that the child (and family) may be using as a way to protect themselves. While these defenses can be useful, they can sometimes get in the way of development. I also use techniques taken from child-centered play therapy, which focuses on a child’s innate, internal pull towards growth within a supportive and empathic therapeutic relationship. Combine the right conditions, including acceptance, a nonjudgmental attitude, and warmth, with a robust space to play and create, and the child will begin to move in a positive, developmentally appropriate direction.

Other approaches to play therapy include expressive arts therapy, cognitive behavioral approaches, and sand tray methods, among others. Theraplay, parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT), and filial therapy all include parents in sessions. Some family therapists offer play-based methods. Many play therapists are registered with the Association for Play Therapy. To become a registered play therapist, one must be licensed and follow a rigorous protocol that includes training and play therapy sessions with direct supervision from a registered play therapist supervisor.

How is play therapy different from simply playing?

Writing about how play therapy works feels a bit like writing about magic, with the therapist as a mysterious figure providing the right mystical conditions for change. Amazing things can happen—but how?

There are four key, necessary, non-mystical conditions to play therapy, conditions that generally only converge in a trained play therapist’s office:

  1. A nonjudgmental, accepting, trained clinician who maintains clear boundaries and pays attention to play themes and how to address them in the moment and over time

  2. Play space with toys and art supplies that allow for rich symbolic play and expression

  3. At least one parent or caregiver that is ready to collaborate and think with their child’s therapist about how best to support the child. This can happen in session or in separate parent meetings.

  4. Child/family who could benefit from therapeutic support

OK. But how does the change happen in play therapy?

A play therapist “holds” a lot for children and their families. Some behaviors, emotions, or disturbing fantasies and/or experiences may be difficult for a parent to tolerate. It can be scary or frustrating for a parent to take in these things without trying to intervene or help. In therapy, a child has a nonjudgmental space to process those potentially overwhelming feelings, thoughts, and experiences, with an empathic professional to observe and guide the child and family. By being nonreactive, curious, and observant without being intrusive and knowing when to intervene and when to let things be, a play therapist provides the right conditions for a child to express and work through anxiety, fear, and trauma, among other issues. In addition, a play therapist can translate the meaning of the play into something helpful for parents and provide suggestions on how to support the child at home and at school.

Do you think your child would benefit from play therapy?

If your child has been struggling and you think he or she would benefit from play therapy, email or call me for your free initial consultation. If you are interested in finding a registered play therapist, the Association for Play Therapy has a searchable directory you can use. I am also happy to help you find someone with the approach you are comfortable with.