Play therapy: 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 (asking 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, exactly? What does a play therapist do that is different from a teacher or a familiar adult playing with a child? How does positive change happen through play?

I answer these questions below.

 Play therapy allows for a child’s imagination to flow freely and key themes about what is going on internally to emerge.

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 internally by playing with a child and supporting her or his imaginative explorations. With the therapist’s support and careful interventions, the child can work through difficult feelings and behaviors. 

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.

How is it 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. 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

  4. Child 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, give me a call (510-344-2665) for a free 30-minute phone consultation.