What Is Play Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on July 29, 2023
4 min read

Children often struggle with communicating their thoughts and feelings, especially when they're very young. Play may not seem like a way to communicate, but it's very effective for children. Playing boosts confidence in children by providing an outlet for:

  • Expanding self-expression
  • Increasing knowledge of self
  • Transferring ideas into real life
  • Problem-solving
  • Relieving stress
  • Relieving boredom‌
  • Making connections with other people 

Play therapy is an overarching umbrella term that encompasses many therapeutic methods that use play as a tool. The therapist serves as a facilitator for your child to work independently, consider the issues they face, and problem-solve to find solutions. The goal of play therapy is to provide a psychological buffer between your child and their problems, so they feel safe.‌

When it comes to utilizing play in a therapy setting, play is more structured with a goal behind the activities used. Play allows a therapist to build upon the foundational learning processes your child already has while helping them feel comfortable.‌

If you’ve ever experienced a child’s tantrum, you know that even very young children are capable of big feelings. But their ability to verbalize how they feel and what they need doesn’t match their comprehension yet. Play therapy is an outlet to express when something is bothering them without the need for words.

During play therapy, toys are tools that your child uses in place of vocabulary. Your child’s therapist can identify deficits in social or emotional abilities and help your child learn how to adapt to new situations. Play therapy often acts as a corrective experience that counters something bothering your child and provides the opportunity for healing.‌

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) defines play therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development”.‌

Who benefits from play therapy? Play therapy is most appropriate for children between the ages of 3 and 12. Older children and adults with some cognitive impairments may also benefit from play therapy. Younger children and even infants can also benefit from play therapy as a tool for early intervention.

You may see some of your child’s behavior as acting out or testing boundaries. Looking at it from a different perspective, your child is trying to figure out the world around them and individual scenarios they experience. Your child is essentially creating their own problem-solving skills. Practitioners assess the play and guide as needed to help your child shift their perspective to a new way of thinking and feeling so they can resolve future conflict.‌‌

With guidance, they can hone these skills and what they learn from one scenario to be applicable in the future. But some children are very troubled or experience trauma that makes it difficult for them to process. Play therapy allows your child to utilize their own play methods in the presence of a trained professional who understands child psychology.

Specific goals depend on your child’s individual needs. The specialist talks to you before beginning treatment to get your perspective and learn what outcomes you’d like to see as a result of therapy. These goals may include: 

  • Developing responsibility for behavior
  • Establishing successful strategies for addressing concerns and coping 
  • Developing unique and creative solutions for their problems
  • Learning how to respect and accept oneself and others
  • Learning how to express emotion appropriately
  • Developing empathy and respect for how other people feel
  • Learning social and relational strategies for interactions with friends and family

Your child’s therapist may allow unstructured play or provide more guidance based on what they want to achieve. In some cases, play therapy is used in a group setting to learn more about the dynamics of interaction with others.

For young children, family and caregivers are often encouraged to participate so they can learn the same techniques their children are learning. This also helps you to better understand the “why” behind your child’s behavior at home.

Nurturing play. A therapist may offer a baby doll or toy animal for your child to feed, hug, and care for. Your child may act out a need for more nurturing from others. Alternately, they may identify as the toy and take care of it as a way to provide self-comfort. 

Aggressor-victim play. If your child dumps out all of their toys or makes a mess instead of playing, this is a sign that they feel powerless to control their daily life. By dumping the toys or making a mess, they may show that they are asserting control or expressing anger. ‌

Sorting or fixing play. If your child spends time sorting toys or putting them into a certain order, this is a sign that they have a desire for order in a world that feels chaotic. They are showing that they want to have some control or figuring out how things should be. ‌

Sleep play. If your child likes to pretend to play or puts their toys to bed, they may be expressing feelings of overwhelm. Your child may need a break or an escape from a situation. Alternately, they may have separation anxiety at night, and acting out sleep during the day is therapeutic. In some cases, your child may act out something that happened to them in bed or at night.