What is Play Therapy?

“Fish swim, birds fly, children play.”
—Dr. Garry Landreth

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Play is the natural language of children and is a metaphor, or symbolic expression, of what is going on in their lives.  Play is to children what verbalization is to adults. Early childhood experts agree that play is essential and facilitates:

  • Expressive language
  • Communication skills
  • Emotional development
  • Social skills
  • Decision-making skills
  • Cognitive development

Erik Erikson, an expert in human growth and development, defines play as a situation in which a child can work through experiences by creating model situations and master reality through planning and experimentation. Play offers opportunities for self-expression, mastery, and growth in a way that fits the child’s developmental level.

Play Therapy Works!

Naturally, toys and other materials play role in the therapeutic process. If play is considered the language of children, then toys are their words. Children in play therapy are able to choose from an array of toys.  They are given the power to determine what toys to use and how to use the toys most of the time.  If a child decides to use a toy in a destructive manner, the play therapist will use limit-setting to help the child learn more effective and socially-appropriate ways to express himself or herself and develop self-control.

The relationship between a child and his or her play therapist is important to the therapeutic process and outcome as well.  Child-centered play therapists follow Virginia Axline’s eight guiding principles in their interactions with child clients:

  1. The therapist is genuinely interested in the child and develops a warm, caring relationship.
  2. The therapist experiences unqualified acceptance of the child and does not wish that the child were different some way.
  3. The therapist creates a feeling of permissiveness and safety in the relationship, so the child feels free to explore and express self completely.
  4. The therapist is always sensitive to the child’s feelings and gently reflects those feelings in such a manner that the child develops self-understanding.
  5. The therapist believes deeply in the child’s capacity to act responsibly, respects the child’s ability to solve personal problems, and allows the child to do so.
  6. The therapist trusts the child’s inner direction, allows the child to direct his or her own play, and resists the urge to direct the child’s play or conversation.
  7. The therapist appreciates the gradual nature of the therapeutic process and does not attempt to hurry the process.
  8. The therapist establishes only those limits that help the child accept personal and appropriate relationship responsibility.
Parents are the most important adults in their child’s life.  It makes sense for parents to be actively included in the therapeutic process of play therapy. Parents play a vital role in accurate assessment, effective treatment planning, and successful outcomes.  Parent consultation creates opportunities for parents to gather information about their child’s functioning and learn new ways to help their child be successful at home and at school.  At times, a play therapist invites the parent(s) to participate in Filial Therapy training.  This training teaches parents how to use play therapy principles and skills to enhance the parent-child relationship.  This training may be offered in individual or group formats.  When play therapists train educators to use play therapy principles and skills within the teacher-student relationship, it is called Kinder Training.
Children benefit from play therapy in many ways. Research findings support the effectiveness of play therapy with an array of social, emotional, educational, and behavioral concerns including but not limited to:

  • Anxiety/fearfulness
  • Depression
  • Aggression
  • Post-traumatic Stress
  • ADHD
  • Reading difficulties
  • Social withdrawal
  • Low self-esteem/confidence

Play therapy is also helpful to children experiencing difficult life situations such as divorce, grief, relocation, illness/hospitalization, natural disasters, and violence/abuse.

If you are a mental health or education professional interested in learning how to effectively use play therapy in your work with clients, please consider participating in one of our upcoming trainings.  If you have other questions about play therapy, please contact playtherapy@gsu.edu and we will be happy to assist you.

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