Play Therapy: Definition, Types, Techniques (2023)

What Is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy and can be effective in helping children through emotional and mental issues.

Children often use play to express themselves and navigate the world and play therapy takes advantage of this. Play therapy is primarily used with children. Although, it can also be used with adults. It is typically used with children who are aged between 3 and 12.

The primary goal of play therapy is to help children who might struggle with expressing themselves or their emotions to express themselves through play.

A play therapist will guide a person through play therapy in a free and safe environment where they feel most comfortable expressing themselves. Play therapists use play activities a child might enjoy from painting to dancing to board games. At times play therapist will ask other family members or parents and guardians to also get involved in the playtime activities.

Types of Play Therapy

There are two main forms of play therapy used by play therapists:

  1. Directive Play Therapy: With directive play therapy, the therapist takes a hands-on approach and leads the child through guided play activities to help them express themselves. They’ll typically give specific instructions and supervise the child as they go through it.
  2. Non-directive Play Therapy: Non-directive play therapy makes use of a less controlled environment. The therapist leaves the child to engage in whatever play activities they might enjoy and express themselves with limited interference.

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Many different techniques can be applied during play therapy. The technique used during a therapy session largely depends on your child’s needs and what play mediums they feel most comfortable using.

A typical play therapy session usually lasts between 30 and 45 minutes. During a play therapy session, the therapist will create a comfortable and safe environment for the child to play. The therapist will then observe the child’s interactions with the toys that are provided.

As the child grows more comfortable in the therapist’s playroom, more specific play activities that target the issues the child is dealing with will be introduced. Some of the most common techniques used by play therapists across the world include:

  • Using building blocks
  • Using art
  • Sand play
  • Board games
  • Play with dolls
  • Puppet play
  • Tea party play
  • Card games
  • Strategy games like chess or checkers
  • Hide-and-seek
  • LEGO play

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What Play Therapy Can Help With

Play therapy is particularly beneficial for people who struggle with communicating and expressing themselves in a positive and healthy manner.

Children who have been abused or experienced extremely traumatic or stressful events might benefit from play therapy to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives. Children with certain disorders which hamper their emotional and social expressions typically benefit greatly from play therapy.

These could include children with behavioral disorders or learning disabilities. There has been some research into the effectiveness of play therapy on children with the following conditions:

  • Autism
  • Attention deficit hyperactivitydisorder (ADHD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Physical and emotional trauma
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical or emotional abuse

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Benefits of Play Therapy

People are often dismissive of play therapy and the benefits they hold. Concerned parents often find it hard to understand what benefits their children gain from “just playing.” However, the fact is that with or without the guidance of a therapist, children like to communicate through play, whether you might have noticed it or not.

A child playing violently with toys might be dismissed as aggressive when in reality, he might be mirroring a violent domestic situation he has been witnessing.

Here are some of the benefits of play therapy:

  • Play therapy gives children who are having a hard time communicating verbally to express themselves through play activities. For instance, a child who refuses to speak might instead draw or paint out their thoughts or needs.
  • It creates a space where a child will feel comfortable being themselves instead of other more traditional forms of psychotherapy.
  • It allows the child to take charge of their therapy process. Effective play therapy allows the child to use toys and mediums they are most comfortable with and go at their own pace.
  • It helps children understand their emotions, especially if they had struggled with doing this before.
  • It helps children build up their communication and social skills with time. After several sessions, a child who wasn’t speaking might start to utter several phrases.

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Further research into the effectiveness of play therapy still needs to be carried out. Most traditional forms of therapy might not connect with children who are as young as 3 to 12 years old.

In a 2009 study on the effectiveness of play therapy with aggressive children, researchers divided a group of students with a history of aggressive behavior into two groups. One group was exposed to play therapy and the other group was used as a control group. At the end of the study, the researchers found that the children who had been exposed to play therapy showed significant improvement in aggressive behaviors over the children in the control group.

(Video) Play Therapy Works!

A 2005 analysis of 93 studies conducted between 1953 to 2000 on the effectiveness of play therapy with children also supports the theory that it’s an effective method of therapy for children. The review found that this form of therapy produced positive effects, even more so when the parents of the child in therapy were involved. It also found that this form of therapy appeared to be effective across age and gender.

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Things to Consider

While a play therapist will take the lead during play therapy, the child’s parent or guardian also has an important role to play.

The play therapist will typically have a joint consultation with the parent and guardian and the child and also separate consultations with all parties involves. This is done to completely understand the child’s needs. When looking for a play therapist for your child, it’s important to ensure they have the relevant experience and expertise.

How to Get Started

If you have a child who might benefit from play therapy or know someone who could you should get started by getting in touch with a licensed psychologist or psychotherapist who has expereience dealing with children, and with play therapy. Play therapy is typically done over several sessions, it’s also important to work with someone with who your child feels absolutely comfortable.

4 Sources

(Video) Play Therapy Basics: Entering a Child's World

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Center for Play Therapy , University of North Texas. What is play therapy? 2021

  2. College of Education & Human Development, Georgia State University. What is play therapy? 2021

  3. Ray DC, Blanco PJ, Sullivan J M, Holliman R. An exploratory study of child-centered play therapy with aggressive children.International Journal of Play Therapy.2009;18(3), 162–175.

  4. Bratton S, Dee R, Tammy R & Jones L. The Efficacy of Play Therapy With Children: A Meta-Analytic Review of Treatment Outcomes. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 2005

Play Therapy: Definition, Types, Techniques (1)

By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.

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(Video) Play Therapy: Definition, Types, Techniques || khel chikitsa || #playtherapy


What is meant by play therapy? ›

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."

What type of therapy is used for children? ›

Behavior therapy teaches children and their families how to strengthen positive child behaviors and eliminate or reduce unwanted or problem behaviors. One type is parent training in behavior management. The therapist works with parents to learn or improve skills to manage their child's behavior.

How can play be used as a form of therapy? ›

Play Therapy helps children in a variety of ways. Children receive emotional support and can learn to understand more about their own feelings and thoughts. Sometimes they may re-enact or play out traumatic or difficult life experiences in order to make sense of their past and cope better with their future.

What are the different types of play? ›

Types of play
  • Physical play. Physical play can include dancing or ball games. ...
  • Social play. By playing with others, children learn how to take turns, cooperate and share. ...
  • Constructive play. Constructive play allows children to experiment with drawing, music and building things. ...
  • Fantasy play. ...
  • Games with rules.

Is play therapy a CBT? ›

Cognitive-behavioral play therapy (CBPT) is an adaptation of CBT designed to be developmentally appropriate for preschool and early school-age children. It was developed by adapting empirically supported techniques for use in a play setting with young children.

Is play therapy a theory? ›

Play therapy is defined as the systematic use of a theoretical model that establishes an interpersonal process, in which trained therapists use the therapeutic power of play to help children prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth.

What is the role of play therapist? ›

Play therapists help children to make sense of difficult life experiences, or complex psychological issues through play.

What is child centered play therapy? ›

CCPT is a developmentally responsive, play-based mental health intervention for young children ages 3 to 10 who are experiencing social, emotional, behavioral and relational disorders.

How do you explain play therapy to a child? ›

Promise fun and play.

Child therapists use play therapy, engaging kids' creativity and imagination. Tell your little ones a therapist will have fun toys and interesting games to teach them. If your child likes to draw or act, make sure the counselor you choose is comfortable incorporating art and drama into sessions.

How do children engage in therapy? ›

  1. Find a good time to talk and assure them that they are not in trouble. ...
  2. Take your child's concerns, experiences, and emotions seriously.
  3. Try to be open, authentic, and relaxed.
  4. Talk about how common the issues they are experiencing may be.
  5. Explain that the role of a therapist is to provide help and support.
17 May 2018

What is play therapy NHS? ›

Play Therapy is seen by referrers as a way of children having the opportunity to access and work on, at their own pace, in a child-centred way, any current or past issues that may compromise their development.

Why is play therapy important to a child? ›

Through play, therapists can help children learn more helpful behaviors, understand their emotions, and gain insight about resolving inner conflicts. Through play therapy children also learn self-control, self respect, to express their feelings, problem solving, communication skills, and to modify problem behaviors.

How many sessions do you need for play therapy? ›

How long does play therapy last? Twelve sessions seems to be the minimum number of sessions for effecting significant and lasting improvement. Sometimes, children and families can make progress in a shorter time frame if they have already worked with the therapist previously.

What are the 4 theories of play? ›

There are at least five distinct theories of play, viz.:
  • Surplus Energy Theory.
  • Re-creative Theory.
  • Anticipatory Theory.
  • Recapitulation Theory.
  • Cathartic Theory.

What is Piaget's play theory? ›

Piaget viewed play as integral to the development of intelligence in children. His theory of play argues that as the child matures, their environment and play should encourage further cognitive and language development.

How did Piaget define play? ›

For Piaget, play was a means by which children could develop and refine concepts before they had the ability to think in the abstract. Play was something that older children who have developed abstract thinking no longer needed.

What are the 7 play types? ›

7 Types of Play & What They Accomplish
  • Science breaks down the types of play. Dr. ...
  • Attunement Play. Attunement play is the early building blocks for all forms of play. ...
  • Body Play & Movement. ...
  • Object Play. ...
  • Social Play. ...
  • Imaginative & Pretend Play. ...
  • Storytelling-Narrative Play. ...
  • Creative Play.

What are the 6 basic types of play? ›

Researcher Mildred Parten identified these six stages of play that children progress through.
Parten's six stages of play
  • Unoccupied play. ...
  • Solitary play. ...
  • Onlooker play. ...
  • Parallel play. ...
  • Associative play. ...
  • Cooperative play.
6 Oct 2015

What ideology is play therapy based on? ›

These approaches are derived from the way toys were used in Anna Freud's theoretical orientation. The idea behind this method is that children will be better able to express their feelings toward themselves and their environment through play with toys than through verbalisation of their feelings.

Does play therapy work with autism? ›

Play therapy is a tool for helping autistic children become more fully themselves. It can also, under the right circumstances, be a tool for helping parents or guardians learn to relate more fully to their children on the spectrum.

What is the effectiveness of play therapy? ›

Research shows that play therapy can be effective in treating a range of issues children face, including abuse, aggressive or acting-out behaviors, anxiety, autism, bedwetting post-toilet training, divorce or separation, grief, reading difficulties, speech difficulties, and phobias.

What does Erikson say about play? ›

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.

What are the core principles of child centered play therapy? ›

The eight guiding principles of play therapy include: 1) forming a warm, friendly, therapeutic alliance with the child, 2) accepting the child, 3) establishing a therapeutic environment that fosters permissiveness, 4) recognizing and reflecting back the feelings the child expresses, 5) recognizing and respecting the ...

Who started play therapy? ›

In 1909 Freud (1955) worked with “Little Hans,” a five-year-old boy demonstrating phobic symptoms. This landmark case is the first recorded use of play in therapy. Freud's student, Klein, initiated therapeutic play methods with children.

How long is a play therapy session? ›

Each play therapy session varies in length but usually last about 30 to 50 minutes. Sessions are usually held weekly. Research suggests that it takes an average of 20 play therapy sessions to resolve the problems of the typical child referred for treatment.

How much does a play therapist earn UK? ›

Salaries for newly qualified play therapists typically start at around £31,000 to £32,000. With experience, you can earn between around £38,000 to £45,000, depending on how much, and the level of, experience you have.

Who do play therapists work with? ›

Play Therapists are skilled professionals, who work with children (and their families) to work through difficult situations and experiences such as bereavement, abuse and neglect, depression and anxiety, family conflicts, psychological issues or other traumatic experiences.

What skills are used in play therapy? ›

Learning alternate ways of expressing troublesome emotions. Developing empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others. Learning new interpersonal skills that can be used with peers or family members. Developing self-efficacy and confidence in their abilities.

What are the components of play therapy? ›

Essential Components
  • Tracking behavior.
  • Reflecting content.
  • Reflecting feeling.
  • Returning responsibility.
  • Facilitating creativity.
  • Esteem-building.
  • Facilitating relationship.
  • Reflecting deeper meaning.

Should parents be present for play therapy? ›

Parents should be involved in their child's therapy process. Parent involvement is a key component of child therapy and makes the process more successful. This is especially true if you have a young child, but it goes for adolescents as well.

Does play therapy help with ADHD? ›

Play therapy appeared to significantly reduce the symptoms of ADHD. The significant differences found between the experimental and control groups indicate that play therapy could be used as an effective treatment method for children with ADHD.

How do you use a dollhouse in play therapy? ›

Therapeutically the dollhouse can be used as an assessment tool either by “free play” assessment, or through more directive means by asking a child to show you their “typical daily schedule beginning with getting up in the morning.” It also has been shown to help to decrease anxiety (Barnett, 1984), and to help ...

What makes a good child therapist? ›

Personal Qualities

You should be compassionate, understanding, patient and able to relate to your patients without talking down to them. A good child psychologist can see and build upon a child's inner strengths and talents.

What GCSE Do you need to be a play therapist? ›

All applicants must have had at least five years' experience of working with children. Entry to degree courses is usually with at least two A levels and five GCSE's (A*-C) or equivalent qualifications. The Diploma in society, health and development may be acceptable for entry.

Why is play therapy used in hospitals? ›

Play can help children and young people in hospitals build resilience which helps them to cope and be better engaged with treatment. Play can help give children their sense of control and autonomy back, which is often lost through illness and hospitalisation. Play can also strengthen family wellbeing and relationships.

What is a Tier 4 bed? ›

CAMHS Tier 4 are specialised services that provide assessment and treatment for children and young people with emotional, behavioural or mental health difficulties. There are four tiers of care.

Who benefits the most from play therapy? ›

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.

What are the benefits of play? ›

Play helps:
  • Relieve stress. ...
  • Improve brain function. ...
  • Stimulate the mind and boost creativity. ...
  • Improve relationships and your connection to others. ...
  • Keep you feeling young and energetic. ...
  • Play helps develop and improve social skills. ...
  • Play teaches cooperation with others. ...
  • Play can heal emotional wounds.

When should you stop playing with therapy? ›

In general, our experts say, it's time to wind down therapy when your treatment goals have been met. That could mean, say, getting the child back in school, reducing symptoms of anxiety or depression, or seeing fewer tantrums.

What do you do at your first play therapy session? ›

The most important thing in this first session is to establish a relationship of trust and an environment of safety. The therapeutic relationship established allows the child to explore themselves and their experiences so that they can create change.

What questions should I ask a play therapist? ›

What kinds of children's mental health issues do you address in your practice? How much experience do you have in treating a child with similar symptoms to my child? What kind of training have you received in treatments that have been proven effective in alleviating some of the symptoms that my child is experiencing?

What are the principles of play way method? ›

Principles of Play-way method

A practical approach helps in easy learning for the child. The complete atmosphere of freedom is conductive for learning. The customized method designed and adopted should suit the needs of the child. Learning methods used should be related to real life rather than books.

What are the characteristics of play way method? ›

The play-way method is a flexible one based on a child's interest and aptitude. It is unplanned and thus encourages complete freedom of expression. This method rules out grading or marking kids based on parameters, say, for example, home assignments.

What is play therapy for autism? ›

Play therapy involves children engaging in play activities of their choice. The play therapy environment gives children with ASD opportunities to express themselves in ways that are most comfortable.

What does the play way method develop in students? ›

As the very name suggests Play Way Method is an activity-based method. It makes learning fun. The child learns, unlearn and relearns on his own. It enhances the emotional quotient as well as the creative skills.

What are the 3 principles of play? ›

order to limit the opponent's attacking options. Retaining team shape. Doing the unexpected.

What were John Dewey's teaching methods? ›

Dewey's methods of teaching are based on the principles of 'learning by doing', activities in connection with the life of the child. In his method, what a child does is the most important thing. In the Project or Problem Method, which Dewey advocated, the child's interests and purposes are the most important things.

What are the principles of play-based learning? ›

But what does “play-based learning” mean and why is it important? To put it simply; children learn through playing. During the act of play children are exploring, taking risks, engaging their imagination, and solving problems. They are learning valuable skills that support social, physical and cognitive development.

What are the 4 theories of play? ›

There are at least five distinct theories of play, viz.:
  • Surplus Energy Theory.
  • Re-creative Theory.
  • Anticipatory Theory.
  • Recapitulation Theory.
  • Cathartic Theory.

What are the five stages of play? ›

As children get older, the way they interact with other people during play will change. These changes are called “stages of play”.
They are:
  • unoccupied.
  • playing alone.
  • onlooker.
  • parallel.
  • associative.
  • cooperative.

What are the 3 forms of early intervention for autism? ›

There are several different interventions based on the principles of ABA. Some examples include Discrete Trial Training (DTT), Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI), Pivotal Response Training (PRT), and Analysis of Verbal Behavior.

What type of therapy is best for autism? ›

The most common developmental therapy for people with ASD is Speech and Language Therapy. Speech and Language Therapy helps to improve the person's understanding and use of speech and language. Some people with ASD communicate verbally.

Does play therapy help with ADHD? ›

Play therapy appeared to significantly reduce the symptoms of ADHD. The significant differences found between the experimental and control groups indicate that play therapy could be used as an effective treatment method for children with ADHD.

What is play way method and its importance? ›

The play-way method is a unique method of learning and can be customized as per the child's interests and requirements. Hence, it may vary from child to child. Teachers should develop different customized learning activities by creating a joyful environment and shall plan the activities ranging from simple to complex.

Why is play way method considered an ideal method? ›

Play way method of learning is a child centric method of learning process. It develops the student's social, mature emotional level and cognitive skills. They gains a self-confidence, to engage in new experiences and environment.

What is activity method? ›

activity method in British English

(ækˈtɪvɪtɪ ˈmɛθəd ) a type of teaching in which students acquire knowledge and understanding by participating in a set of specially designed activities, rather than by passively listening to a teacher. a study of the effects of a reading method vs.


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