What is Play Therapy?

By Stephanie Camins – MA, LPC 

verified by Psychology Today

Play therapy is to children what counseling is to adults. When adults have problems it often helps if they can share their thoughts and feelings with a therapist or a trusted friend. Children don’t have the cognitive ability to express themselves with words like adults do, so it is difficult for them to “talk” about things that worry or bother them. Play therapy allows children to communicate through play, their most natural form of expression, learning and developing. The play therapist strives to understand the metaphorical content of a child’s play and to help the child express their needs and discover solutions in a safe, therapeutic environment. The toys in the playroom and the relationship established with the therapist offer children the opportunity to use the power of their own natural creativity and imagination to heal and grow.

Play therapy allows the child to create a world they can master, practice social skills, overcome frightening feelings, and symbolically triumph over minor upsets as well as traumas that have stolen their sense of well being.

Who may benefit from play therapy?

In the process of growing up, many children experience difficulty coping at some time. Although many childhood upsets are healed without therapy, play therapy offers children a natural, safe, and non intrusive method to hasten recovery from common distressing events as well as major traumas, or to simply enhance the self esteem of the child.

Play therapy can be helpful for children who:

  • Demonstrate emotional distress such as excessive anger, anxiety, fear, sadness or shyness, have low self-esteem or talk about not wanting to live.
  • Exhibit physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches which have no medical cause.
  • Exhibit problem behaviors which are immature for the child’s age, interfere with making friends, or are difficult to manage at home. These can include tantrums, defiance, and/or problems with eating, sleeping or elimination.
  • Experience stressful events such as:
    • Death, illness, or injury of a family member
    • Divorce or separation of parents
    • Additions to the family including new siblings, remarriage and blended families
    • Natural disasters or catastrophic events
    • Chronic illness or hospitalization
    • Family conflict and violence
    • Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
    • School anxiety
    • Separation anxiety
    • Disruptions in normal functioning
    • Social difficulties

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