Play Therapy: Speaking the Language of Children

Graphic depicting a puppet show in action.

“Play energizes and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.”
—Stuart Brown, MD, Contemporary American psychiatrist

Play is an essential part of the human experience. It creates joy, fosters imagination and encourages learning, among a host of other benefits. Play therapy harnesses these qualities to help individuals, often children, navigate challenges, develop necessary skills and build emotional resilience.

How It Works

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) explains that play is a crucial experience for overall happiness and well-being. Play can:

  • Increase one’s ability for self-expression, self-knowledge and self-actualization
  • Build positive connections between people
  • Encourage creativity and exploration
  • Relieve stress
  • Alleviate boredom
  • Help people rehearse skills and roles necessary for survival
  • Encourage learning
  • Regulate emotions

Children communicate with play far before they develop the capacity to do so with words. Play therapy therefore allows counselors to meet their clients at a developmentally appropriate level and gives those patients a more effective means of self-expression. When play therapy is successful, it can:

  • Teach adaptive behaviors and help modify troublesome patterns
  • Encourage children to develop problem-solving skills
  • Teach children how to successfully connect with others
  • Help individuals more fully express feelings

Psychology Today describes two main types of play therapy:

Nondirective Play Therapy

This type is defined by minimal direction from practitioners. Through observation, therapists gain general insight into a child’s feelings and issues. It also gives children the opportunity to find solutions to their own problems.

Directive Play Therapy

This type requires an increased amount of input and structure. Therapists direct the course of play and encourage clients to take part in certain activities. Direct play can teach children specific skills and help them work toward established goals.

Types of play that may occur during sessions include:

  • Assessment play
  • Expressive arts
  • Bibliotherapy
  • Sand tray therapy
  • Imaginary play

Filial therapy, or the inclusion of parents in treatment, is a particularly prominent method of play therapy. This type emphasizes the importance of building parent-child relationships and encourages parents to actively play with their children during sessions.

Who Can Benefit From Play Therapy?

Play therapy is most often used with children, particularly those who are very young. Clients as young as 2 may benefit. However, any individuals who have difficulty fully expressing themselves may find value in the practice. Counselors often use play therapy with early adolescents and even with adults who find verbal expression difficult.

As a treatment method, play therapy has proven effective with a number of psychological issues, including:

  • Aggression
  • Attention deficit
  • Destructive behavior
  • Anxiety and other emotional disorders
  • Coping with difficult home environments
  • Grief and loss
  • Trauma
  • Developmental delays

The practice offers timely developmental benefits and encourages improvement in multiple areas of life.

How Play Therapy Can Help

Play therapy produces a great deal of positive outcomes. It offers children feelings of control, confidence, competence and safety. It may also encourage:

  • Better academic performance
  • Improved social skills
  • Healthier attachments with others
  • Increased self-concept
  • Feelings of inclusion and acceptance
  • Successful connections with peers and other important individuals in children’s lives

Counselors who help facilitate these changes make a difference in the lives of children every day. Undertaking play therapy is an exciting and rewarding career choice.

Additional Sources: Utah Play Therapy, Social Work Today 

Making Play Therapy Your Career

Earning credentials in play therapy requires a significant amount of education and experience. Those considering the field must earn at least a master’s degree in a mental health field and complete additional play therapy education, as well as supervised field experience. However, for those willing to do the work, this career is an exceptionally rewarding choice.

Students interested in pursuing play therapy can benefit from the online BSW degree completion program and the online MSW offered at Brescia University. No matter where they are in their careers, students receive a relevant and flexible education that prepares them for success.  Brescia University was ranked one of the best online colleges in 2017.