Play Therapy: Questions and Answers from a Registered Play Therapist Supervisor
Chances are, if you have found this page, you may be considering Play Therapy for a child in your life. Or, a child in your life is already engaged in Play Therapy and you are seeking a greater understanding of what it is and how to better support them. Or maybe, you are simply seeking to know more about Play Therapy and how it works.
Regardless of what brought you here, welcome! We are glad you found us! This blog will be a helpful introduction and will address some of the most common questions about Play Therapy!
What is Play Therapy?
According to the Association for Play Therapy, Play Therapy is defined 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” (Apt, 2023).
What this means is that, Play Therapy is an evidenced based treatment that assists children and their families in emotional expression, enhancing communication, and problem solving through a child’s natural language of play.
During Play Therapy, a therapist uses toys and games to help the child safely explore, express, and experience the difficult life events they may be working through. Because the child is engaged in play, rather than verbal communication, the therapist is able to support the child in exploring thoughts and feelings that the child may not be able to verbalize.
Play Therapy is most applicable for children between the ages of 4-12 years of age and their families.
How Does Play Therapy Work?
During play therapy, the therapist will utilize a variety of carefully selected toys to ensure the child has access to the tools they need to express their thoughts and feelings. Most children under the age of 10 lack the abstract verbal reasoning skills necessary to share their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs through direct communication, making Play Therapy the most developmentally appropriate way to approach therapy.
Dr. Garry Landreth captured this beautifully when he stated, that:
“In the Play Therapy experience, the toys are like the child’s words and play is their language.”
Dr. Garry Landreth
The goal of play therapy is to help children develop new ways to process previous trauma or solve problems. To do this, Play Therapy focuses on the relationships and experiences that can create positive changes within the brain. As children utilize the playroom to explore their difficult thoughts and feelings, the therapist utilizes the therapeutic relationship to help regulate the child’s emotions. This makes structural changes in the brain, which lead to enhanced understanding of the difficult events and more positively adaptive behaviors.
Think of it like this – the brain is plastic, which means that it is changing constantly. In our brain, we have synapses, which are a part of the circuit that connects our sensory organs. From a physical standpoint, these synapses are what connects the thought of wanting to move our arm to the physical action of actually moving our arm. These synapses also play a vital role in the formation of memories. When we have experiences that do not match what our body experienced to happen – our brain synapses create new learning experiences. When these disconfirming experiences happen in the play room, when the therapist has helped the child regulate their emotional state, the brain is open to new learning.
For example, if a child has previously experienced somatic symptoms of anxiety (stomachaches, headaches, etc.) as they discuss a traumatic event, play therapy can allow the child to work through the traumatic event without feeling the same physical symptoms because the child is experiencing different sensations during play. Overtime, with repeated play therapy sessions, the child’s brain will rewire the synapses and create a new understanding of anxiety.
What types of problems does Play Therapy Address?
Play Therapy is an effective treatment for a variety of presenting issues including behavioral problems at home or school, anger management, divorce, family separation, foster and adoptive families, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and crisis and trauma experiences. Play Therapy can also assist with social and academic developmental delays, conduct disorders, and issues associated with grief and loss. Additionally, Play Therapy can be beneficial in strengthening family relationships.
What Will My First Session Look like?
The first session is known as an intake session. Prior to this session, you will be asked to provide your insurance information and complete some paperwork which gives the therapist permission to meet with you and your child. During this session, the therapist will meet with the client and the parent together to discuss general information and history about the child and family. You will have an opportunity to discuss your goals for therapy and share some strengths of your child. This session will typically not be a play session, as the therapist will have several questions to ask you so that they will know how to best support your child in future sessions.
What Happens During a Play Therapy Session?
After the initial intake session, the therapist will discuss a treatment plan for your child. You will discuss the goals that you have for your child as well as how often your child will meet with the therapist. Typically, play therapy sessions occur every week and last 45-60 minutes.
During their sessions, your child will be able to play and have fun. It is important to understand that children will see these sessions as a time to play, and while not all sessions are fun and lighthearted, the general process is designed to support your child in processing their thoughts and feelings in a nonthreatening manner.
During some sessions, children will be able to explore the playroom freely. This is known as non-direct play therapy. During other sessions, the therapist may engage in directive play therapy, in which they select or suggest some specific games or activities for the session. During their play, the therapist is focused on helping the children heal by accepting their emotions, creating feelings of trust and self-confidence, and learning positive coping.
Outside of the child’s individual sessions, the therapist will often meet individually with parents to provide information about the child’s session, explore progress towards goals, and provide additional support.
How can I help my child be successful in Play Therapy?
Play therapy is a slower process than most parents would like it to be. You can help support your child during this time by respecting the process and keeping realistic expectations.
It is common that behaviors will get worse before they get better. You can support your child by not pressuring them to make progress in therapy. Avoid asking questions after their sessions, as feeling the need to report back to you can cause children to lose focus in the playroom as they worry about having to be “good” for you.
Children may need some time to decompress after their sessions and may benefit from having some time to engage in a pleasant activity of their choice after their session. It is also important to recognize that your child’s work in therapy may be difficult for you, as it may trigger difficult thoughts and feelings about previous traumas or current problems. We often encourage caregivers to seek their own therapy with another provider while their child receives Play Therapy.
How will my child’s progress be communicated to me?
It is important to understand that the therapist will not be providing play-by-play updates of the child’s therapy session. At times, parents may simply be told that the session went “well” with little other information. However, the therapist will update you about the themes and patterns they are noticing in your child’s play. It is hard to feel as if you are on the sidelines during Play Therapy, but this allows the child to play without the feeling of parental expectations. You can always ask to speak more with your child’s therapist if you have questions or concerns about the therapy or behaviors happening outside of the office. Therapists are happy to help and talk through the therapy process with you!
How do I get my child enrolled in Play Therapy?
Heart and Solutions is excited to offer play therapy! Families can complete a referral form for services by calling our administrative department at 1-800-531-4236 or through our website at www.heartandsolutions.net
For Play Therapists looking for CEUs, join us over on You Need a Training for monthly live webinars and a library of recorded trainings.
Written by Colleen Grote on February 23, 2023.
Dr. Colleen Grote is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and a Registered Play Therapist Supervisor (RPT-S). Colleen is the Heart and Solutions’ vice president in charge of the therapy department. Colleen joined the Heart and Solutions’ team in 2015. Colleen completed her PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision with a focus on trauma and crisis response from Walden University. Previously, Colleen attended Iowa State University where she received her B.S. in Psychology. Colleen also attended Western Illinois University where she earned her Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Colleen uses a variety of approaches to work with children as young as age 3 and their families. Colleen uses a variety of therapeutic approaches in her work which include trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, and EMDR. Colleen has a passion for working with survivors of physical and sexual abuse, individuals who are in adoptive or foster care settings, and children and families who have endured other traumatic events or difficult life adjustments.