When is Play Therapy Used?

Play therapy has developed as a therapeutic approach since the early 20th century and encompasses a number of different treatment methods to help children or developmentally delayed individuals to address and resolve problems. By using familiar play activities as therapeutic tools, patients can build communication skills that help them to express their feelings in age-appropriate ways, relate to others, and better understand the world around them. Additional outcomes can include improving positive behaviors and developing better problem-solving skills that lead to increased confidence and self-esteem.

Who Uses Play Therapy?

Professionals engaging in therapeutic play may work with clients across a broad range of settings including social work agencies, hospitals, private practices, community organizations, public schools or health care facilities. Though primarily associated with use in children’s therapy, individuals that benefit from therapeutic play can be of any age as long as activities are developmentally appropriate. For example, very young children may open up about their feelings when engaged in imaginative play using dolls while teens might respond more freely when playing a casual, recreational game. While therapeutic play originated with mental health experts from a counseling perspective, its use has been adopted by other professionals such as speech-language pathologists who use play techniques to increase receptive and expressive language skills in clients with communication disorders.

When is Therapeutic Play Used?

In counseling situations, therapeutic play enables clients to naturally communicate unspoken feelings stemming from emotional, physical or traumatic experiences. Play techniques can relax individuals and make them feel safer to identify problems and communicate their behaviors or viewpoints. After evaluation, registered play therapists decide which techniques most appropriately suit the client’s developmental age and situation. Various play approaches work better for some clients than others, so it is important that counselors have a broad scope of techniques from which to choose. Therapeutic play can help those coping with family instability, serious illness of self or a loved one, bullying, abuse, eating or attachment disorders, substance problems, or any number of issues that influence overall wellness and quality of life.

What Play Activities Can be Used in Therapy?

The range of therapeutic play techniques continues to expand as mental health experts become more experienced and share successful practices. Traditional therapeutic play includes these approaches:

  • Creative visualization
  • Role playing, drama and storytelling
  • Masks and puppets
  • Sand tray activities
  • Art, drawing and clay sculpting
  • Music, dance and movement

An important part of therapeutic play is the use of filial therapy, which involves training parents, caregivers or teachers how to use basic play techniques at home and school. By so doing, the individual receives wrap-around services in meaningful settings that can enhance behavioral improvement.

As awareness continues to spread about the effectiveness of therapeutic play for people across the lifespan, more institutions of higher learning are providing master’s and doctoral degrees in this area. In addition to advanced studies, candidates also complete 150 hours of supervised clinical training in the field of mental health using therapeutic play techniques. At the conclusion of their program, graduates will then be eligible to earn credentials from the Association for Play Therapy as registered play therapists or therapist-supervisors.