What Is Play Therapy?

As far back as Aristotle and Plato, humans have recognized the importance of play and its many benefits to children and adults. The act of play can be an extremely important part of the brain development of a human. Play allows children to develop and use their creative capabilities in order to better develop their imagination and dexterity alongside their cognitive, physical, and emotional strength.

Additionally, play also creates an excellent opportunity for parents to engage with their children. Even as adults, play has an important role in elevating our moods and spirits while brightening our outlooks on life. Play also helps to expand self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization, and self-efficacy while relieving stress and boredom.

Play helps connect people in a positive way, stimulates creative thinking and exploration, regulates our emotions, and boosts our ego. As if all that were not enough, play even allows for the practice and learning of skills and roles needed for survival. 

With all these benefits to play, it can be very easy to see how the concept of play therapy has come into existence. While talking with a therapist can be greatly beneficial, play therapy opens up all kinds of new creative avenues for a therapist and patient to connect.

What Is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy counseling in which play is used as the primary means of expression and communication between the patient and the therapist. Although play therapy is most commonly used as a method to treat children, adults can benefit from its methods as well. 

When dealing with children specifically, a trained therapist will use playtime to observe and gain valuable insights into a child’s mind and thought process. The therapist can use various forms of play to help the child to explore complex emotions and deal with unresolved issues and trauma. Through play, these children can begin to learn new mechanisms for coping and how to improve and redirect inappropriate behavior. 

Play therapy is a great way to build on the natural way that a child learns about themselves and their relationships to the world around them. Children engaging in play therapy will learn better ways to communicate with others, express their feelings more effectively, modify behaviors positively and develop problem-solving skills. 

By creating a world that’s a safe psychological distance away from their problems, play therapy allows for an unlimited expression of thoughts and feelings for a child that can greatly influence mental health development. Play therapy is used by a wide variety of mental health professionals such as psychologists and psychiatrists but is also practiced by behavioral, occupational, and physical therapists. Social workers have been known to use play as well when dealing with children in their career. 

How Does Play Therapy Work?

Attempting to communicate with a child can be an extremely difficult task for an adult. Between the age of the child and the current development stage, their ability to communicate and language skills will not be enough to effectively convey complex thoughts and emotions. While they may think or feel something, they may typically be unable to express or explain themselves to an adult. 

Through play, a child will learn to better understand the world and their specific place in it. They are free to act out their feelings and emotions while playing, and even the toys used can take on greater meaning as symbols. By joining in their world, a therapist can bring themselves to an equal level with the child. As a child plays, they will often become less guarded and more inclined to share their feelings. Using their own methods of communication and on their own time, they can better express their thoughts and feelings. 

The exact details of play therapy will vary significantly based on the therapist and the needs of the child. After an introductory period that will often include witnessing the child at play and interviews with the child, parents, and other individuals in the child’s life, a therapist will set goals for the therapy and decide on potential limits and a detailed plan. 

A key factor of play therapy is how the child will handle being separated from their parents, how they play by themselves, and their reaction when the parents return. The ways that a child interacts with their toys is important as well as the nature of the play itself. The child may be using it to play out fears or anxieties, as a way of soothing and coping, or as a way to problem-solve. Based on all these observations, a play therapist will continue to reassess their evaluations and goals, altering them as necessary during treatment. 

Who Is Play Therapy For?

People of all ages can benefit from play therapy, but typically the age range best suited is between toddlers and adolescents or roughly 3 years old to 12 years old.  Play therapy is used to help treat children of these ages in several different circumstances such as:

  • Behavior problems in school or at home
  • Aggressive or angry behavior
  • Family issues such as divorce, separation, or death
  • Medical procedures or chronic illness
  • Developmental delays or learning disabilities
  • Traumatic events 
  • Domestic abuse, violence, or neglect
  • Anxiety, depression, or grief
  • Eating and toilet disorders
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder 

What Are Some Play Therapy Techniques? 

Most play therapy sessions are held once a week, lasting from about 30 to 60 minutes. These specifics, along with the total number of sessions, will change based upon the needs of the child and the observations of the therapist. 

Play therapy has two different approaches, which are directive or nondirective. Directive will mean the therapist takes the lead by specifying toys and games to be used in the session. Nondirective is less structured and allows the child to choose the toys and games while playing in their own free way with limited interruptions or instructions. 

The therapist will either observe closely or participate at their discretion. Some of the more common techniques used in play therapy include: 

  • Roleplaying
  • Storytelling
  • Dolls and action figures
  • Puppets, stuffed animals, and masks
  • Arts and crafts
  • Sand and water play
  • Creative visualization
  • Building block and construction toys
  • Dance and creative movement
  • Musical play

What Are the Benefits of Play Therapy?

A recent study by the professional organization Play Therapy International suggests that 71% of children referred to play therapy will display positive changes. These changes may take some time to develop as the bond and trust between the child and therapist grow, but these are some of the potential benefits for a child in play therapy:

  • Taking more responsibility for behaviors
  • Developing new and creative solutions for problems
  • Developing acceptance and respect for self and others
  • Learning to experience and express emotions in a healthy way
  • Developing empathy and respect for the thoughts and feelings of others
  • Learning and cultivating new social skills
  • Alleviating anxiety

Can Adults Use Play Therapy?

Just like the concept of play itself, play therapy is not just for children.  Adults can undertake play therapy as well. Although most adults would probably prefer the traditional methods of therapy, there are some cases where play therapy could end up being more beneficial for them. 

When working with adults, a play therapist will commonly use dramatic role-playing as a way to help their patients get in touch with feelings that may be too difficult to talk about. They may also use games, art, and crafts, or music and dance as a way to better help their patient relax and decrease stress before a talk session. Adults that could benefit more from play therapy are any that are affected by:

  • Unresolved childhood issues
  • Anger management issues
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Dementia
  • Substance abuse
  • Trauma and physical abuse
  • Chronic illness

The Takeaway

Play therapy is a popular method of psychotherapy used to better help a therapist connect with their patients through the act of play. Although most commonly used on children, adults can see great benefits as well. 

Play is one of the most important factors in the development of the human brain. This action helps a child to learn so much about themselves and the world around them. In the world of therapy, play can be used as a communication tool to help offer insight into the mind of a child or the adult undertaking the therapy. 

Talking with a licensed therapist in the traditional form of therapy is an effective way to verbally exchange information on thoughts and feelings, but play is a wonderful option when nonverbal is the only path. Children and some adults have very difficult times expressing themselves with words alone, but with actions and play they are able to find their voice, in a sense, and express their feelings and thoughts to the therapist and themselves. 


  1. Play Therapy: What Is It, How It Works, and Techniques (healthline.com) 
  2. Play Therapy Makes a Difference (a4pt.org)
  3. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds (pediatrics.aappuclications.org)
  4. Play Therapy – How does therapeutic play work? (playtherapy.org) 
author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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