While adults generally communicate through language, kids,
until the age of about 12, use play instead of words. In the words of Garry
Landreth, Founder of the Center for Play Therapy, "The toys are the words and
the play is the language."
To facilitate the child's language of play, therapists
generally have a large stash of toys and figures clients can play with that are often set up in a separate playroom. Many offices also have tools for sand
play as well as a bevy of art supplies.
Who is play therapy
Generally, play therapy is appropriate for kids age 3 through 12.
What are signs that a
child could benefit from play therapy?
A play therapist can provide a safe place for the child to let out some of their big feelings.
If a child is having behavioral difficulties that are
disruptive in school or at home, it might be time to consider play therapy.
Similarly, if a family is experiencing a divorce, death, serious illness or
other stressful situations, a play therapist can provide a safe place for the
child to let out some of their big feelings. Play therapy is also appropriate
for a child who has witnessed or experienced a traumatic event.
Emily Van Cannon, LCPC-C, LADC at Heart Stone Counseling in
Portland, Maine, says, "Play therapy provides an opportunity for a child who has
experienced trauma to rewrite the trauma narrative. During this process, the
child might come to perceive her experience differently, (and experience it as)
one where she has strength, power and resilience. This can have very positive
What happens during
How a child chooses to express her feelings of mad, sad, scared and happy is never dictated by the therapist, and all feelings are acceptable.
Play therapy is usually child-led, meaning the child might
pick a toy or an activity that they're drawn to.
Van Cannon says, "Some children have a great deal of
emotional energy that manifests in their body. Play therapy is a safe place to release this physical and emotional
energy." She explains that while in session, kids can yell, throw balls or
punch pillows. "How a child chooses to express her feelings of mad, sad, scared
and happy is never dictated by the therapist, and all feelings are acceptable,"
According to SeattlePlayTherapy.com, the therapist might
reflect on how the child is interacting with toys. They may also notice the
child's emotions, in lieu of asking direct questions.
In addition to playing alongside the client, some therapists
will also work with a child on techniques for dealing with difficult emotions.
For instance, a therapist might teach breathing exercises to a kid who
struggles with emotional regulation.
What is the parent or
While it varies depending on the therapist and the
situation, parents are generally involved but not present for the entire
session. Some therapists will reserve occasional sessions to work solely with
the parents on parenting techniques or to discuss the parents' concerns about
"I choose to work with the parents a great deal, especially
if the child is young," says Van Cannon. Often, a parent will be present for a
portion of the session, then wait outside until the session is over. This
allows the parent to be a part of the process, while also giving the child
space to have their own relationship with the therapist. "The dynamic of play
can change when the parent is out of the room; some children feel more free to
express certain feelings without a parent closely observing them and asking
questions about their play," Van Cannon explains.
Interestingly, parents are usually asked to not pepper their
child with questions after their session. Instead of asking how it went,
parents are advised to say something like, "We can go home now." This gives the
child room to have his or her experience, and also offers a sense of privacy.