Introduction to Play Therapy

What is “Play Therapy?”

We know that talk therapy is an effective form of treatment for adults.  However, children don't always benefit from conventional talk therapy the way adults do – especially young children.  As you can imagine, children lack the vocabulary and mature brain development that adults have, which can lead them to have difficulty expressing themselves and understanding their feelings.  

In order to better meet the unique needs children have for therapeutic engagement, researchers and clinicians teamed up to create “Play Therapy,” which is an empirically supported model of therapy founded on principles and tenets of developmental child therapy theory.  In practice, your play therapist creates an open, trusting, and supportive relationship with your child, and your child (through art, music, and play) shares their “world” with the therapist – their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  In a counseling office, toys, games and activities are used to represent words and play therapy clinicians are trained to engage in with the child to understand what they have difficulty saying with words. Children and therapists alike can use dolls, puppets, paints, or other toys to allow children the opportunity to work through, heal, and move past the difficult times in their lives.

With the therapeutic relationship established and in a supportive environment, your play therapist validates your child’s experiences while simultaneously fostering your child’s insight and awareness, which culminates in the development of new skills, adaptive coping strategies, and more collaborative relationships with the people in your child’s life.

Who can provide play therapy for my child?

As with all therapies, only a trained professional should be providing this service.  Therapists with the "Registered Play Therapist" or "RPT" credential has gone through additional and extensive training to become certified by the Association for Play Therapy.

How do I pick a therapist?

Therapists have many different levels of education and expertise.  If you're seeking a mental health professional for yourself or your child, you may want to ask the following questions to be able to determine if this is a good fit for your family:

  • What training have you received to be a mental health professional?
  • Have you ever received formal education regarding working with children? 
  • Have you ever received formal education on play therapy? Are you a Registered Play Therapist? 

When does a child need therapy?

One of the hardest things about being a parent is knowing when to find help for your child.  Children often do not know themselves that they need help or how to ask for it.  Instead, as children have trouble adapting to changes in their life, in their relationships, or in themselves, they might start “acting out” in a way that can be seen in their behaviors and emotions.  At school, this might look like a lack of motivation, falling grades, or difficulty in their relationships with their friends or teachers.  At home, your child might appear withdrawn or more argumentative. Generally, if you or your child's teacher or pediatrician is concerned about your child, play therapy might be appropriate for your family.  

How to I talk to my child about play therapy?

It's a wonderful idea to prepare your child for play therapy.  You can let them know that they will be coming each week to play in the playroom with an adult who wants to help them learn how to take care of their feelings. You can reassure them that it can help children to have someone special to talk and play with.

What information should I tell the therapist to help make treatment effective?

Therapists understand that you, the parent, are the expert in regard to your child.  Your therapist is a partner in helping your child's emotional health.  In this collaborative relationship, it is very important for you to report events to the therapist directly.  Even if you're not sure that an event in question is pertinent to counseling, it's always a good idea to call the therapist and talk out the event.

Can I ask my child about his or her therapy session?

It can be tempting to ask your child "what they learned" immediately after session.  However, it is important to maintain your child’s privacy around their sessions, and your therapist will work with you to find out what kind of information should and should not be shared after sessions.  Of course, your child’s safety is your therapist’s number one concern, and so parents will always be informed by the therapist if anything came up in session relating to the child’s safety or any other vital information.