Since the development of play therapy, there has been a great deal of mystery surrounding what play therapy really is. Even though play therapy was developed over 60 years ago, and has been an effective clinical therapy for children, for many people, it has been a great struggle to understand why and/or how play therapy is effective. Over the last decade, research has shown that children communicate primarily through their behavior and secondarily through their play (Goodyear-Brown, 2010). With that in mind, play therapy is a therapy model which was created from the understanding that play is both a form of communication and a reflection of how the child processes the world around them. This is a structured and theoretically based approach to therapy that builds on the normal communicative and learning processes of children (Carmicahel, 2006; Landreth, 2002; O’Conner & Schafer, 1983). One of the myths about play therapy is that it is “an expensive play time for kids;” however, one of the main ways human beings learn is through emulation (mimicking the actions of the adults around them), and in order to solidify that emulation, children incorporate, try out, and experiment with the social interactions they are seeing in the world around them through play.
Research has shown that prior to the development of abstract reasoning and verbal expression, children from birth do have: emotions, thinking, and behaviors through which they are interpreting and responding to the world around them. As one researcher put it, “For children, toys are their words, and play is their conversation” (Carmicahel, 2006). Play therapy allows trained mental health practitioners, who specialize in play therapy, to assess and interpret children’s play language (Association of Play Therapy, 2015). Play in the confines of the therapy room provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their development (Association of Play Therapy, 2015). Even the most troubling problems can be confronted in play therapy and lasting resolutions can also be discovered, rehearsed, mastered and adapted into lifelong strategies (Russ, 2004).
The play therapy room opens up a world for children to begin to express how they see the world around them through the toys they pick out. The child therapist aims to help children to process what they are experiencing and to help identify the emotions connected to their experiences. Children can become stuck in their emotional processing, just as adults can. Due to their lack of abstract processing children can become struck easier than adults. With that in mind, the goals of a play therapist are to assist children in: 1) becoming aware of and learning to appropriately express their feelings; 2) managing their anger; 3) improving self-control; 4) reducing fear, anxiety, and/or depression; 5) increasing self-empowerment; and 6) enhancing problem solving skills. Although, play therapy is system of engaging a child in the way they interpret and process the world around them, it is also a broad umbrella of many different types and techniques.
The philosophy of nondirective play therapy is that children are able to direct their own process. Nondirect play therapists believe that as human beings, children, although on a less developed process than adults, can lead their own emotional processing. Of the two primary types, this is the one which places the therapist in the least directive role with children as they play. The idea is for the therapist to enter the child’s world as seen through their language of play. Over sessions, the therapist is looking for themes from the child’s world to emerge which express insights into the child’s experiences, perceptions, emotions, and interpretations of the world as they see it.
In the safe, free, and protected space of the play therapy room, (or the child’s home) children are able to work through deeper emotional fears, scars, wounds, and experiences. Within the play therapy room, children are given the permission to express themselves in whatever way is comfortable to them. Since they are not required to answer questions, they have more freedom to avoid feeling ashamed or scared due to reliving situations they originally did not feel they had any power over when they were experiencing them. One of the reasons why play therapy is believed to work so well is because children under 11 lack the developed ability of abstract thinking (Goodyear-Brown, P., 2010); rather, children rely on the world of play to express themselves and process their own emotions and perceptions with the therapist present.
More directive, or structured play therapy, was first developed by Anna Freud and Melanie Klein. They used therapy with children in a very directed way. Since then, and with the development of other counseling approaches, directive play therapy has changed and developed. These changes have included techniques and interventions from: cognitive behavioral therapy, metaphoric approaches (i.e. sand trays), bibliotherapy, art therapy, role plays, games, letter writing, directive play therapy using toys, puppets, clay, and guided activities. It is more common to see directive therapy used with junior high and high school students because they can more easily think in an abstract manner and are further along in their development of a defined self. Directive therapy helps clients to specifically focus on certain areas they may be struggling to overcome. For instance, problems at home, school, working through transitions, grief and loss, trauma, etc.
Combined Play Therapy
At times, although not common, the play therapist may even use a combination of both types of play therapy. For instance, while a therapist may be using indirect play therapy with a child, a problem at home or school may suddenly develop. The therapist may switch to direct play therapy, such as through the use of a doll house, in order to assist a child in talking about a specific situation and the emotions they are experiencing at that particular time.
Child and Parent
This form of play therapy involves having the parent within the play therapy room. The therapist and parent may be visiting as the child plays. The child may come up to the parent at different times, or they may suddenly do something which is out of the norm. The therapist is looking for these moments to engage the parent in a conversation about what normally happens within the dynamics of their home. This style of play therapy can bring up openings for the therapist to learn about things such as: deeper issues within the family, within a child or parent’s life, or specific dynamics within the home. Child/ parent play therapy allows for the therapist to engage, coach, and direct different types of parenting engagements between the parent and the child
Within the world of play therapy, it is widely debated as to which form is more effective. Both types have strengths and weaknesses, and both types of play therapy have proven effective with a multitude of diagnosis such as: ADHD, ADD, conduct disorder, PTSD, emotionally disturbed, grief and loss, anger issues, depression, trauma, etc. Currently, it is one of the main effective modalities for counseling children in foster care. What is known about both directive and non-directive play therapy is that to be effective, play therapy takes between 30 – 40 sessions.
Association of Play Therapy (2015.). Play therapy makes a difference. Retrieved from:
Carmichael, K. D. (2006). Play therapy: An introduction. Glenview, IL: Prentice Hall.
Goodyear-Brown, P. (2010). Play therapy with traumatized children: a prescriptive approach. Hoboken, NJ: Jon Wiley & Sons Inc.
Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship. New York, NY: Brunner-Ruttledge.
O’Connor K. J., Schaefer C. E. (1983). Handbook of play therapy. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Russ, S. W. (2004). In child development and psychotherapy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.