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What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a form of therapy that is primarily geared toward children. During play therapy, a therapist encourages the child to explore life events that may have an effect on the child’s current circumstances, in a manner and pace that the child chooses and is comfortable with. This is done primarily through play, but also through language. This type of therapy can help individuals communicate, explore repressed thoughts and emotions, address unresolved trauma, and experience personal growth. Play therapy is viewed as an important, effective, and developmentally-appropriate mental health treatment.

Play is considered to be especially important for the healthy development of children who have experienced stressful events or past trauma. While the effects of trauma tend to reside in the nonverbal areas of the brain (such as the hippocampus, amygdala, thalamus, and brain stem), a person’s capacity to communicate and process adverse issues resides in the brain’s frontal lobes. As a result, children affected by trauma may find it difficult to let other people know that they need help. The physical and role-playing activities associated with play therapy have proven to be very beneficial in helping to move traumatic memories and sensations from the nonverbal brain areas to the frontal lobes where children can start to express their needs.

Who does Play Therapy help?

mother and young son

Children who experience difficult personal issues often act out or engage in inappropriate behavior, and play therapy can help work through these issues. Though the approach may benefit people of all ages, it is specially designed to treat children younger than 12. Typically, play therapy sessions last for 30-45 minutes.

What happens during Play Therapy?

During a session, a therapist will create a comfortable, safe environment in which the child is allowed to play with as few limitations as possible. This counseling space is equipped with a selection of specifically chosen toys that are meant to encourage the child to express his or her feelings and develop healthier behaviors. The child’s interactions with these toys essentially serves as the child’s symbolic words. This allows the therapist to learn about specific thoughts and emotions that a child may have difficulty expressing verbally.

Toys used in therapy may include a sandbox with associated miniature figurines, art materials, LEGO®/other construction toys, costumes/other clothing, stuffed animals, dolls, a dollhouse with miniature furniture, puppets, indoor sports equipment, and other indoor games. The therapist may also incorporate the use of tools and techniques such as clay, therapeutic storytelling, music, dance and movement, drama/role play, and other arts and crafts activities.

How does Play Therapy help?

Play therapy may benefit a child in a variety of ways such as: encouraging creativity, promoting healing from traumatic events, recognizing and practicing the expression of emotions, encouraging the development of positive decision-making skills, introducing new ways of thinking and behaving, learning problem-solving skills, developing better social skills, and facilitating the communication of personal problems or concerns.