What is Play Therapy?

What is Play TherapyPlay therapy, or PT, is a specific type of therapeutic approach in the mental health field. Though PT may be used for adults, it is a psychotherapeutic approach most commonly used for children. Possibly one of the most rewarding and enjoyable therapeutic techniques, this type of therapy involves few rules or limits during actual playtime with the client. Interested in learning more about this exciting line of therapy work? Read on as we cover the basics of PT, including how it’s utilized, who it’s for, and commonly used tools and resources.

Therapeutic Play: The Basics

What exactly is PT or therapeutic play? The Association for Play Therapy (APT), the official authority on this branch of therapy, states “Child play therapy is a way of being with the child that honors their unique developmental level and looks for ways of helping in the ‘language’ of the child – play. Licensed mental health professionals therapeutically use play to help their clients, most often children ages three to 12 years, to better express themselves and resolve their problems.”

PT therapy, as briefly mentioned, typically involves few rules or limits for the child. How long are the sessions? Most commonly they are about 30-50 minutes long. As opposed to a lot of discussions or verbal interaction, PT simply involves play, in the hope that a child will feel free to both explore their lives and express their thoughts and emotions through toys, art, etc. The overall goal of PT is to teach children (or help them learn) to express themselves and their emotions in healthy ways, learn how to demonstrate respect and empathy, and discover new, healthier ways to solve encountered problems. 

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Who should receive play therapy? 

Though play therapy can be used for any age, it is more commonly used for the younger demographic referenced by the ATP (3-12 years). It can also be helpful for therapy with developmentally delayed or challenged clients (regardless of age).

Children who (likely) benefit most from play therapy usually struggle with one of the following challenges: behavioral problems or disorders or developmental delay. It may also be used as an initial approach by a therapist, usually at a first appointment in order to establish comfort and trust with the client. In some circumstances, play therapy may also be used for children after a suspected or confirmed trauma.

How much does it cost?

As with all medical costs, this is an estimate. Insurance coverage, the length of session, specific therapist fees, therapy location, and the age and complications of the child may all affect therapy costs (as well as other factors). A rough estimate for a 50-minute session is about $150 – $200. 

How Is it Done?

We’ve covered the basics now on who, when, and why with regard to this fun-centered therapy method. Now let’s take a look at how the therapeutic play process is carried out. As with most therapies, the parameters here can be quite diverse. However, nearly all forms of PT fall under one of two approaches: the non-directive approach or the directive approach.

Non-Directive Approach to Play Therapy

The non-directive play approach is referred to professionally by several names – psychodynamic therapy, unstructured play, client-centered therapy, or child-centered play therapy. Regardless of the name you may see used, these are all non-directive approaches that are based on the same foundational belief: if children are given the chance to play freely under the right conditions, they can learn to resolve their own problems. This type of therapy occurs with very little direction from the therapist. The therapist mostly works in an ‘observer’ capacity, typically only involved when the child needs help with their emotions. Concerns with this approach are related to a young child’s lack of emotional control or cognitive capacity to handle their trauma or behavioral issues on their own. 

Directive Approach to Play Therapy

Like the non-directive approach, the directive approach may also be referred to in a few different ways, including psychoanalytic, structured, prescriptive, focused or non-humanistic approach. In this type of PT, the therapist is an active participant, giving much more direction to their client related to the type of play used and the length of time a type of play occurs. More verbal communication between client and therapist should be expected. This approach is intended to provide specific targeting of known trouble areas during the child’s playtime, as the therapist works to keep the child’s attention and awareness focused. In a directive approach, a therapist must direct carefully, to not make the client feel rushed or uncomfortable with the process. Concerns with this approach are often related to the lack of control a child may have to explore, interpret or articulate their feelings in the way they are naturally inclined to, as well as a lack of true growth in self-awareness.

Neither approach is commonly championed as the ‘right one.’ As you answer the question of ‘what should I look for in a therapist,’ you may be best served by choosing a therapist who appreciates the benefits of both methods. Many therapists commonly choose to utilize both approaches as a child ages or grows in awareness of self. Some also choose to alternate methods in different sessions, using both to measure growth, address issues of safety and best interest, and gauge areas that still need work. 

Common Play Media

More diverse than the PT approaches is the selection of toys and games that can be used in this kind of therapy. Here is a (not all-inclusive) list of commonly used media in PT (possible in either approach):

· Stuffed Animals

· Puppets

· Putty and Sculpting Clay

· Painting Setups

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· Drawing and Coloring Setups

· Musical toys

· Sandbox or Water box

· Kitchen Play

· Board Games

· Charades

· Cards

· Pretend/Make-believe Time

Some parents or caregivers may find themselves asking ‘how can I be trained in play therapy?’ You actually can! Filial therapy is available to teach caregivers (usually parents) basic child-centered PT techniques. These skills can then be used at home. 

Related Resource: Top 20 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Programs 2015

Today’s therapeutic play methods offer some of the most rewarding and uniquely beneficial therapy opportunities there are for children. This type of therapy is usually quick to establish a trusting client-therapist relationship, as it offers a comfortable and familiar environment to a struggling child. It continues to be a sweet surprise to see just how beneficial the concept of play can be in the medical world.

ABA Programs Guide Staff

Updated May 2020

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