Play therapy is a form of psychological treatment that can involve playing with toys, role-playing, and games. Therapists observe someone during play to gain insights about their behavior.
Play therapy can be useful for treating mental health conditions or behavioral disorders. It can also be a support tool for those with developmental differences, such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Although play therapists primarily work with children, they sometimes use this treatment to engage with adolescents and adults as well.
A variety of licensed professionals practice play therapy. These may include social workers, counselors, and psychologists. Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of play therapy for children and adults.
Play therapy is a tool that originally comes from the field of psychotherapy, or talk therapy. It involves a trained therapist observing a client while they play and following their lead as they do.
The approach is based on the idea that children communicate unconsciously through play. This means they reveal things about themselves without realizing they are doing it.
It is through play that children learn how to interact with the world and develop skills. As such, it is a natural means of self-expression for them.
During play, a child may either directly or symbolically act out their feelings, allowing a therapist to gain insight into their emotional state. Playing together provides a safe environment for this to happen, allowing people to express things they might otherwise find difficult.
Participating in a shared activity also fosters trust between the therapist and the client, creating a therapeutic relationship. This can be especially useful for children, who may feel distrustful of strangers.
Play Therapy International (PTI) reports that up to 71% of children who undergo play therapy show a benefit. Sessions usually last 30–45 minutes.
Therapists most often use play therapy for children, but it may help adults in some circumstances too. The Association for Play Therapy (APT) states that mental health practitioners may use it to help treat a range of conditions, such as:
- behavioral disorders, such as conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
It may also help with new behavioral problems that occur due to life events, such as bereavement, divorce, or a traumatic experience.
Play therapy can also be a supportive intervention for people with neurodevelopmental differences. This could include those with:
- learning disabilities
Play therapy does not “cure” these conditions but instead provides emotional support and teaches skills that help children learn and socialize.
Research indicates that play therapy may:
Help autistic children learn skills
The authors suggest that play therapy may help autistic children with social interactions. However, research in a larger group of children is necessary to confirm whether play therapy is effective.
Reduce disruptions to learning in ADHD
A small 2017 study of three first-grade school students found that child-centered play therapy helped to reduce the symptoms of ADHD, including difficulty concentrating, intrusive behavior, and oppositional behavior.
The children participated in three sessions per week over the course of 6 weeks. The therapy appeared to help to varying degrees, ranging from small to large improvements.
However, this was a very small study focusing on three specific cases. It may not reflect how effective play therapy is in a larger population.
Reduce ODD symptoms
ODD is a condition in which a child is persistently hostile and uncooperative toward peers and authority figures. A
Children receiving play therapy had one session per week for 8 weeks. At the end of the study, parents, caregivers, and teachers reported reductions in ODD-related behavior. These improvements lasted for at least 2 months, suggesting play therapy may create long-lasting changes. However, more research is necessary to confirm this.
There is not as much research into the benefits of play therapy for adults. Older research suggests it may:
Boost mental health in older age
An experiment in 2001 observed how play therapy affected a small group of older adults in a nursing home. They underwent play therapy involving creative writing, music, art, games, and sand tray therapy. After engaging in one to two sessions per week for 6–10 weeks, the participants:
- socialized more with others
- appeared to have better self-esteem
- appeared to have lower rates of depression
- showed interest in solving problems, such as feeling lonely
However, this is based on observations rather than data.
Facilitate coping with trauma
Play therapy cuts through adult guardedness and provides a relaxed environment, explains an older 2010 American Counseling Association article. This enables adults to safely examine their feelings and approach threatening topics.
For example, the article mentions an exercise that helped survivors of domestic violence express how they felt about their abusive relationship.
Foster communication in developmental disabilities
Adults with developmental disabilities may have few opportunities for validation and emotional expression, notes an older 2003 journal article. The authors cited two case studies that indicated play therapy may offer a positive effect on various aspects of psychological health, including emotional well-being.
Below are play therapy techniques with examples of their use.
General play with toys
- Real-life toys: These break the ice and target withdrawn or introverted children. They include items such as:
- play money
- Aggressive toys: These foster the release of anger and hostility. They include items such as:
- toy guns
- superhero figures
- Creative toys: These offer a way to express a wide range of emotions. They include items such as:
- Lego toys
As the child plays, the therapist tries to interpret how they feel. These interpretations guide the play, allowing the therapist to test whether their theory is correct. The child’s reaction will either reinforce or reject their interpretation.
Once the therapist understands what the play means, they will guide it to help the child in various ways. For example, they may help them learn to solve a problem or work through an emotion.
Game playing is a technique that therapists may use with older children, adolescents, and adults. An older 2008 review article reports that following the rules can help a distractible person focus attention. Games are also a socialization tool, teaching people how to take turns and be a gracious loser or winner.
Playing a role in a drama may help a child who has experienced a traumatic event, notes the older 2008 review article. Instead of reliving the event, a child symbolically deals with it through characters in an enacted narrative. This play acting can help them move toward an inner resolution.
Hearing or reading a story allows children to see how others have overcome problems similar to their own. An older 1999 journal case study suggests they may then apply what they have learned to their own real-life situation.
In sand tray play, a therapist provides a child with a tray, sand, and miniature toys to create a scene or play world. A
In the study, the children’s play had a theme of violence, and it expressed the need for protection. It also encouraged the creation of situations with positive outcomes.
A play therapist may have a master’s degree or higher, as well as a license in a mental health field, such as:
- social work
Once someone is qualified, they register as a play therapist. This indicates they have completed additional coursework and clinical supervision in play therapy. The APT offers a training program that gives people “Registered Play Therapist” status.
Play therapy is a form of psychological treatment that uses play to allow people to express unconscious feelings, or things they find hard to express through words. According to PTI, 71% of children who receive it experience a positive change.
The potential benefits include a reduction of behavioral problems that stem from anger, grief, or trauma. Play therapy may also help people with developmental differences to work through problems or learn skills that help in daily life.
If someone wants to try play therapy, they can looked for a registered play therapist. In the United States, the APT issues these qualifications.