Therapeutic play, or play therapy, is an approach that psychologists and counselors employ with children between the age of 3 and 12. 71% of children directed towards therapeutic play show positive change, often within a short amount of time. But we know that therapy can feel intimidating at any age, and especially for children. 


We’ve noticed especially that many parents can be anxious about bringing their younger children into therapy. They worry that their child will be forced to start acting like a self-analytical adult or be put into uncomfortable situations. So, in order to better familiarize you with the process, here are some things that you should know about therapeutic play. 


What happens during play therapy?


During play therapy, children are brought into a space filled with toys that can enable focused play. Usually, there will be miniature figures, dolls, puppets, crayons and paper, and perhaps a more structured game like a ring toss. The child is encouraged to choose whatever they want to play with as the therapist observes and gradually starts nudging the play into venues that will help the child explore and express the underlying causes of behavioral and anxiety issues. The therapist may or may not join in the play, depending on the child’s comfort levels and the purpose of that particular session. 


What are the benefits of play therapy?


As adults, we consider playing to be the thing that fills in the time between work and sleep. However, for children, play is a serious and necessary business. More is going on during this precious time than we realize. Children are building new connections and mental patterns, and processing the vast amounts of information that they absorb on a daily basis. In therapy, play can give children a safe removal from reality that allows them to heal and process things that could feel confusing, shameful, or traumatic to the child. 


Play therapy has been shown to be effective with children who are dealing with widely diverse challenges, and it can be helpful for children of every gender, age, condition, and background. Here are some of the amazing things that happen during play therapy: 


  • Creative thinking and idea exploration opens up. By exploring new things, children are shaken out of patterns that can make them feel stuck. 

  • Decision-making skills are practiced and developed, as well as communication and interaction skills that can benefit them in behavioral challenges. 

  • Children often play out scenarios from their own life in their play, sometimes cloaked in symbols and impressions that help us understand the emotional context of the events as well. 

  • The play itself gives the child the opportunity to form the things that burden them into a story and progression that they can understand better. 


Why do children need a different kind of therapy than adults?


It’s been argued that adults could benefit from various forms of play therapy as well as children. However, play therapy is an especially important approach for children because children process information differently, communicate things differently, and feel comfortable differently from adults. Think about it: children rely on different interaction patterns and social communication skills until they reach adolescence. Usually, these patterns and skills are practiced through play with peers and loved ones. 

As adults, we largely rely on psychoanalytic roots of therapy, with the primary medium being a one-on-one conversation. Children, however, haven’t yet learned all of the words and concepts that they need in order to communicate and understand complicated things. Play allows them to express themselves in ways that make sense to them. This allows therapists to work through children’s complex emotions about a variety of difficult subjects, whether it be the death of a loved one, abuse, addiction, or any other variety of things that can greatly affect a child.