Play Therapy

Frequently Asked Questions About Play Therapy

What is play therapy?

Unlike adults, many children cannot communicate effectively with words, especially when it comes to feelings and stressful events. These children utilize play - a far more comfortable medium - to express their internal and interpersonal conflicts.

Some play therapy is more or less directive, meaning that a therapist may be more of an observer and commentator on the play or be more concrete and direct about how the play may address a particular child's needs. We utilize a psychodynamic play therapy approach, in which the therapist listens carefully to the concrete details of the play as well as the underlying dynamics that may have their roots in the child's experience. The therapist then assists the child, through play, to express and work through his or her difficulties.

How does this happen? The therapist can work within the context of the child's play to help the child identify and express emotions and engage in problem-solving. The therapist can communicate and interpret the meaning of the play, and clarify possible conflicts raised in the play (or within the child). This work occurs on several levels. For example, a child and therapist who are helping two puppets work through an argument can actually be engaging in a number of therapeutic experiences: identifying one or more feelings, verbalizing those feelings, engaging in problem-solving, taking the perspective of another, managing conflict, being assertive rather than timid or aggressive, etc. When the therapist understands a particular child's family or social context, s/he can tailor the play (in this case, the therapist puppet's words) to further assist the child to address what the child needs to work on.

How do I explain therapy to my child?

Many parents explain that a therapist is a kind of "doctor" or "teacher" who helps children with their feelings and problems. It is important to clarify to children that they do not need therapy because they are "bad," but rather because they have some things (i.e., feelings, behaviors) with which they might need help. Since many children equate the word "doctor" with shots and other physically uncomfortable procedures, you may wish to point out that psychologists simply talk and play. You can explain, in even more detail after you have viewed the office during the initial consultation, that the psychologist has a variety of toys and other potential activities in his or her office.

How can parents help?

Communicate with the therapist.

Please note significant changes in your child's behavior and feelings, and report them to the therapist either through a voice mail or a written note given to the therapist at the beginning of the session. A brief, 1-2 minute 'check-in' with the parents at the beginning of the session is usually appropriate, but please note that time beyond 1-2 minutes can feel like an intrusion on a child's therapy time. It is important that your child feel that the therapy time is his or hers.

Please do not instruct your child to use therapy time in a specific way (i.e., "Talk about what happened today at school."). Children will express what they need to express at their own pace. Just apprise the therapist of recent events so s/he can tailor her interventions and interpretations appropriately.

Be interested in what your child tells you about his or her therapy sessions.

Please understand that your child may report that he or she played games, drew pictures, played with puppets, etc. This does not mean that the therapy session was simply "play time." The child may be uncomfortable discussing, or simply be consciously unaware of, the therapeutic nature of his or her play. Again, the purpose of play therapy, especially with younger children, is not so much to expect appropriate verbalizations of the therapeutic process from them, but instead to see decreased symptoms and improved functioning in significant areas of their life. Your child may report that a puppet, doll, or stuffed animal in the therapist's office is struggling with a parallel situation to your child's experience. In that case, it may be easier for your child to discuss his or her difficulties by talking about how the puppet is doing.

Please do not ask your child to report 'what happened' in session. Summarizing or paraphrasing a forty-five minute interaction with another human being is difficult for any adult to do, and often far beyond what a child will be capable of. Also, 'what happened' is usually not as important as 'How did it feel? Was it helpful? Did s/he (therapist) understand you? Did you understand what s/he said to you?' You, of course, should be interested in discussing your child's therapy with him or her, but it's often best to allow the discussion to unfold on your child's terms, not yours.

The above information is related to our own utilization of play therapy techniques. Some play therapists have slightly different frameworks and stylistic approaches. For further information about play therapy, please see The Association for Play Therapy's website at


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