Play Therapy

Plato once said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Albert Einstein called play “the highest form of research.”

There have been many theoretical frameworks since the establishment of play therapy in the early 1900s, the main theories include: psychoanalytic, Jungian, Adlerian, child-centered, filial, cognitive-behavioral, and ecosystemic.  Other important play therapy theories include Gestalt, Eriksonian, time-limited, group, structured time-limited, and numerous others. Unfortunately, since many theories have a different conceptualization of play, a universal definition is the subject of ongoing debate (O’Connor, 2000).

Psychoanalytic, Jungian, and Adlerian play therapies are all psychodynamic approaches to therapy, which focus on the unconscious motives of behavior. Child-centered or person-centered play therapy is founded on the humanistic principles of Carl Rogers and focuses on complete acceptance of the client. Cognitive-behavioral play therapy was developed based on the ideas of Aaron Beck and focuses on irrational feelings displayed by the client. Finally, ecosystems play therapy focuses on increasing the functioning of the child.

What is play therapy?

⎫The Association of Play Therapy defines play therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”

⎫A non-directive and empowering form of play where the client usually chooses the toys, activities, and games to play.

⎫Toys and games can help a client better communicate his or her thoughts and feelings.

⎫The therapist focuses on creating a safe environment.

⎫The therapist fully attends and recognizes the client’s actions and feelings that are expressed and reflects those feelings and actions.

⎫Differs from regular play in that the therapist helps clients to address and resolve their own problems.

⎫Built upon the natural way that clients learn about themselves and their relationships with others and their environment.

⎫Helps clients express what is bothering them when they do not have the verbal ability to express their thoughts and feelings.

⎫Provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their development.

⎫Allows mental health professionals who are trained in play therapy, to assess and understand children's play.

⎫May include involving the parents or caretakers directly in the treatment which is called filial play therapy or the whole family called family play therapy.

⎫The therapist uses skills such as attunement, structuring, empathetic listening, imaginary play, and limit setting.

⎫The therapist recognizes and understands play themes and interprets these themes including: content, feeling or emotion, intention, meaning, and relation of play to other sessions and daily life.

Who benefits from play therapy?
Anyone may benefit from play therapy!

When clients engage in play therapy, they may benefit and learn to: (Goals)

Solve problems and work through conflict

Make decisions and be heard

Express themselves

Communicate and relate with other

Recognize boundaries and test limits
Understand and develop an understanding of expressing feelings to meet needs better
Reduce maladaptive behaviors
Increase confidence
Expand self awareness and self efficacy
Stimulate imagination, creative outlooks and exploration
Practice skills and different roles
Develop cognitive skills
Resolve inner conflicts and dysfunctional thinking
Cope with difficult emotional experiences
Empathize with others and respect ones own thoughts and feelings
Show who they are, what their values are, and how they regard others.
Become more responsible for behaviors
Help a client adjust to academic settings
Better understand nature and the environment
Cooperate and engage in teamwork
Allow freedom to fail and make mistakes
Help conquer fears

Learn how to share

Play Therapy is used to treat:
Obsessive compulsive disorder
Perfectionistic personalities
Behavior problems
Oppositional or conduct behavior
Trauma witnessed or endured
Abuse substance, domestic violence, neglect, physical, sexual
Divorce or separation
Encopresis and Enuresis
Power struggles
Chronic medical disorder, hospitalization, diabetes, cancer
Foster children and families
Autism spectrum disorder
Academic and social development
Learning and Physical disabilities
Eating and feeding disorders
Natural disasters
Death, grief, loss
Common toys found in play therapy rooms may include:
Family oriented and nurturing toys:
Dollhouse with many accessories, people, animals
Baby doll with accessories
Dress-up clothes
A real baby bottle and diapers
Kitchen set with accessories
Container with water (1/3 filled)
Aggressive toys:
Inflatable punching bag
Dart gun with darts
Foam bat
Expression and construction toys:
Art supplies
Sand tray with accessories
Blackboard/ dry erase board

Misc. toys:
Transportation toys
Bean bag toss

Various games
Doctor kit
Playing cards
Pretend money

While therapists find it hard to agree on a definition of play, most agree that play is seen as internally rewarding, and requiring no reinforcement (O’Connor, 2000). As a result, play is “person-dominated,” meaning that the child tends to be independent and use the toys to express situations (2000). Furthermore, play is “non-instrumental,” which allows the child to play freely with no intentional goal in mind (2000).

Coufal, J.D. & Brock, G.W. (1983). Parent-Child Relationship Enhancement: A 10-Week
Education Program. Menomonie, WI: Coufal & Brock.
Kaduson, H.G., Cangelosi, D., & Schaefer, C. (Eds.). (1997). The Playing Cure.
Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.
O’Connor, K.J. (2000). The play therapy primer. New York:
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
VanFleet, R. (1994)  Filial Therapy: Strengthening Parent-Child Relationships Through
Play. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press.
VanFleet, R. (1997). Child-Centered Play Therapy. Boiling Springs, PA: Play Therapy Press.