What is Play Therapy?

By Sharon Fischer, LCSW

Sometimes hearing the words “play” and “therapy” together bring up concerns for parents. Can playing really help my child get better? To answer that question it is a good idea to learn what exactly play therapy is and how it works.

Play is a way for children to express themselves. My two year old niece has recently learned about “time-outs” in her preschool classroom. One day she was given a time-out for not listening to the teacher. Later that evening during bath time she acted out the events of the day. Her toy also went to time out because he too was not listening. Playtime in the bath tub was a way for my niece to express her feelings and process what happened to her that day in school without talking about it with “grown up” words.

Play therapy is appropriate for children ages 2-14. With younger children it is unstructured and allows the child to use the toys in the playroom, while the therapist continually comments on the play. The therapist verbalizes the words that the child may not have, while the child takes the lead in the therapy session. For older children, play therapy is usually more directive where the therapist leads the session. She uses toys, art supplies, games, and books that are appropriate for the child and the problem that the child is struggling with. With directive play, the therapist is able to use a game as a way to engage the child, making it a more comfortable environment to talk about difficult topics.

Play therapy gave this child the tools to express his feelings and relieve his internal stress.

Play therapy is effective because children often do not have the words to describe how they are feeling. Acting out life events in the play therapy session allows children to express their feelings by putting words to them. This can be incredibly important since children will often act in negative ways when they are unable to express how they are feeling. For example, a boy was referred to a play therapist when he began throwing tantrums when he did not get his way. This behavior seemed to begin right around the time when he had to move out of his house because his parents were getting a divorce. The boy was unable to express his discomfort with the situation effectively and the tantrums started. Play therapy gave this child the tools to express his feelings in a safe environment and relieve his internal stress, putting an end to his tantrums and helping him feel better.

How do you know if your child could benefit from play therapy? This can be difficult to figure out if you are not aware of the signs. For starters, look for changes or problems in his or her behavior:

  • no longer wanting to attend school
  • changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • fighting with siblings or peers
  • not making friends

Also look for signs of how your child talks about him or herself. Some children may say things like, “Nobody likes me, I am a loser, I have no friends.” You may also want to consider what has been going on in your child’s life to cause potential stress.

  • Have there been any changes in your child’s life such as, a move, divorce, or a death of a close friend or relative?
  • Has your child gone through anything difficult, for example any sexual abuse or witness to violence?

It may be too difficult for your child to express his/her feelings about these circumstances. Also, consider your child’s mood. Has your son or daughter become more irritable, angry, sad, or depressed? Or has your child been complaining of more physical problems such as headaches or stomachaches, but your doctor doesn’t seem to find anything wrong?

If any of these examples sound familiar and you are looking for relief, then play therapy may be a good answer for you and your child.

Contact us to schedule an appointment by calling 650-461-9026

Evening, Saturday, and Video Therapy Appointments Available