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Play Therapy: Questions and Answers

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

What is play therapy?

Play therapy is a long-standing alternative therapy treatment option for children and the

consensus among child psychiatrists and psychologist is that playtime can often be used to help children learn, reduce anxiety and improve self-esteem. This is because children can express themselves without needing to talk.

The play serves only as a bridge to therapy. Play therapists often stress that simply having some toys in a therapy office or encouraging children to draw or play with blocks as they talk with a counsellor or psychologist is not play therapy. Children are doing real work in the play therapy room.

It begins by helping children express their feelings and assume responsibility for all of their behaviours. It teaches them how to develop problem-solving skills. It is important to remember that Play therapists are trained mental health practitioners specializing in helping young children. One of the questions I ask parents is, "How will you know when your child has changed and no longer has this problem?" The reason I do this is to establish a benchmark for change. It is essential for me as a therapist to develop goals with parents before starting therapy as it allows us to assess change and monitor behavioural outcomes.

How does play therapy work?

Play therapy focuses on relationships and experiences to create positive changes in the brain. While your child explores their concerns, the therapeutic relationship helps regulate their emotions, which then allows the brain to make important structural changes.

For example, Sarah, is a 4-year-old little girl, and recently her parents separated. She is moving to a new home with her dad and has just started at a new school. At school, she experiences some awful bullying from her peers. She has always experienced physical symptoms of anxiety when she's talking about her recent traumatic experience. Using play, Sarah can work through her traumatic experience without feeling the same symptoms of anxiety because she feels different physical sensations through play. Sarah's brain can now rewire to have a new understanding of her anxiety, especially with repeated sessions that cement her learning.

How to support your child in play therapy?

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that these play therapy sessions can be triggering and emotionally exhausting. Be sure to give your child downtime after sessions, and do not schedule them for academics instead let them know that it’s okay for them to want or need some space and provide some time for distracting activities. While it may be frustrating for you to take a hands-off approach to play therapy, it will help with your child’s healing process to experience play therapy without any parental expectations.

Respect your child’s healing process in play therapy as your child’s time. Therapy is generally slower for children than it is for adults. Play therapy is an evidence-based therapy, and like all therapy, children often get worse before they get better. Encourage your child without putting pressure no matter how the therapy is going. Be mindful of the questions you ask them as it can make them feel as though they have to go to play therapy with the goal of getting a good result to report to you.

How does play therapy affect change?

Children and young people need a platform or space to truly be able to express themselves. In general children and young people are alike in the sense that they cannot come right out and tell us what is bothering or hurting them. Even if they were able to communicate things to you before.

This is where Play Therapy comes in. Play Therapy is an internationally recognized therapy for children between the ages of three to sixteen. The goal is simple, it aims to teach children how to express their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and perceptions through therapeutic play. The space offered is safe and most importantly confidential.

What types of problems does play therapy address?

Play therapy is ultimately a form of child therapy used to help children cope with social and emotional challenges, and inadequate communication, processing, and problem-solving skills. It is also used to improve undesirable behaviors, so children can interact with others in healthier ways. Therefore, children, who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event in their lives may benefit from play therapy.

Some examples include:

  • the death of a loved one

  • domestic violence

  • child abuse or neglect

  • a chronic illness

  • divorce

  • hospitalization

  • a personal or family crisis

  • family dysfunction

  • or any loss or change in their family dynamics or environment

  • Play therapy can also be used to help teenagers in certain cases.

For example:

  • underperformance in school

  • having a hard time developing and maintaining friendships

  • feeling uncomfortable interacting with others

  • having learning disabilities, anxiety, behavioral issues, depression, or anger/rage

It can also be used to help those who are:

  • grieving

  • have autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

  • suffering from ADD or ADHD.

Some children and teens may find the traditional methods of therapy intimidating, which can lead to unproductive counseling sessions. Play therapy is an alternative and effective methodology that just might work wonders for your child.

How long does play therapy last?

There is a recommended minimum of twelve sessions for effecting significant and lasting improvement. However, it largely depends on the child's progress as it varies. Every child's response to therapy is unique. At the 8th to 10th session, there is usually a review to discuss progress and goals with parents. In my experience, depending on the complexity of the challenges faced by the child, therapy can last beyond 2 years. The most important thing is that the effects of play therapy can last a lifetime when done consistently.

When you first meet your play therapist, they will do an assessment with your child that lasts for about 45 minutes. During this time, they will gather general information and you should share as much as you can about any challenges, recent changes etc. You will also be asked to fill in a questionnaire. Then you will schedule weekly sessions. Each Play therapy session occurs every week and is generally 45 minutes long. In the session, your child will play and have fun. However, not every session will be fun. You will usually not be part of the session unless you want to consult with the therapist beforehand or afterward.

Let's check in with Sarah, the little girl from the example above. During her play therapy sessions, Sarah is consistently creating play narratives about a little girl who gets bullied – her play therapist might work through why Sarah keeps bringing up this narrative. Then, her play therapist would communicate with her dad about this pattern, and behaviors that might be arising out of it, and how to help Sarah. Sarah's dad takes that information and helps Sarah at home.

Your child's play therapist won’t tell you about every single thing that happens in the playroom. This is out of respect for your child’s process. In other words, you won’t get a detailed description of everything your child did and said in the session because it wouldn’t really be helpful to your child. However, play therapists will talk about themes & patterns seen in the playroom – and will use these themes and patterns to help you learn new ways of working through your child’s own behaviors, motivations, and emotions.

Remember that you can always talk to your child’s therapist if you want additional information or aren’t sure how something is working. Play therapists are here to help and are more than happy to talk through the process with you!

How often do children attend play therapy sessions?

Once weekly and 45 minutes per session. As with any other therapy, consistency is very important, so it is important that your child attend every session. Depending on the complexity of the challenges your child faces, it is generally encouraged that children attend sessions beyond the recommended minimum of 12 weeks.

How effective is play therapy?

Your child's Play Therapist is a rigorously trained professional and has to go through an extensive certification process to ensure they are competent at using "play" to heal your child. Play therapy’s effectiveness as a mental health approach has been supported by empirical psychological research since the early 1920s.

There are no predetermined interventions during the play therapy sessions that seek to change the child's behaviour. Instead, play therapists consistently offer a safe relationship and an environment in which the child is free to be self-directive. Child-centered play therapists continually reflect upon their way of being in clinical supervision to address the issue of inadvertently directing the child's behaviour. Play therapist mainly focuses on the relationship they have with the child rather than the initial problem. Thus, we face unique challenges in helping parents understand how this theoretical approach supports children in meeting their goals.

This is why Play therapy continues to fill the gap in therapy services for young children. It is effective with tangible results that have allowed children to make massive strides in their social, emotional, and behavioural development.

Do you think your Teen or Child could benefit from therapy? Speak to a qualified Play therapist to learn how your Teen or Child could benefit from play therapy, Click here to get in touch today, or if you want to know if Play Therapy could be suitable for your Teen or Child, click here to take our quiz!

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