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Why play in therapy?

Play therapy is a structured, theoretically based approach to therapy that builds on the normal communicative and learning processes of children. The curative powers inherent in play are used in many ways. Therapists strategically utilize play therapy to help children express what is troubling them when they do not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings. In play therapy, toys are like the child's words and play is the child's language. Through play, therapists may help children learn more adaptive behaviors when there are emotional or social skills deficits. The positive relationship that develops between therapist and child during play therapy sessions can provide a corrective emotional experience necessary for healing. Play therapy may also be used to promote cognitive development and provide insight about and resolution of inner conflicts or dysfunctional thinking in the child.

How does Play Therapy work?

Children are referred for play therapy to resolve their problems. Often, children have used up their own problem solving tools, and they misbehave, may act out at home, with friends, and at school. Play therapy allows trained mental health practitioners who specialize in play therapy, to assess and understand children's play. Further, play therapy is utilized to help children cope with difficult emotions and find solutions to problems. By confronting problems in the clinical Play Therapy setting, children find healthier solutions. Play therapy allows children to change the way they think about, feel toward, and resolve their concerns. Even the most troubling problems can be confronted in play therapy and lasting resolutions can be discovered, rehearsed, mastered and adapted into lifelong strategies.

How often? For how long? Who?

The frequency of visits, which members of the family will be seen and how long the treatment will continue are all based on the particular needs of your child and family. What follows are some general guidelines and rules of thumb.

First of all, for us to develop a working relationship it's essential that our work together be consistent. I usually see clients once weekly. Since young children have a different concept of time than we do as adults, it's especially important that their appointments be consistent and regular. Sometimes I see children less frequently than once a week; this especially may happen during the termination phase of our work.

The length of treatment needed varies from a few weeks to a few years.  I really can't tell you at the beginning how long the treatment should continue because the length of treatment needed depends so much on you, your participation, your child and your child's style of growth.  I can give you a very general idea based on my past experience with similar problems, but you and your child are unique individuals and I can't know when the work will feel finished to you.  The time to stop will come when you and your child agree that you have accomplished what you set out to do and that you don't want to continue any longer. I will also be watching for signs that the work is completed by looking at how the child is doing at home, in school, and with friends and by looking at the intensity of the work during the therapy session.

I have found that the most progress occurs when the parents have been actively involved in the therapy.   Your role, as a parent or guardian, is vital to the process of helping your child to grow healthier and fulfill his or her potential.  You will be providing essential information about your child’s past and present capabilities and challenges as well as the goals you have in mind for your child’s successful outcome. Parent consultations/ family therapy sessions are scheduled at regular intervals in order to assess your child’s progress, exchange feedback regarding any changes taking place in your child’s mood or behavior, and address any questions or concerns you may have. Sometimes I might ask you to participate in the child's session as an observer or as a partner in the child's work. I would like you to let me know if anything significant is happening with your child or your family.

What goes on during the course of treatment?

I use several media to facilitate the child's self-expression. We might draw, use puppets or dolls, or paint, or work with clay or build a scene in the sand. We might play with board games. Your child should wear casual, comfortable clothing.

Psychotherapy is a process. Your child will be becoming more aware of her/himself. Some of the things that your child becomes aware of may cause her/him to feel more distressed, just as you might become distressed when you discover parts of yourself that you don't like or that don't work the way you want them to.  Your child might become more difficult to get along with at times during the therapy. Remember that all of this is part of the process of self-discovery and reintegration, not necessarily the end result. Please keep me informed about these changes. Be prepared that you may undergo some reintegration yourself. 

I try to keep paintings and drawings created by the child as a record of their progress.  If the child wants to show you something they have created in the play room, it is best to simply comment on what you see instead of praising the child. Praise can sometimes lead the child to try and please you, the therefore, their play time will be restricted to creating paintings or drawings that will elicit praise from you.

Who benefits from Play Therapy?

Although everyone benefits, play therapy is especially appropriate for children ages 3 through 12 years old. Teenagers and adults have also benefited from play techniques and recreational processes.

How will Play Therapy benefit a child?

Play therapy is implemented as a treatment of choice in mental health, school, agency, developmental, hospital, residential, and recreational settings, with clients of all ages. Play therapy treatment plans have been utilized as the primary intervention or as an adjunctive therapy for multiple Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders  (e.g. anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity, autism spectrum, oppositional defiant and conduct disorders, anger management, crisis and trauma, grief and loss, divorce and family dissolution, academic and social developmental, and physical and learning disabilities.

Research supports the effectiveness of play therapy with children experiencing a wide variety of social, emotional, behavioral, and learning problems, including: children whose problems are related to life stressors, such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, assimilate stressful experiences, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and natural disasters. Play therapy helps children:

  • Become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies.

  • Develop new and creative solutions to problems.

  • Develop respect and acceptance of self and others.

  • Learn to experience and express emotion.

  • Cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others.

  • Learn new social skills and relational skills with family.

  • Develop self-efficacy and thus a better assuredness about their abilities.   

How may my family be involved in Play Therapy?

Families play an important role in children's healing processes. The interaction between children's problems and their families is always complex. Sometimes children develop problems as a way of signaling that there is something wrong in the family. Other times the entire family becomes distressed because the child's problems are so disruptive. In all cases, children and families heal faster when they work together.
The play therapist will make some decisions about how and when to involve some or all members of the family in the play therapy. At a minimum, the therapist will want to communicate regularly with the child's caretakers to develop a plan for resolving problems as they are identified and to monitor the progress of the treatment. Other options might include involving a) the parents or caretakers directly in the treatment by modifying how they interact with the child at home and b) the whole family in family play therapy. Whatever the level of involvement of the family members, they typically play an important role in the child's healing.

What am I looking for during the diagnostic evaluation?

I begin my work with a child by interviewing the parent/s alone. We'll talk about both of your observations and reasons for concern. If the child is willing to explore further with me then I will continue with a three to four week evaluative period. During this period, I will meet with the child individually three or four times and take a social and developmental history of the child from you.


During this evaluative period, I will be looking at the following areas:  perceptive and contacting skills, spontaneity, body image and use of the physical self, humor, defenses, expression of emotions, mood, cognitive abilities, creativity, sense of self-esteem, social skills, manner of interacting with me and the environment, and response to treatment. I will be getting to know your child and becoming familiar with your family.       


After that initial evaluative period, I will meet again with you and your child to share my observations and recommendations, as well as to hear your feedback about this therapy experience. Then we'll decide together how to proceed. 

What will you tell me about my child's session?  

I will respect the confidentiality of your child's work so I won't give you any specific information about what your child has said or done in the sessions without your child's permission. After play therapy sessions, if you ask your child what he/she did, they will probably say that they just played in a similar way that is someone asked you what you did here today, you would probably say we just talked.  But what was discussed or played is very important.  Children are sometimes unaware that something significant has occurred and may find it easier to explore feelings with an adult other than a parent or teacher.  Therefore, it is best to refrain from asking your child what they did, what happened, or if they had fun. 


I will always inform you if you or your child is in any danger and I do comply with all child abuse reporting laws. I will encourage your child to share with you, or allow me to share with you, what they are experiencing internally.  I see one of my jobs as helping to facilitate contact within the family.


It's my policy to include your child in the room when you share things with me before your child's appointment. I don't like to ask a child to sit in the waiting room, wondering what their parent(s) and I are discussing. Also, I like children to know what information I have about them. If you want to see me alone I'll ask you to arrange a separate appointment.

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