Play therapy is evidence based and thought to be one of the most beneficial means of helping children who are experiencing emotional or behavioral challenges due to the neuropsychology of the brain. Play is the first language we develop. Though the different play therapy approaches may benefit people of all ages, it is specially designed to treat children under 12. A typical 1-1 session may last for 45-60 minutes. There are a different types of play therapy and Theraplay is used with parents to strengthen relationships, focusing on attachment. A MIM assessment is done with parents prior to this and is recorded to give concrete verbal and non-verbal communication styles and what is helpful to the child. Art Therapy, sand tray, puppets, therapeutic stories and story telling, games, dress up, music and more are used in Play Therapy.
Play therapy sessions vary in length depending on the treatment goals and the child’s needs and abilities. Most sessions last between 30 and 50 minutes. Appointments may be scheduled anywhere from twice a week to once a month.
On average, 20 play therapy sessions are necessary to resolve issues, but some children improve much faster while others may require many more therapy sessions. The first 3 sessions are used for assessment purposes and establishing a therapeutic relationship of trust.
Research On Play Therapy
It’s common for parents to question whether play therapy is time and money well spent. It can seem like a stretch to think that playing with toys provides much in the way of emotional healing.
But studies conclude that play therapy can be very effective for children and their families. Here are just a few examples of research studies on play therapy.
- Decreased hyperactivity in children with ADHD: A 2012 study published in the journal ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder found that children who had been diagnosed with ADHD showed a significant decrease in hyperactivity after cognitive behavioral play therapy. The children showed improvements after eight group therapy sessions.1
- Reduced behavior problems, fewer internalizing problems, improved academic performance: A 2015 study reviewed 52 other play therapy studies. It concluded that play therapy provides significant treatment effects for a variety of problems, including behavioral issues, depression, and anxiety. Children attended an average of 12 therapy appointments.4
- Reduced aggression: A 2017 study examined the effect of play therapy on children with behavioral concerns. The children were between the ages of 6 and 9 and they received 20 sessions of therapy (two 30-minute sessions per day for 10 days). Based on caregiver responses to the Child Behavior Checklist, children showed a decrease in behavior problems, including aggression and rule-breaking.5
The Benefits of Play Therapy Are:
- using play to understand and navigate the world around them.
- developing coping strategies and creative problem-solving skills
- increase self-esteem, self confidence and exploring self identity
- learning empathy and respect for others
- decrease in anxiety and learning healthy coping skills
- processing trauma and grief and reactions
- learning to fully experience and express feelings, emotional-regulation
- learning new social skills, or making stronger social skills
- strengthening family/parent attachment relationships
- problem solving
- understanding certain-behaviors and unhelpful thought patterns
Play therapy can be directive or nondirective. In the directive approach, the therapist will take the lead by specifying the toys or games that’ll be used in the session. The therapist will guide the play with a specific goal in mind.
The nondirective approach is less structured. The child is able to choose toys and games as they see fit. They’re free to play in their own way with few instructions or interruptions. The therapist will observe closely and participate as appropriate.
The therapist is in charge of determining what play therapy techniques to use and what types of play to include, of course. This doesn't mean that the therapist necessarily tells the child what to play with. The therapist, in fact, may allow the child to play on their own, doing whatever they want to do.
Ruth Wilgress uses an integrative individualistic approach with play therapy. Depending on the child and treatment goals and issues, I use directives and non-directive play therapy techniques which include puppets, sand tray therapy, art therapy, music therapy, therapeutic stories, and games.
The moments when using child-centered unstructured play in the play therapy space allows each child to explore, learn, process and make sense of experiences and their world. This helps their self-awareness, self-confidence, sense of self, resilience and understanding, among many other things. In addition, unstructured play is a benefit for children's natural development in every day life. Play is also the child's words when they need therapeutic interventions and can create new neural pathways and help them process and work through trauma along with develop healthy coping strategies.
A trained therapist can use playtime to observe and gain insights into a child’s problems. The therapist can then help the child explore emotions and deal with unresolved trauma. Through play, children can learn new coping mechanisms and how to redirect inappropriate behaviors.
Sessions must take place in an environment where the child feels safe and where there are few limitations. The therapist may use techniques that involve:
- creative visualization
- toy phones
- puppets, stuffed animals, and masks
- dolls, action figures
- arts and crafts
- play hand cuffs and keys
- foam swords and shields, and a toy boxing bag ( for healthy outlets of frustration/anger/aggression)
- water and sand play
- blocks and construction toys
- dance and creative movement
- musical play
Examples of play therapy
Depending on the child and the situation, the therapist will either guide the child toward certain methods of play or let them choose for themselves. There are any number of ways the therapist can use play therapy to get to know the child and help them cope with their problems.
For example, the therapist might offer the child a dollhouse and some dolls, asking them to act out some problems they have at home. Or they might encourage the child to use hand puppets to recreate something they found stressful or frightening.
They might ask your child to tell a “once upon a time” story to see what the child might bring to light. Or they might read stories that solve a problem similar to your child’s. This is referred to as bibliotherapy.
It could be as simple as asking questions while your child is drawing or painting to try to gain insights into their thought process. Or play various games with the child to encourage problem-solving, cooperation, and social skills.
Play therapy for Adults
Play isn’t just for kids, and neither is play therapy. Teenagers and adults can also have a difficult time expressing their innermost feelings in words. Adults who may benefit from play therapy include those affected by:
- intellectual disabilities
- chronic illness, palliative care, and hospice care
- substance use
- trauma and physical abuse
- anger management issues
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- unresolved childhood issues
When working with adults, a therapist may use dramatic role-playing or sand-tray therapy to help you get in touch with feelings that are hard to talk about. These therapies can help you work on strategies for dealing with particular scenarios.
The very act of playing, whether it’s games, arts and crafts, or music and dance, can help you relax and unwind from the stresses of everyday life.
Art therapy, music therapy, and movement can help reveal hidden traumas and promote healing. Under the guidance of an experienced therapist, play can be a valuable tool in getting you where you want to be.
Play therapy for adults may be used as a complement to other types of therapy and medications. As with children, the therapist will tailor play therapy to your specific needs.