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What is play therapy?

Play therapy involves a therapist in a room full of specialized toys who talks with the child as they play with the different items. The idea is that in a relaxed setting, during their play the child will open up about whatever issues are bothering them and the therapist can then respond to those issues during their interaction.

How play therapy works

Whether or not play therapy is effective is largely determined by the skills of the therapist and what discipline he or she practices. After all, if the therapist didn’t interact with the child, planting messages and talking with them about life’s problems, play therapy would merely be a child in a room full of toys. So play therapy, though classified as a method, isn’t so much a discipline in itself  but a way for another method to be implemented. Be sure to keep this in mind and ask what specific therapy method a play therapist specializes in.

The Pro’s and Cons of Play Therapy

The benefits of play therapy for children

  1. Play therapy offers a more relaxed setting for the child.
  1. Play itself, especially dramatic play (the process of a child acting out the world around them either through props or other people, such as when playing “house”) is a child’s natural form of therapy and emotional regulation, and in itself contains mental health benefits.
  1. The setting allows for a more relaxed, intimate bond between the child and the therapist.


The disadvantages of play therapy

  1. The studies of play therapy are mixed, and there is insufficient evidence to support this approach. While the idea of play as therapy is itself a sound principle, (the fact that play is therapeutic for children is well established), when you’re talking about whether or not forced play in the strange environment of the therapist’s office with a casual-acquaintance such as a therapist translates into actual results that will benefit a child, this part is still unproven.
  1. Some of the reasons the research on play therapy is so ambiguous is probably because the approach is more dependant upon the person implementing it than it is the technique. Some skilled therapists can probably work wonders with play therapy, whereas others are less adept at turning playtime into meaningful discussions.
  1. It is often a long and drawn out process, and requires patience. Because psychologists who practice play therapy as an approach tend to subscribe to the basic tenet that children should express their fears and concerns naturally through play and not be rushed or pressured into disclosure, (which foils the whole concept of making the therapeutic approach more natural), play therapy can be a slow and arduous process. Thus, it may take months of sessions before anything of therapeutic significance is even broached, let alone resolved. Nor is there any guarantee that anything of therapeutic value will ever occur. Parents need to understand this and be ready for an extended and ongoing commitment to the therapist. If you’re not prepared to see it through, there’s no purpose in starting play therapy at all.

Guidelines for choosing a play therapist:

  1. Look for a therapist who has training in either Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. Stay away from play therapists who practice psychoanalysis.
  1. Don’t start it unless you’re prepared to bear the expense of regular visits over a period of at least several months.
  1. Play therapy is best utilized when the source of a child’s distress is unknown; or when a child is exhibiting symptoms without an apparent cause. Because play therapy is such an all encompassing process, it tends to work best for uncovering hidden fears and concerns that often reveal themselves through a child’s play. It’s also good in situations such as divorce, where you know the what of what’s bothering the child but want to learn more about why.


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