What is Play Therapy and How Does it Work?

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a form of counseling that uses play to assess, prevent, or treat mental health concerns. Typically play therapy is done with children, although in some instances it can be done with adults as well. Since play therapy involves toys, games, or coloring, it may look more like your child is playing than receiving treatment: don’t let that fool you. Research shows that play therapy is extremely effective in treating a variety of mental health issues and behavior disorders.

Why is it Used?

Usually play therapy is implemented when children are struggling with cognitive, social, or verbal skills. A situation like a close relative passing away can cause complex and confusing emotions that the youth may struggle to verbalize. Talking to the child in a way that occurs in conjunction with a play activity they are comfortable with allows them to open up easier to discuss and relay their emotions.

For example, children often act out their feelings with toys. A child who has lost a loved one may use an art drawing to portray a sad character who misses a friend. Likewise, a child who has witnessed domestic violence may use a dollhouse to depict a child hiding under the bed because the adults are fighting.

Depending on the type of play therapy being used, the therapist may intervene at various points in the play to help resolve an issue. Or, the play therapist may observe the child as the child is helping a character work through his feelings.

How Does it Help?

Play therapy can help children process stressful or traumatic events and can also be used to treat mental health or behavioral issues.

Mental or Behavioral Concerns

  • Trauma

  • Anxiety

  • ASD

  • Anger

  • Grief

  • School related concerns

  • ADHD

  • Depression

  • Physical or learning disabilities

  • Divorce


  • Learn social skills

  • Improve communication

  • Cultivate empathy

  • Identify and express emotion

  • Behave more responsibility

  • Improve their ability to problem solve

What Happens In Sessions?

Most therapists who offer play therapy will have a dedicated space where lots of toys are stored for the child to interact with. Some common tools that are used in sessions include:

  • Art supplies

  • Dolls/Action figures

  • Therapeutic games

  • Sand trays

  • Blocks

  • Instruments

  • Toys

What’s The Clinical Approach?

In addition to the basic approaches, there are also several different types of play therapy. Here are some of the most common types:

  • Filial Therapy: The parents get involved and the therapist teaches the parent how to interact with the child through play. The goal is to close a communication gap between the child and parent.

  • Sand Tray Therapy: The child can create a scene in a small box filled with sand using miniature toys, such as people and animals. The scene created acts as a reflection of the child's own life and allows a chance to resolve conflict, remove obstacles, and gain self-acceptance.

  • Bibliotherapy: The therapist and the child may read books together to explore specific concepts or skills.

  • Imaginary Play: A child may be given toys that spark the imagination such as clothing to play dress up, a dollhouse, puppets, or action figures. It may be directive or non-directive.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy: The therapist may use play to help a child learn how to think and behave differently. A doll may be given advice about how to change her thinking or the therapist may ask the child to give a stuffed animal advice on how he can cope with a stressful situation.

How Do I Find a Play Therapist?

Look for a licensed mental health professional with a master’s degree or higher. Some therapists specialize in play therapy, so when you’re doing your search make sure to ask if the counselor has experience with that specialty.

If you live in Monmouth County, NJ you can schedule a play therapy appointment for your child at the Modern Therapy offices. Or, visit Psychologytoday.com for a directory of local therapists who can help!