What is play therapy?

Play is the language of children

Find out how play therapy can help your child.

Psychology Today has a particularly good definition of play therapy. They define play therapy as:

Play therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach primarily used to help children ages 3 to 12 explore their lives and freely express repressed thoughts and emotions through play. Therapeutic play normally takes place in a safe, comfortable playroom, where very few rules or limits are imposed on the child, encouraging free expression and allowing the therapist to observe the child’s choices, decisions, and play style. The goal is to help children learn to express themselves in healthier ways, become more respectful and empathetic, and discover new and more positive ways to solve problems.


Play is a powerful form of imaginative empathy that allows the children to imagine what the challenges and pleasure of adult life might be like.


There is a lot to unpack in this statement.  If you think about it, children are limited in many ways by the vocabulary they have developed and the experiences they have had.  We take much of this for granted, but if you wish to get a glimpse into a child’s life, walk through your house on your hands and knees imagining that many of the words that give meaning to common objects in your home are not part of your vocabulary.  This is an experience of “looking up,” everything is bigger than you are, and mystery, “what is that thing?”  Obviously, the simplicity and complexity of this experience varies with a child’s age, but the world can be a very frustrating and confusing thing when we don’t have the tools to interpret it (see age appropriate expectations in this website).

Playfulness is one such tool.  But what is play?  What is a child doing when a child plays?  When we think of a child playing, one of the last things we think about is that play may be the “work” of being a child.  But it is.  Watch children play with each other.  What are they doing?  They are imagining the world around them and

constructing and reconstructing that world through the magic of play.  I enjoyed observing children play “house” when I worked as the child behavioral specialist for Head Start.  One of the stations in the classroom consisted of a kitchen items, tables, chairs, etc….stuff you would normally find in a home.  There were also adult shoes/boots, dresses, coats, hats and various other items that children could dress up in to facilitate their reconstruction of…well, home.  In their play, they would reconstruct the events of home and through their play, they would solve whatever issue they were acting out.  It could be as simple as fixing dinner or it could be as complex and disciplining the children.  In this, little boys would sometimes wear dresses and little girls would dress like the men in their lives taking on these respective roles.  This is a powerful form of imaginative empathy that allows the children to imagine what the challenges and pleasure of adult life might be like.

In this, note the word “imagination” was used more than “make believe.”  The imagination is a powerful aspect of cognitive functioning that is as active in adults as it is in children, it’s just utilized on different levels.  The engineer, for example, uses their imagination just as forcefully as a child playing house when they imagine a new design.  Our imaginations are the cognitive foundations of unrealized worlds and a powerful tool for understanding the blocks, barriers, trauma and promises of those worlds often in a language other than the use of words.  The child plays house while the engineer uses art.  In either case, playing house or looking at art is a powerful way of entering the world of children and adults that often reveals the challenges they need to overcome if they are to live a more meaningful life.

A therapist working with children, then, engages their imagination through play to look at the problems they are facing, and just like playing house, help them resolve these issues.  Notice, however, that in the definition of play therapy given above, the emphasis is upon “free expression.”  I have sometimes experienced the ire of parents because they think that play is not a serious form of therapy.  “Therapy,” they suggest, “is not about having fun.  It is work.”  Well, they are right.  It is work, but in this case the work is expressed through play and the more fun, the more likely the child is to express their problems through play.  Most of us feel, therefore, that the play cannot be directed because it is their problem, not ours.  If the therapist allows the child to direct the play through their choice of toys as well as allowing them to develop their own scenario, the more accurately the therapist will be able to see the world of the child and through their play with the child, observe them resolve their issues.

An example may be helpful.  A boy of about six came to therapy because he was having difficulty resolving the conflict created by his parents’ divorce.  Living with his mother, he was particularly angry at his father because he was no longer available to him as he once was.  He only got to see him when he visited on the weekends and to make matters worse, he had a girlfriend!

In the playroom, his attention was drawn to the pieces of a Lego castle that needed to be assembled.  We worked on assembling the castle and once it was complete, there were two knights and horses that were a part of the set.  One of the knights was much more friendly looking to the child, and one was much more sinister.  The sinister one was his dad.  Through several sessions we played with these figures and the castle until one day, the two knights were no longer enemies; they were now friends.  “What happened?” I asked him.  “Why are these guys friends when they were enemies.?”  “Because they made up” the little guy reported.  Based upon his parents’ reports, the issue was solved and the little boy now had a much better relationship with his father.  What happened?  I don’t know that I have a profoundly insightful answer to that question, but the problem was solved through the imaginative play of the child.

Play therapy is a wonderful tool that we most often use with the children with whom we work at A Window of Hope Counseling Center.  It draws upon the power of the imagination and the language of play to help children successfully resolve the problems life brings their way.

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