Play therapy

Written by Bonnie Gifford
Bonnie Gifford
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Sulette Snyman
Last updated 3rd July 2023 | Next update due 2nd July 2026

Sometimes children start developing patterns of behaviour that can cause disruption in their lives. While adults may benefit from talking therapies, some children may find this stressful or difficult. Play therapy is used to help children communicate at their own level and pace.

What is play therapy? 

Play therapy is a type of therapy that helps children to express themselves and find healthier ways to express anger, fear, or worry, as well as to explore their thoughts and feelings, and make sense of their life experiences.

Talking therapies can be beneficial for some children, while others may find a traditional therapeutic setting may feel threatening or like an interrogation. Play therapy is used to help children communicate at their own level and at their own pace. In turn, this enables them to understand confused feelings and upsetting experiences that they haven’t yet had a chance to process. Play is a natural part of learning, exploration and communication for children. Play is considered highly effective for helping children to 'play out' what they may find difficult to put into words.

In this video, psychotherapist Zara Kadir (MA Couns&PsychTh, MA Child, Adolescent & FamilyTh (MBACP) explains what play therapy is, the types of tools used and how it can be beneficial for young children and adolescents. 

Other therapy types that can also benefit children and young people who may not find traditional talking therapies to be for them can include arts therapies, such as art therapy, music therapy, or dramatherapy.

Counselling is about allowing whoever comes to a session express and work through whatever is happening inside them in a way that is helpful...
For a child who may well not have the words to express themselves, this may happen through play or creative work. It's up to the counsellor to provide a space that feels safe for the child to express themselves and work through their difficulties.

- Too young for counselling?

What does a play therapist do?

Play therapists will work with children of all ages in a safe and trusting environment to help shift perspectives of difficult experiences and increase self-esteem and confidence. They may work as part of a team or independently and may suggest a referral for additional professional support as part of therapy. 

The main aim of a play therapist is to equip children with adaptive behaviours and better coping mechanisms for everyday life. This is to help them develop a more positive view of their place in the world.

Play therapists are skilled professionals who specialise in working with children and their families. Together, they work through difficult experiences and situations, such as bereavement and grief, depression, anxiety, family conflict or issues (eg. divorce, separation), abuse and neglect, and other traumatic experiences. 

What can play therapy help with? 

Play is incredibly important for a child's development - helping to shape key social, creative, language, emotional, cognitive and physical processes. As a result, play therapy can help children in a variety of ways, although exactly how will depend greatly on the individual needs of each child. The approach is considered particularly important for children who may struggle to express themselves verbally, although generally, it can help children of all abilities, cultures and genders.

Significantly, play therapy offers children a safe and comfortable space in which they can be themselves and have the emotional support to express their feelings freely. These feelings can then be explored and contained in a healthy way with the help of a play therapist in order to promote resilience and confidence within each child.

Some of the common types of problems play therapists deal with include

  • Children who are dealing with parental separation, divorce or conflict.
  • Children who have witnessed domestic violence.
  • Children who are in hospital or who have a parent, close friend or relative in hospital.
  • Traumatised children who have experienced sexual, emotional or physical abuse.
  • Children in care - adoption and fostering.
  • Children dealing with stressful life experiences such as loss, illness or death of a loved one.
  • Children who have experienced a serious accident or disaster.

Play therapy can also be a useful tool to use if a child or family has a chronic illness, if they have an eating disorder, or are exhibiting problem behaviours at school (eg. aggression). Play therapy may also be helpful for some children who are neurodiverse, such as those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or are on the autistic spectrum (ASD). 

Learn more about child counselling and how it can help.

What age is play therapy appropriate? 

People of all ages can experience the benefits of play therapy. Most commonly, it is recommended for children ages three to 12. For younger children, this might mean seeing a play therapist along with a parent or caregiver. For older children, they may work together with an experienced play therapist without any other parent or caregiver supervision.

Play therapy for teens and adults

Play therapy can be a helpful alternative for teenagers and adults who may have trouble expressing themselves through words. It can be particularly beneficial for those who have or have experienced:

  • anger management issues
  • chronic illness
  • dementia
  • intellectual disabilities
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • trauma or physical abuse
  • unresolved childhood issues

Play therapy is often used alongside other types of therapy for adults, including art, music, and movement therapies. The goal is often to help individuals to develop new, healthier strategies for dealing with particular scenarios or issues. 

What is considered play therapy?

Play therapy is defined by the Association for Play Therapy (APT) as “The systemic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”

In essence, play therapy uses the act of playing to help children understand or work through difficulties they might be experiencing or situations they may have been exposed to, in order to help them grow, develop, or in some instances, move on. They do this by providing the chance, materials and space for a child to play alongside providing a safe person outside of the child’s regular family, friends, or social situation, around who they can express themselves and explore their feelings through play. 

What does play therapy involve? 

Play therapy involves a series of sessions. Each is typically 30-45 minutes long. A therapist will meet with a child to focus solely on their needs and the medium of play. Some therapists may have experience working with siblings or groups of children but one-to-one sessions tend to be the most common form of play therapy.

The first session will typically involve an assessment, in which the child's parent or carer talks to the therapist about their concerns. The therapist will analyse the child's strengths and difficulties, as well as their history in order to identify what stresses the child has been through so they can help them make sense of it. Information may also be required from the child's school and other significant adults in their lives.

Future sessions will usually be held weekly at the same place and time - either at the child's home, school or clinic. This consistency helps to build a trusting relationship between the therapist and child and thus improves the chances of effective treatment. If sessions are missed it may disrupt a child's progress.

What to expect in a play therapy session 

Sessions involve a large selection of play materials provided by the play therapist. These resources will consist of toys like small figures and animals, sand and water, musical instruments, dressing-up props, puppets, clay, books and art and craft materials.

Rather than encouraging the child to use verbal explanations of what is troubling them, the therapist will help them to express difficult thoughts and feelings through the metaphors of play. This will involve using a range of techniques that help children to become aware of what they are feeling and provide opportunities for them to express themselves. Awareness is an important part of play therapy because without awareness change cannot take place.

Some of the techniques used in play therapy can include:

  • creative visualisation
  • therapeutic storytelling
  • sculpturing
  • role play
  • dance and movement
  • drawing
  • toy phones
  • puppets, masks, cuddly toys, dolls or action figures
  • arts and crafts
  • sensory play (eg. water and sand)
  • musical instruments
  • construction toys (eg. blocks)

For this process to be effective, the therapist must work on building a strong therapeutic relationship with the child. It is important that children feel comfortable, safe and respected in play therapy so that they can play confidently and feel at ease sharing their intimate feelings.

It is also crucial that the child understands the therapist is accepting of them and supportive throughout the whole process. Ultimately this positive relationship will foster the necessary corrective experience needed to promote cognitive development and help children to resolve inner conflicts and develop new patterns of behaviour and thinking.

Examples of play therapy

How play therapy is used varies depending on the therapist, the child, and their individual situation. For example, a play therapist may guide your child towards a certain type of play, or they may let them choose themselves. 

A play therapist may also encourage your child to use dolls to act out problems they have experienced at home or to recreate something they find stressful or frightening. Alternatively, they may ask questions while your child draws or paints to try and gain insight into their thought process, or could play games with them to encourage specific skills, like cooperation, problem-solving, or building social skills. 

What are the benefits of play therapy? 

Ultimately, play therapy helps to facilitate healing and the development of new patterns of behaviour and thinking that enables children to be more resilient in everyday life. By helping to free children from negative experiences and feelings that block their learning and development, play therapy allows them to see their world in a more positive light.

Play is a window into how our children see and feel about the world. It is during their busy hours of play that children work away at making sense of the world around them, and the internal world of their thoughts and feelings.

- Using play to enhance your child's well-being, Counsellor Gayle Creasey, UKCP 

Figures released by Play Therapy UK suggest between 77% and 84% of children referred to play therapy experience positive change.

Some of the specific benefits children can gain from play therapy include:

  • Reduced anxiety about traumatic events.
  • Improved confidence, self-respect, and sense of competence.
  • Better able to form healthy bonds in relationships (eg. improved empathy and respect).
  • Improved ability to trust themselves and others.
  • Enhanced creativity and playfulness.
  • Taking more responsibility for certain behaviours.
  • Learning and developing healthy coping strategies and creative problem-solving.
  • Increased ability to express themselves and their feelings
  • Development of stronger social skills.
  • Improvement of language, fine and gross motor skills. 

How long is play therapy needed? 

The number of play therapy sessions required will depend on the child and their individual needs. Generally, play therapy is a short-term intervention (i.e. 12 sessions or less) but in some cases, children will require extended treatment.

Research suggests that around 20 play sessions are typically needed to help a child referred for treatment, however, this can vary from child to child depending on the individual, the problems they need help with, and their unique situation. Some therapists will work with children for several years.

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