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Play Therapy: An Introduction from a Child Specialist in Wellington, FL

by Dr. Allie Picardi, Psy.D.

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is defined by the Association for Play Therapy as the “systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent of resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”In other words, play therapy is a therapeutic process where a child chooses objects, symbols, art, or other types of play to express themselves, their inner concerns, and work through different problems.

Examples of toys and play:

  • Creative arts (e.g., coloring, painting, clay, dance/movement, music)

  • Toy or object play (e.g., dolls, balls, blocks, medical objects, sand tray, sensory objects like water or sand)

  • Storytelling or metaphors (e.g., through the use of books, sandtray, etc.)

  • Roleplay (e.g., costumes, masks, superheroes, puppets)

  • Games that incorporate communication, self-control, cooperation, strategy, or change (e.g., Candyland, go fish, uno, hungry hippo, mancala, Jenga)

Using pretend characters, stories, or art, children have a safe outlet to work through and express their feelings and perception of the people, relationships, and events around them. Since the child leads the session, play helps them feel more confident in their abilities.Play therapy allows the therapist to meet the child where they are, regardless of the child’s age, ability, and personal or cultural background.

Why Play?

Play is how children learn and communicate; it is their natural way of expressing themselves, which is why play therapy is so effective!Through play, children practice problem solving and develop new coping behaviors and social skills.Play allows children to explore challenging events and topics in an enjoyable and child-friendly manner, while also allowing the therapist to observe their actions and choices to gain insights into that child’s experiences, behaviors, and overall emotional health. Using play reduces the chance of becoming engaged in power struggles. If children become resistant or refuse to participate, the therapist can oer new play materials that redirect attention from triggering topics or material.

Play as a form of communication gives the therapist insight into how a child makes sense of their world by playing out situations and problems in a way that feels safe and engages their imagination.

How is it different than my child’s regular play?

In Play Therapy, the therapist is trained to read the metaphors of the play and observe emerging patterns. The main goals of play therapy, regardless of the symptoms, are to help the child regain their former level of functioning, enhance self‐esteem, and build the child’s coping resources.The practice of play therapy requires extensive specialized education, training, and experience. A play therapist is a licensed mental health professional who has earned a Master's or Doctorate degree in a mental health field with considerable general clinical experience and supervision.

Play therapy diers from regular play in that the therapist helps children to address and resolve their own problems. Play therapy builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them.

Play therapy helps children:

  • Become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies.

  • Develop new and creative solutions to problems.

  • Develop respect and acceptance of self and others.Learn to experience and express emotion.

  • Develop emotion regulation and healthy coping skills.

  • Cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others.

  • Learn new social skills and relational skills with family.

  • Develop self-efficacy and self-confidence.

Is Play Therapy effective?

Meta-analytic reviews of over 100 play therapy outcome studies have found that the over-all treatment eect of play therapy ranges from moderate to high positive eects.Play therapy has proven equally eective across age, gender, and presenting problem.

How can I support my child during Play Therapy?

Most parents typically have the natural impulse to ask the same thing when their child comes out of the playroom. If often sounds like: “Did you do good?”, “What did you talk about?”, “Did you listen to the therapist?”, “Did you tell the therapist what’s bothering you?”, etc.While these are all normal things to say, they are unproductive in supporting your child’s work in play therapy. They can even becounterproductive!

Remember - when your child is in the playroom, the focus is on the PROCESS, not their performance. Other, more helpful, ways to check-in with your child after a play therapy session:

“I hope you and your therapist enjoyed your play time today!”

“It looks like you enjoyed your session today.”If your child wants to talk to you about something, that’s up to them. It is important to respect their confidentiality in counseling. Trust that the therapist will share any important or necessary information with you!


-Axline, V. M. (1947). Play therapy; the inner dynamics of childhood. Houghton Milin.

-Bratton, S. C., Ray, D., Rhine, T., & Jones, L. (2005). The Ecacy of Play Therapy with Children: A Meta-Analytic Review of Treatment Outcomes. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(4), 376–390.

-Carmichael, K. D. (2006). Legal and ethical issues in play therapy. International Journal of Play Therapy, 15(2), 83–99. Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.).

-Brunner-Routledge.Leblanc, M., & Ritchie, M. (2001). A meta-analysis of play therapy outcomes. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 14(2), 149–163.

-Lin, Y.‐W., & Bratton, S. C. (2015). A meta‐analytic review of child‐centered play therapy approaches. Journal of Counseling & Development, 93(1), 45–58.

-Ray, D. C., Armstrong, S. A., Balkin, R. S., & Jayne, K. M. (2015). Child‐centered play therapy in the schools: Review and meta‐analysis. Psychology in the Schools, 52(2), 107– 123.

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