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What is Play Therapy

What is Play Therapy?

This is one of the most common questions that gets asked at the HeadFirst office: What exactly is play therapy? Is it just someone playing with my kid? The short answer- no. It’s much more than that. Play therapy is the most developmentally appropriate way of providing therapeutic services with children. Play therapists believe that play is the child’s language, and the toys are their words. Young children primarily think and process information symbolically, so communicating with them symbolically (through the use of toys, i.e. symbols) we are better able to understand the child’s inner world.

Play therapists strategically utilize play therapy to help children express what is troubling them when they do not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings.

Play therapy differs from other unstructured play in that the play therapist helps the child to address and resolve his or her own problems within the safety of the playroom and the therapeutic relationship. Play therapy builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them.

In play therapy, children learn to communicate effectively with others, identify and express feelings, modify behavior, develop problem-solving skills, and learn a variety of ways of relating to others. Play provides a safe psychological distance from the child’s problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to development.

Here’s another definition from the Association for Play Therapy:

APT defines 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 or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development."

So now you may be wondering “So…what happens during the play session?”

During the play session, the play therapist is observing the child’s play behaviors to get clues about how the child views him or herself and the environment.

The play therapist uses specific reflections and statements for the following purposes:

  • return responsibility to the child

  • increase self-esteem and self-confidence

  • identify and help the child express his or her feelings

  • set limits for safety and acceptance

  • communicate understanding

The play therapist is also watching for overall patterns of behavior and play themes, which are later communicated back to the child’s caregiver. Play therapists are observant of play breaks (a quick change of play behaviors, believed to be caused from distress in the play sequence) and whether play sequences can be sustained. These can all be signs of the child’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and a lack of belief that he or she is capable of completing tasks and doing things on his or her own.

Play therapists are also observing for aggressive behaviors, developmentally inappropriate play, energy level of the child, sexualized behaviors, overall play themes, and the child’s ability to communicate (verbally or nonverbally) with the therapist.

All of these factors are taken into account and determine the therapist’s responses and reflections to the child during the play sessions based on the goals identified for the child.

Whew. Need a recap? Here’s the answer in a nutshell: Play therapy is a developmentally appropriate way for play therapists to learn about the inner world of children, promote children’s self-esteem and self-confidence, and enable children to develop more pro-social behaviors and ways of interacting with themselves and others.

Our play therapists are on hand to answer any additional questions that you may have specific to your child. Feel free to reach out to us at to be connected directly to a play therapist.

Think your child may be in need of play therapy? Call or text (469) 665-9416 to set up the initial evaluation and consultation with HeadFirst Counseling.

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