Elizabeth Walker explains how play is a child’s natural way of communicating their experiences and why this form of therapy is particularly effective in the early years, when a child’s language is still developing.

What is play therapy?

Play therapy is a form of therapy that helps children to explore their feelings, express themselves, and make sense of their life experiences. It is especially beneficial for young children as conventional talking therapies may be inappropriate for those at an age at which they struggle to find the words to describe complex feelings.

How can play therapy help?

Play therapists help children to understand difficult life experiences or complex psychological issues through the activity of play. By forming a strong relationship with the play therapist, children can express, explore and make sense of issues or experiences that they might find difficult to communicate in other ways. Most therapists use “child-centred” or “non-directive” principles, wherein the child is given choices about how they use the time and play materials, but there are also more focused or “directive” techniques which can be used.

Exploring issues and concerns through play enables children to cope better with their difficulties in the real world. Play therapy helps them to find healthier ways to communicate, develop fulfilling relationships and increase resiliency. It also facilitates emotional literacy.

The use of toys, creative sensory materials (such as sand and paint) and role play provide an outlet for the child to express themselves at their own pace and in a way most suited to them. The development of a trusting relationship between the child and the play therapist is an important part of the process. A therapist looks at the themes and patterns that emerge in a child’s play and they are able to gain some insight into their situation.

The outcomes of play therapy may be general, for example a reduction in anxiety and raised self-esteem, or more specific, such as a change in behaviour and improved relations with family and friends.

Who would benefit from play therapy?

Play therapists work with children suffering from a range of psychological difficulties and complex life experiences, including:

  • bereavement

  • family breakdown

  • abuse or neglect

  • low self-esteem or anxiety

  • depression

  • domestic violence

  • ADHD and behavioural problems

  • learning difficulties

  • trauma

  • separation from culture of origin

  • terminal illness or disability, or coping with carers or siblings with illness or disabilities.

Play therapy can be adapted to suit different developmental levels and is appropriate for children of all ages, but is most often used for children aged between three and twelve years. Children from different cultures, genders and abilities can all benefit from play therapy.

What happens in play therapy sessions?

A play therapist will begin by listening carefully to parents’ and carers’ concerns about the child and the family. They will review the child’s history and find out about the stresses or difficulties the family have been through in order to help the child make sense of it. They may seek further information from the child’s early years provision or school as well as other significant adults in their lives. An assessment is also made of the child’s strengths as well as their difficulties.

The therapist will have a large selection of play materials from which the child may choose. This may include art and craft materials, dressing-up props, sand and water, clay, small figures and animals, musical instruments, puppets and books. The therapist will enable the child to use these resources to express themselves without having to provide verbal explanations.

Although the therapist will respect the child’s privacy and will not relay every detail of their sessions, they work alongside the parents or carers in order to help the child effectively, and will review progress with them at regular intervals.

A play therapist must share information with other professionals if they are concerned that a child is at any risk of harm, hurting others or themselves. They will usually talk to the parents about this first.

How long does play therapy take?

Children with relatively straightforward problems and a supportive environment can benefit from a short-term intervention, for example a series of 12 sessions. Other children will need 6 to 12 months of weekly sessions when problems are complex or have persisted for a long time. The play therapist plans the end of the therapy with the parents and, most importantly, with the child. Sessions are usually once a week, and consistency in terms of a regular day, time and location is very important for developing a trusting relationship.

The play therapist

Play therapists receive extensive training in subjects such as child development and attachment. They are also trained to use play as a means for understanding and communicating with children about feelings, thoughts and behaviour. Most play therapists are graduates who have already trained to work with children before they begin a post-graduate or Masters level qualification in play therapy.

Therapists may work independently or as part of a team of professionals, and may suggest a referral for other professional intervention as part of the support. This might include support for the parents or carers. They generally work with individual children but many have experience of working with groups and with siblings and/or parents and carers.

How to find a play therapist

It is important that a qualified play therapist is always used. Play Therapy UK (PTUK) has set up a register for play therapists accredited by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care. Those on the register meet the PTUK’s standards for safe and effective practice and are checked for fitness to practice at least once a month. The register can provide details of play therapists by name or location.

The British Association for Play Therapists (BAPT) also maintain an accredited voluntary register of members who have met their standards of practice in terms of education and training, professional practice, clinical supervision and continuing professional development.

Last reviewed 12 March 2015