This Article Is Part of A Series For Expressive Therapy

Art Therapy Dance Therapy
Drama Therapy Horticultural Therapy
Music Therapy Psychodrama
Sandplay Writing Therapy


Play therapy aids children in resolving psychological challenges as well as offer a non-verbal outlet to work through anxiety, stress, and emotional expression. It is defined as the ‘systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development’ (APT). Children use play as a form of communication to process and interpret the world around them. Playing with one's peers allows individuals to explore self expression, self knowledge, and self efficacy while engaging in an activity that relieves boredom, aids in regulating emotion, and stimulates creative thinking (APT). While engaged in playtime activities, individuals are given an outlet to practice skills and enact roles necessary for survival.

Goals of Play Therapy

Therapists trained in play therapy practices structures playtime so that clients have appropriate toys and tools needed to properly express themselves and relate to both the environment and others. Activities are organized to foster a setting where clients feel supported, validated, empowered and safe. Often children with emotional disturbances and interpersonal issues have exhausted all means of communication available to them and disruptive behaviors or emotional outbursts become the only means of expression left. The structured play enables the child to explore practices in a more relaxed and less social setting that allow the client to exercise different approaches in interacting and constructively manipulating the world around them (Carmichael). Exploring interactions through play allows children to better understand and communicate feelings, thoughts, and resolve inner conflict. Playing and acting out specific interactions that are likely to occur in a play setting also gives children social tools to more effectively operate when confronted with similar situations in life.

When is Play Therapy Used?

Play therapy is primarily used in children between the ages of 3 and 12 but recently has been applied successfully to adults in a mental health and other health care settings. The mode, method, and interactions during play act as a litmus test for the emotional and social well being and maturity of the individual under scrutiny (Elliott). Children from a wide range of backgrounds and personal growth issues can benefit from structured therapeutic play. It is used to address life themes like loss, loneliness, anxiety, stress, fear, trust, and anger resolution.

Children that have suffered from a variety of traumatic occurrences can also benefit from play therapy. The possible inability to express the tumultuous emotions that follow a traumatic event can lead to tension, emotional distress, and behavioral outbursts (Elliott). Because children naturally learn about human relationships and the world around them by engaging in play with peers, therapists can insert therapeutic elements during play that aid in developing a more effective means of communicating, expressing feelings, and developing problem solving solutions. These new skills allow children to learn new and more acceptable methods of relating to others and potentially modifying inappropriate behaviors.

How Does Play Therapy Work?

The buffer that can be placed between a child’s actual problems and imaginary problems presented during play provide a safe distance from self and allows a more open expression of thoughts and feelings. In settings like these, a number of methods, like pretend and role play, can be utilized to enact the desired psychological changes (Carmichael). It allows individuals to explore, in a hypothetical and imaginative role, a number of methods and practices that lead to more satisfactory resolution of inner conflict. When children confront problems in a play setting, healthier solutions can be formed that lead to a change in the way they interact with and resolve concerns. A number of resolutions can be discovered, rehearsed, reformed, and adapted by the child into life strategies.

Criticisms of Play Therapy

Play therapy has a history of data to support it’s use in many settings for children. However, there are two major areas of criticism that abound. The first critique rests in play therapy’s methodology. It is widely based on planned procedures rather than scientific diagnostic criteria and is heavily client driven in methodology. The scope and scale of the toys available during play therapy can be problematic for smaller institutions that are limited in space and funding to provide therapy tools. Another criticism of play therapy is it’s ineffectiveness treating children with more severe degrees of disorders like Schizophrenia and Autism. Children suffering from severe forms of these disorders are often closed off from typical social interaction and lack the ability or willingness to participate in a social play setting. Data suggests that play therapy is not effective and therefore not recommended for these clients.


Association for Play Therapy, About Play Therapy. Retrieved August 25, 2013.

Carmichael, K.D. (2006). Play Therapy: An Introduction.Glenview, Il: Prentice Hall.

Elliott, J. & Place, M. (1998).Children in difficulty: A guide to understanding and helping. New York, Ny; Routledge.

Help Us Improve This Article

Did you find an inaccuracy? We work hard to provide accurate and scientifically reliable information. If you have found an error of any kind, please let us know by sending an email to, please reference the article title and the issue you found.

Share Therapedia With Others