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Play Therapy

A way to help children who are experiencing problem

Kathy Eugster, Barbara Tredger

Reprinted from "Treatment for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (1), p. 20-21

When parents and other adults are worried about a child’s behaviour, they usually want to seek help for that child. One of the best ways to help children is through an approach known as play therapy.

Play therapy is a treatment approach specifically developed to help children between the ages of three and 12. A play therapist is trained to help a child who is struggling with problems to explore and resolve these problems through the use of play.

Children express themselves much better by playing than by talking. In play therapy, children are provided with specially chosen toys and play materials with which they can play out what they have difficulty saying with words. Children will play using their imaginations in ways that are related to events that have happened in their lives. For example, a child who has been in a car accident may play by crashing toy cars together over and over. A child who has seen his parents fighting may use puppets to act out these conflicts seen at home.

In play therapy, children do not have to talk about their problems to feel better. Play therapy allows children to distance themselves from feelings and memories that would normally be too difficult for them to talk about directly. When children play with toys in ways that are similar to difficult situations that have happened in their lives, the associated upsetting feelings and memories begin to fade. In play therapy, children will play in ways that help them make sense of a confusing world. Through play, children can get a better understanding of what has happened in their lives. By playing out a scene where a child toy gets hurt and then gets help from a toy doctor, the child may begin to understand that getting hurt was not his or her fault. In addition, the child will gain a sense of hopefulness and realize that help can be available after a hurtful incident.

During play, creative thoughts are encouraged and children can fi nd solutions to their problems. For example, a child may play out different endings to a particular make believe story, finding one particular ending that feels good. This is similar to what an adult does by talking to someone about different ways to solve a particular problem.

In play therapy, a child can also pretend to be different characters. This gives him or her an idea of what it feels like to be in another person’s shoes. Again, this is like an adult talking with someone and then understanding things from different points of view. This ability to experience and understand different perspectives helps a child to develop a sense of empathy toward others.

Children will often feel more in control of their lives and more self-confident after being involved in play therapy. The net result is that problem behaviours will frequently decrease or disappear altogether.

Play therapists have recently been evaluating research that has been conducted over the past 50 years on the effectiveness of play therapy. They have found that play therapy is an effective treatment for children experiencing a wide variety of social, emotional and behavioural problems. It is also an excellent way to help children recover and heal from stressful or traumatic experiences.1 Play therapy has been used for multiple mental health concerns, such as anger management, grief and loss, divorce and trauma.2,3 Play therapy has also been used successfully to treat anxiety, depression, AD/ HD, pervasive developmental disorders, academic and social developmental issues, physical and learning disabilities, and conduct disorders.4 Play therapy can also be used successfully in conjunction with medication.

Play therapy is different than regular play and to be effective requires the presence of a trained therapist. In British Columbia, the BC Association for Play Therapy (BCAPT) supports mental health professionals who are interested in obtaining training in the field of play therapy. BCAPT has been active since 1993 in advocating for the emotional well-being of children through advancing and promoting the professional practice of play therapy. BCAPT conducts educational and professional meetings and conferences, collaborates with other professional organizations, and provides support to professionals and students in the field of play therapy. BCAPT has had close ties over the years with the California-based Association for Play Therapy (APT), which was founded in 1982 and grants the credentials of Registered Play Therapist and Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor to those mental health professionals who meet their requirements.

About the Authors

Kathy is a Board Member of the BC Association for Play Therapy and a child and family therapist in private practice and with Family Services of the North Shore

Barbara is President of the BC Association for Play Therapy and a child and family therapist in private practice and with Family Services of Greater Vancouver

  1. Play Therapy Makes A Difference! ps.playtherapy.cfm

  2. Gil, E. & Drewes, A. (Eds.) (2005). Cultural issues in play therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

  3. Landreth, G., Sweeney, D., Ray, D. et al. (2005). Play therapy interventions with children’s problems: Case studies with DSM-IV-TR diagnoses (2nd ed.). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.

  4. Bratton, S., Ray, D. & Rhine, T. (2005). The efficacy of play therapy with children: A meta-analytic review of treatment outcomes. Journal of Professional Psychology Research and Practice, 36(4), 376-390.

  5. Sweeney, D. & Tatum, R. (2001). What the play therapist needs to know about medications. In G. Landreth (Ed.). Innovations in play therapy: Issues, process, and special populations (pp. 51-63). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

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