What is Play Therapy?

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Since many notable mental health researchers in recent years have found significant evidence displaying that play is as important to human happiness as love and work, play therapy has quickly developed into a popular structured therapy approach to help children express their troubles.

According to the Association for Play Therapy (APT), play therapy is defined as the systematic process in which “trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psycho-social difficulties for achieving optimal growth.” Similar to counseling for adults, play therapy utilizes children’s natural mode of expression to help them communicate their feelings more easily with toys, rather than words.

Whether you are a parent, social worker, psychotherapist, or licensed mental health professional, the following is a brief overview of what you should know about play therapy.

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How Does Play Therapy Work?

With the curative powers inherent in play, therapists strategically utilize play therapy to help children to express their experiences and/or feelings through a more natural self-guided process. In play therapy, the toys are used as the child’s words while the playtime is the child’s language for expressing what is troubling them without verbal language. In most cases, children are referred to play therapy services to help them cope with difficult emotions and find solutions to any emotional, social, behavioral, learning, or mental health problems being experienced.

Furthermore, play therapy is becoming an increasingly important tool for trained play therapists to also confront children’s problems. Within a clinical play therapy setting, children are instructed on how to find healthier solutions, change the way they feel toward a certain situation, and resolve their concerns. Through play, therapists may help children learn more appropriately adaptive behaviors when there are deficits in a child’s emotional or social skills. As a result, children are able to learn to communicate with others, express their feelings, modify their own behaviors, develop more effective coping skills, and learn ways to relate to other people.

Who Benefits the Most from Play Therapy?

While virtually anyone can benefit from this therapeutic practice and an increasing number of adults are participating in play therapy within mental healthcare contexts, play therapy is most often appropriate for children who are between the ages of 3 and 12 years old. Play therapy is usually implemented as a treatment option in school, mental health, private practice, developmental, hospital, recreational, agency, and residential care settings. With sessions that usually last around 30 to 45 minutes each, research has shown that it usually takes an average of 20 play therapy sessions to resolve typical childhood problems.

Play therapy can be an extremely effective treatment plan for the primary intervention or adjunctive therapy for a wide variety of mental health concerns, ranging from anger management to grief and family crisis. The healing medium of play therapy can be very beneficial for children who are dealing with parental separation, sexual or physical abuse, adoption, death of a loved one, hospitalization, domestic violence, and other major crises. In addition, research supports the effectiveness of play therapy with children experiencing mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities.

Overall, play therapy is rapidly becoming one of the most effective therapeutic approaches for therapists and mental health professionals to help children on healing or coping with complex problems. If you are interested in practicing play therapy, it is required that play therapists first become licensed mental health professionals with a master’s or doctoral degree in any mental health field. After receiving advanced specialized training, experience, and supervision in play therapy, you can become a Registered Play Therapist (RPT) to help children utilize their natural mode of self-expression for reaching a more optimal level of well-being.

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