What is Play Therapy?


Play therapy is a highly successful method for helping children.  First developed more than 100 years ago, today play therapy refers to a large number of treatment methods, all of which use play to help children learn to communicate, express feelings, modify behavior, develop problem-solving skills, and learn a variety of ways of relating to others.*

Play is the natural language of children. It provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows them to express thoughts and feelings.  In play therapy, toys are like the child's words and play is the child's language. The positive relationship that develops between therapist and child during play therapy sessions provides a corrective emotional experience necessary for healing.

How Does Play Therapy Work?

When children come to play therapy, often they have used up their own problem solving tools, and they misbehave, may act out at home, with friends, and at school. Play therapy allows trained mental health practitioners to assess and understand children's play. By confronting problems in the clinical Play Therapy setting, children find healthier solutions. Play therapy allows children to change the way they think about, feel toward, and resolve their concerns. Even the most troubling problems can be confronted in play therapy and lasting resolutions can be discovered, rehearsed, mastered and adapted into lifelong strategies.

Who Benefits from Play Therapy?

Although virtually everyone benefits from play therapy, it is especially appropriate for children ages 3 through 12 years old.  In recent years, however, play therapy interventions have also been applied to infants and toddlers.  In addition, teenagers and adults have responded well to play and recreational techniques, and as a result, the use of play therapy with adults within mental health, agency, and other healthcare contexts is increasing.

How Will Play Therapy Benefit A Child?

Play therapy is highly effective for children experiencing a wide variety of social, emotional, behavioral, and learning problems: It helps children whose problems are related to life stressors such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, assimilate stressful experiences, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and natural disasters. Play therapy helps children:

•Become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies.

•Develop new and creative solutions to problems.

•Develop respect and acceptance of self and others.

•Learn to experience and express emotion.

•Cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others.

•Learn new social skills and relational skills with family.

•Develop self-efficacy and thus a better assuredness about their abilities.

How Long Does Play Therapy Take?

Each play therapy session varies in length but usually last about 30 to 50 minutes. Sessions are usually held weekly. Research suggests that it takes an average of 20 play therapy sessions to resolve the problems of the typical child referred for treatment. Of course, some children may improve much faster while more serious or ongoing problems may take longer to resolve.

How are Families Involved in Play Therapy?

Families play an important role in children's healing processes. The interaction between children's problems and their families is always complex. Sometimes children develop problems as a way of signaling that there is something wrong in the family. Other times the entire family becomes distressed because the child's problems are so disruptive. In all cases, children and families heal faster when they work together.

The play therapist will make some decisions about how and when to involve some or all members of the family in the play therapy. At a minimum, the therapist will want to communicate regularly with the child's caretakers to develop a plan for resolving problems as they are identified and to monitor the progress of the treatment. Other options might include involving a) the parents or caretakers directly in the treatment in what is called filial play therapy and b) the whole family in family play therapy. Whatever the level the family members choose to be involved, they are an essential part of the child's healing.

Who Practices Play Therapy?

The practice of play therapy requires extensive specialized education, training, and experience. A play therapist is a licensed (or certified) mental health professional who has earned a Master's or Doctorate degree in a mental health field with considerable general clinical experience and supervision.


The information here was developed by the Association for Play Therapy and displayed for the general public and mental health professionals.  It was crafted by JP Lilly, LCSW, RPT-S, Kevin O'Connor, PhD, RPT-S, and Teri Krull, LCSW, RPT-S and later revised in part by Charles Schaefer, PhD, RPT-S, Garry Landreth, EdD, LPC, RPT-S, and Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, EdD, LPC, RPT-S. Linked mental health conditions and concerns and behavioral disorders were drafted by Pehrsson and Karla Carmichael, PhD, LPC, RPT-S respectively. Research citations were compiled by Pehrsson and Oregon State University graduate assistant Mary Aguilera.