Play Therapy

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy uses play as a way to relate and teach children.  It allows children to describe and express thoughts and feelings through familiar action. When adults think of counseling, they think about a couch and two people in a room talking things out. This makes sense because talk is how adults plan, problem-solve and work through their concerns. Kids and even teens on the other hand, use play to process thoughts and feelings.

Test this out on yourself! Think of a time when you felt angry or anxious. Now imagine trying to describe the event (and your feelings) to a friend without using the words “angry” or “anxious” OR any synonyms for those words. You might find a way to share- perhaps by acting out your feelings – but the process feels challenging and possibly frustrating, doesn’t it? It’s hard to communicate when you can’t say things in the way you normally do or in a way that feels safe. This is how kids often feel and why they respond with “I don’t know” when adults ask questions about thoughts or feelings. Toys, art and games allow kids to understand and share feelings in a way they understand.  This is why play therapy works to teach and support learning that extends beyond the therapy session.

Is Play Therapy really therapy?

Absolutely! All therapy starts by creating a positive, accepting client-therapist relationship. Adults connect by listening and talking with each other, but kids and teens connect by doing things together.  Play serves as a bridge; a way to connect with kids and understand how they see the world in a way that’s completely natural to them. And just like with adult therapy, I observe and point out patterns, reflect feelings and teach a variety of skills. As a result, kids learn to identify and process feelings, cope with uncomfortable emotions like anxiety and anger, express themselves or socialize more comfortably. The play room and I become a safe place for figuring out solutions to whatever is going on in the child’s or teen’s life.

Doesn’t every child therapist use play?

Many therapists use art and play when working with kids. Most use it to as a supplement to talk therapy rather than really using the play as therapy. Play therapy, particularly child-centered play starts by genuinely accepting the child.  The focus is on following and allowing the child or teen to express themselves with and through play. The therapist reflects, mirrors, tracks and gently sets limits to facilitate the child’s or teen’s processing and learning. In order to do this effectively, play therapists such as myself have a significant amount of specific training in play therapy methods (child-centered play, directed play, sand tray play, art, filial play therapy, family play therapy, neuroscience of play) and learn to use them in a strategic and structured way to meet the needs of the clients.

My kid is very articulate and talks about his/ her feelings all the time so why should I consider play therapy?

Sometimes children use words and other times they use play or art to understand, communicate and express thoughts and feelings. Bright, articulate kids are often aware that adults feel that things are ok if kids talk about them.  Smart kids learn what works so they will talk about things in ways that satisfy their parents without having a way to really figure things out emotionally. Words are specific and literal. They mean different things to different people and it can be hard or uncomfortable to always say what you truly mean. Even adults sometimes have difficulty communicating how they feel through words. Play on the other hand is flexible and non-literal.  It connects with and opens up our creativity which in turn engages the brain’s learning and retention processes. When kids play, they may not be actively thinking about an issue or problem but they are working through it.

How does play therapy work?

Kids learn and process information differently from adults because their brains are still growing. The human brain develops physically, socially, intellectually (cognitively) and emotionally during the first 25 years of life. During this time we learn to do a number of things: figure things out, use logic and reasoning, problem-solve, make decisions, manage and cope with uncomfortable feelings and learn social skills.

Learning comes in many forms. When kids toss a ball back and forth, play cards or a board game, dress up or pretend to cook or play with dolls or trucks they are developing gross and fine motor skills. They are learning to explore feelings, social roles and rules They gain self-discipline and self-confidence. Play therapy works by building on a child’s normal communicative and learning processes to help them accept and express thoughts and feelings in constructive ways and encourages creativity as a way to develop stronger problem-solving skills. In addition, playroom activities (often referred to as “special play time”) and art activities are largely selected and initiated by the child or teen which supports the development of healthy decision-making skills. All these things increase a child’s or teen’s sense of mastery, self-esteem and self-confidence.

Why play therapy works

How play therapy works and why it works are very closely related.  Play therapy works because it builds on the way kids normally learn.  Play also creates an easy connection between the child and therapist. It reduces stress. It allows children to relax and creates a space where kids can feel safe while testing out different feelings like anger, frustration, fear or excitement.  Finally play is self-rewarding so it reinforces learning.

What happens in play therapy?

Play therapy starts by working to develop a warm, friendly relationship with the child.  For example, a first session with a young child might involve making paper bag puppets as a way to get to know each other.  In working with kids I focus on how your child sees the world which helps me understand what’s under the behaviors that are causing the child and/or parents concern. focus.   As trust and connection develop, the child or teen feels safe which allows them to more readily and easily communicate intimate feelings and thoughts.

I also use specific techniques as well as my observations to help me understand how the child or teen experiences their world, how they communicate and how they react to events and other people. I use this to help kids identify and name their feelings which is important. The more aware we become of our feelings and the kinds of thoughts or physical sensations they create, the more able we are to change. Nothing changes without awareness.

What’s the difference between play therapy and playing with my child at home?

While parent-child play is important to creating connection, family play is very different than therapeutic play. Play with parents or other adults tends to focus on rules and skills while play therapy focuses on process and meaning.  It allows kids to experiment with different responses and seeing what happens (which is how we learn). This supports problem-solving and creativity skills while reducing anxiety about there only being one right way to do things. This is how kids learn what works as a way to express themselves or work through or accept feelings or situations.

During play therapy, the therapist may track what the child is doing: “You picked up the dinosaur. The dinosaur is jumping up and down on the skeletons” or “You’ve used a lot of red paint. You really like red!”

Or she may reflect the feelings she’s seeing expressed: “You’re really frustrated!

Or participate in play (sword fighting for example) or role plays but only as directed by the child.

Play therapists also gently set limits: “You may not throw paint on the floor but you can throw it onto this paper.”

Problem-solving, learning to accept and manage feelings and respect limits are important skills that we use throughout our lives.   Play therapy teaches and reinforces those skills in a way that kids understand and accept.


About Jeannette

Jeannette Harroun is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist/Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor in Lafayette, CA specializing in child, teen, parent and family support.
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Contact Details

3468 Mt. Diablo Blvd, #B301 (Mail: #B201)

Lafayette, CA 94549



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