Children who accept and love themselves feel more capable, confident, and are more likely to engage in healthy relationships.

Self-esteem is about valuing yourself and feeling worthy of love, care, and acceptance. Feeling this way is essential for a child’s development. It allows them to securely navigate the world, stand up for themselves, and confidently try new things.

Since most children don’t have the vocabulary or understanding to express their difficulties, play therapy can be an effective tool when trying to support a child’s healing process.

If you’re trying to help your child build confidence, play therapy activities can help.

Play therapy uses play as a means for children to naturally express what may be troubling them.

Children, particularly very young ones, may not have the developmental resources to identify, understand, and communicate big emotions. Instead, they may tend to act out their challenges.

“The beauty of play therapy is it creates this avenue for kids to talk about some of their most challenging life experiences without actually having to talk about them,” explains Melissa LaVigne, a licensed clinical social worker and play therapist in Buffalo, New York. “Play therapists look at the language of children. The children play freely in a way to express their experiences.”

Play therapy can support children living with:

Jodi Mullen, PhD, a mental health counselor and play therapist in Oswego, New York, believes play therapy works, in part, because it focuses on what’s right with a child instead of what’s wrong.

“In play therapy, children are accepted unconditionally and not corrected,” she says. “Trained play therapists honor the child’s perspective, and therefore children learn that they are enough exactly as they are.”

While play therapy is generally used with children between ages 3 to 12, it can also be an effective tool for teens and adults, Mullen says.

There are many strategies involved in play therapy, but LaVigne says two approaches are often used:

Child-centered play

The therapist follows the child’s lead and engages in a specific type of communication.

“If I’m doing a child-centered play, I would be tracking the child along the way,” says LaVigne. “So, imagine how a sports announcer might be tracking a basketball player moving down the court, like, ‘He’s going left. He’s going right. He’s got the ball. He’s going to shoot.’”

Directive play

Therapists direct the child through play. This may also include asking questions or acting out a situation to see the child’s response.

“Directive play is more like traditional therapy with the added element of play,” explains LaVigne.

Play therapy is typically led by a trained therapist who understands the different stages of child development and how to address mental health challenges like poor self-esteem.

Therapists may include different types of activities during play therapy, depending on the preferences of the child and the goals of the session.

Some of these play therapy activities can be helpful when working to boost a child’s self-esteem and confidence.

You can use these activities to help a child express how they feel. Still, working with a play therapist can provide the professional support you and your child might need.

1. Sand play therapy

The sand play activity uses a tray or box filled with sand and miniature toys, such as people or animals. The goal is to build a pretend world.

Playing with sand trays is one of LaVigne’s favorite activities. “Using sand trays is a powerful way to help children tell stories and create experiences outside of themselves,” she says.

By being in control of the miniature world, the activity can help boost a child’s sense of personal power and confidence.

“The miniatures help them miniaturize their life challenges and make them smaller in an attempt to make the kids feel more powerful and more distanced from that challenge,” LaVigne says.

To use this play therapy exercise, you can invite the child to play with the sand and incorporate whatever toys they prefer. Then you can ask them to tell you a story about the world they’re creating and what role every toy plays in this world.

2. Art creation

Artistic activities, such as drawing, painting, acting, and using clay, can be powerful healing tools for a child.

Children can explore their emotions and express themselves through the creation process. This helps them release emotional pain, which is part of the healing process.

Art also allows children to feel accomplished when they create something with their own hands and bodies. This, in turn, boosts self-esteem and confidence.

To use this technique, you can provide your child with a few options and tools and ask them to pick which one they want to use. Once they start creating their art, you can ask questions about the different elements in the art and how they feel about them.

Try to avoid correcting or evaluating their creation. It’s important that you accept whatever they create without praising or criticizing.

Try to identify any characters, shapes, or colors that repeat or that make them upset when talking about. Consider not pushing them for answers or reacting emotionally to their responses.

3. Pretend play

Pretend play can include role-playing or using toys to act out a situation.

Role-playing invites the child to talk about a specific person or scenario they may be facing while taking on another identity. This helps them avoid feeling guilty or that they’re betraying someone’s trust.

LaVigne says kids often use the doctor-patient or parent-child roles to act out a scenario that may be troubling them.

Pretend play can also include using toys to act out stories. For example, a child could use puppets and set up a puppet show around something that happened at school.

Being able to express how they feel or relive a situation through play can encourage a child to speak about important events in their lives.

“Some of my favorite interventions are the ones I let kids make up during the sessions,” LaVigne says. “I just let them take the lead.”

Play therapy helps kids build confidence and self-esteem by allowing them to gain mastery over something difficult and overwhelming for them. It also allows them to feel connected to you because you’re using their language.

Trusting others and feeling connected are important aspects of self-esteem.

“When we feel like we’ve figured something out or we’re stronger than a challenging experience, we’re more confident,” says LaVigne. “It’s that boost of pride that is something that makes anyone, especially a child, feel confident.”

Also, “shrinking” a circumstance or distancing from a troubling situation gives children an opportunity to feel strong and empowered.

Playing out different scenarios also helps them build social skills, which can impact their sense of confidence and belonging.

“It is more than a form of therapy,” says Mullen. “It is a way of being with a child that promotes growth and healing through connection.”

Play therapy is a form of mental health counseling that uses play as a natural means of expression. This allows children to feel safe when expressing how they feel.

Play therapy activities can help boost a child’s self-esteem by playing out situations that trouble them in a way that makes them feel in control and safe. They can also provide information to you about some of the challenges a child is experiencing that they haven’t been able to communicate in any other way.

Although most play therapy activities can be incorporated into the daily play routine with your child, a trained play therapist could be helpful if you believe the little one may be having a hard time coping with specific situations.

You can find a play therapist using the Association for Play Therapy’s therapist directory.