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Helping a Child Through Play Therapy

Adults often think of child’s play as mere fun and games, or a way to fill time. Actually, imaginative and creative play assists a child’s cognitive growth and emotional adjustment. Through play, a child develops self-confidence, a positive self-image and learns to express feelings, make decisions and cope with real-life situations. As such, play can be therapeutic, helping a child deal with and overcome problems that inhibit his normal development.

How does play therapy work?

Play therapy offers a child a safe place to play out-rather than talk out-his thoughts, feelings and problems. The therapist chooses toys that encourage “fantasy play,” such as clay, sand, water, drawing materials and puppets, as well as toys that enable a child to act out real-life scenarios. The therapist builds a warm and supportive relationship with the child, thereby encouraging the child to open up through the symbolic language of play.

During a therapy session, few limits are set and the child is given complete freedom to control his play and actions. In such a protective, yet empowering environment, the child generally leads the therapist to the source of his emotional disturbance through his activity and behavior. The therapist uses developmentally appropriate techniques to help the child let go of negative or restricting feelings and develop coping mechanisms to use in real life.

Who can benefit from play therapy?

All children go through stages or an occasional emotional “crisis.” But some children have serious problems, often caused by:


  • Family violence
  • Divorce, separation or other changes in a family situation
  • Severe burns or disfigurement
  • Chronic illness
  • Deafness or other physical challenges
  • Grief
  • Hospitalization
  • Learning disabilities or other mental challenges

Often, a child needing help displays the following traits or behaviors:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Poor relationship with peers or siblings
  • Passivity, withdrawal
  • Bedwetting after toilet training
  • Reading problems
  • Social immaturity
  • Speech difficulties
  • Refusal to speak
  • Preoccupation with sex
  • Excessive worrying, anger, sadness or anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Aggressive behavior or acting out

Knowing if a child needs professional help is not always easy. Ask your family physician or a mental health professional for guidance.

Session one and beyond

During the first session, the therapist describes the treatment process, parental involvement, treatment termination and cost. Confidentially is reviewed, and parents must sign a consent to treat before therapy can begin.

The therapist talks with the parents to learn more about the problem-how long it has been present, how they have tried to deal with it, and how it affects the child’s life and family members. Then, the child is introduced to the therapist, the playroom and the therapeutic process. Usually, a child will see the play therapist two to three times a week. The length of treatment varies.

The child’s level of functioning, during the session and at home, will worsen and improve over the course of therapy. Once the child has worked through his problem and has reached a state of emotional health and a level of functioning that is appropriate for his age and stage of development, he is ready to end treatment.

Helping a Child Through Play Therapy

Jane Framingham, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Framingham, J. (2018). Helping a Child Through Play Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 21, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.