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Play Therapy Helps Kids Express Emotions

Researchers from Case Western Reserve University have discovered that observing children while they are playing can provide a good indication of how emotionally charged their memories will be. Emotions in play can not only help children in traumatic situations, it can also help children express negative emotions that arise in daily life and result in better processing of those emotions and integrating them into their memories.

Emotions–whether positive or negative–in play offer important information to people working with children about how able they will be at expressing the emotional side of their memories. Accessing emotional memories is important for adjusting to traumas experienced.

Many children are unable to start talking about their emotions or memories with someone new, but watching children play can help child therapists and others working with children gauge how open children might be to talking about the emotions associated with past memories, according to Sandra Russ, Case professor of psychology. She has been studying the emotional side of play and how play benefits children for more than 20 years.

Play Therapy Helps Kids Express Emotions Russ, with Ethan D. Schafer, discusses this discovery in the Creativity Research Journal article, “Affect in Fantasy Play, Emotion in Memories, and Divergent Thinking.” In the past, this link between emotions in play therapy and emotions in memories was observed but had not been formally studied in children.

The psychologists administered three tests to 46 children in the first and second grades in a suburban community. They visited the children for two, 30-minute sessions.

Children played freely for five minutes with some puppets while the researchers video recorded the emotions they used in their imaginative play. Afterwards, the researchers used the Affect Play Scale (APS) that Russ developed to rate and measure 11 different emotions exhibited during the play session. They also had children freely associate words with eight objects that might illicit a range of emotionally-charged responses to such things as a needle, matches, cookie, ball or button. Then children were asked nine questions that explored positive, negative or neutral memories. All were rated for their emotions.

The researchers stated that the frequency of emotions in play was significantly related to the emotions expressed in the memory task, with negative emotions stronger than positive ones.

“The finding in this study that emotion in memory description related to divergent (creative) thinking supports the concept that access to emotion in memory broadens the association process,” they also report.

Emotions in play also were significantly related to creative/divergent thinking as in other studies.

Source: Case Western Reserve University

Play Therapy Helps Kids Express Emotions

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Play Therapy Helps Kids Express Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 25, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.