It is natural for parents to feel curious and inquisitive about how and why a trained mental health professional would choose to play with their child as a central mechanism for providing therapy services. Helping parents learn how and why play therapy works is an essential first step in the therapy process. This article seeks to provide a straight forward explanation to so that parents can have a full understanding of the power of play in psychotherapy with children.

Dr. Charles Schafer noted that more and more respected mental health professionals acknowledge that play is a vitally important contributor to a child’s wellbeing (Schaefer, 1993). Play supports and improves mental, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Play has been recognized by philosophers over the span of time as a powerful agent of growth and change.

“You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” – Richard Lingard 

Dr. Garry Landreth, one of the greatest teachers and leaders in the field of play therapy and author of The Art of the Relationship, has said that play relieves stress, enhances connections in relationships, stimulates creative expression and exploration, and helps us regulate our emotions. Dr. Landreth has gone on to explain that in play therapy the toys in the play room are the child’s words and the play itself is the child’s language.

In play therapy, children are provided an emotionally safe and accepting environment where they can explore, express and experience whatever it is that they need to explore, express and experience for their natural process of growth and healing. In my children’s therapeutic book series called Miss Piper’s Playroom, I have created a number of books to help children and parents be introduced to the experience of going to therapy with a child therapist who has a special room filled with toys, games and fun activities.

Child therapists providing play therapy are trained in the language of play.

Some child therapists allow the child to lead the way through their natural play, providing attentive witnessing, attunement and therapeutic presence while other child therapists may strategically facilitate particular play-based activities, games or exploratory exercises to assist children in the process of  expressing whatever may be bothering them through the play. There are different approaches to play therapy from pure child centered play therapy which is non-directive to the other end of the spectrum in which therapist use very directive interventions with specific aims in session. Regardless of approach, all play therapy helps therapists to connect to the child through play-based activities and experience.

The Association for Play Therapy defines  play therapy as “…the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”

Research shows that play therapy is effective for children experiencing a wide range of challenges amid social, emotional, and behavioral issues. Children facing life stressors and major transitions are able to heal, integrate and grow in the play room with a trained play therapist.

It is common for parents to first feel resistance to bringing their child to play with an adult in a play room. It is important for the child therapist to spend time with parents in the beginning answering questions and explaining about the power of play. Many child therapists will include parents in the play therapy process with family play therapy sessions, regular parent consultations for ongoing discussion as to the child’s progress in therapy.

5 things for parents to better understand how and why play therapy works:

  1. Play is the natural language for children through which they explore, express and experience. We are trained in knowing how to meet them there and speak their language so we can understand what is happening for them that they may otherwise not be able to express verbally
  2. Children act out what is bothering them metaphorically in their play. We know how to see these metaphors and we know how to facilitate experiences in the play room that help children naturally resolve what is bothering them.
  3. Play therapy has been shown by research to be the most effective way to connect with children therapeutically and provide them a means to heal and grow.
  4. Play is a natural stress reliever. When children get to play they are able to release stress and this helps them regulate their emotions.
  5. Play is a way for children to bond and connect with others.

Helping parents understand how and why play therapy works sometimes comes by sharing some powerful videos produced by the Association for Play Therapy such as these 3 videos below and you can find research references here .