Play therapy is a therapeutic technique most often used with children ages three to 12; it is occasionally used with adolescents and adults as well. Through play therapy, individuals learn how to express themselves and their thoughts, and how to tackle problems they may be facing. The goal of play therapy is to help individuals ‘achieve optimal growth and development.’
Through engaging in play therapy, individuals can learn to enhance their communication skills, better regulate their emotions, problem solve in a more positive way, and address traumatic situations or experiences. Some clinicians may utilize play therapy when developing a diagnosis for someone. Play therapy can either be a primary approach to treatment, or it can be a supplementary approach.
Usually, play therapy occurs in a playroom where a mental health professional can watch the individual and assess their style of play, as well as their actions, while playing. There will be a variety of carefully-selected toys in the playroom; individuals may also be asked to engage in arts and crafts, dance, make music, or play pretend while engaging in play therapy.
There are two types of play therapy that are commonly used:
- Directive play therapy: in directive play therapy, the clinician helps guide the session with the individual, rather than having the individual engage in free play. The clinician may read a story, or engage the individual in games that have specific themes, with a certain goal in mind for the session.
- Non-directive play therapy: also known as unstructured play therapy, few boundaries or rules are imposed during the play session. In this approach, it is thought that when given the freedom to play as they please, individuals will be able to resolve the issues they are facing on their own.
Play therapy can be a useful tool in treating:
- Behavioral problems
- Depression and other mood issues
- Post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related disorders
- Issues stemming from grief and/or loss
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorder or other pervasive developmental disorders
- Conduct disorders
- Anger issues
Some clinicians who utilize play therapy in their practice may have credentialing from the Association for Play Therapy, a national professional society for the practice of play therapy.