By Melissa Martin, author of Tessie Tames Her Tongue: A Book About Learning When to Talk and When to Listen
What Is Play Therapy?
“Birds fly, fish swim, and children play,” writes Garry Landreth in his book Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship.
Play therapy can be the treatment of choice for child therapists in mental health agencies, private practices, and the school counseling office. It is a vehicle that allows children to express their thoughts, emotions, concerns, worries, anxieties, issues, and problems because play is a natural part of childhood. Sitting a child in a chair for 45 to 50 minutes for talk therapy makes for a bored child. By nature, children are curious and creative, and they like to move about. But the core of effective play therapy is a safe and trusting relationship with the child therapist.
Definition of Play Therapy from the Association for Play Therapy (APT)
According to the Association for Play Therapy (APT), play therapy is 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.” APT is a national professional society formed in 1982 to advance play therapy as a mental health treatment through research and to serve the training and credentialing needs of its members. Learn more about play therapy by checking out the “About Play Therapy” section at their website and by checking out the videos on their YouTube channel.
Play Therapy in Schools
APT gives credentials to school counselors and school psychologists who meet certain criteria, and play therapy is widely used in school settings. School-Based Play Therapy, a book edited by Athena A. Drewes and Charles E. Schaefer, is a guide for implementing play therapy in both preschool and elementary school settings.
The following fictional case is a composite of play therapy treatments and techniques used in a school setting by a school counselor credentialed as a play therapist.
Bruce, a six-year-old male in first grade, was referred by his teacher, Mr. Wellby, to Mrs. Goodbody, the school counselor. Bruce is struggling socially. He argues with classmates, refuses to participate in class activities, and withdraws from his friends during recess and lunch. Academically, his grades are deteriorating. Mr. Wellby contacted Bruce’s parents and learned that they recently divorced. Bruce was referred to meet with Mrs. Goodbody weekly for 30 minutes of play therapy for six weeks.
Mrs. Goodbody used two dollhouses as a tool to show how children adjust to living in two different houses. Bruce drew two family pictures instead of one, and Mrs. Goodbody helped him identify, label, communicate, express, and understand the gamut of his emotions. He processed his fear and anger at both his parents for the divorce. Mrs. Goodbody used picture books about divorce to help Bruce relate to other children experiencing the same issue. During the six weeks, Mrs. Goodbody periodically checked in with both of Bruce’s parents and Mr. Wellby. Both parents and teacher reported improved behaviors at home and school, and Bruce’s grades improved.
Does a Play Therapist Consult with Other Helping Professionals?
Yes. After release of information forms are signed, I communicate with school counselors and teachers. I like a team approach wherein parents, school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, teachers, pediatricians, and other helping professionals are team members along with the child client.
Play Therapy Items
As a play therapist, I utilize a sandtray, which is a favorite of child clients. It’s a wooden tray filled with sand, and clients create stories by selecting miniature figurines and placing them in the sandtray. To learn more about sandtrays, see the book Sandtray Therapy: A Practical Manual by Linda E. Homeyer and Daniel S. Sweeney.
My counseling office also has the following play items:
- dollhouse, school house, hospital house
- multicultural dolls
- therapeutic games
- picture books
- art supplies
- musical instruments
- cars, trucks, ambulance
- kitchen and dishes
Does Play Therapy Include Family Counseling?
Yes. Family counseling is an important piece of play therapy. Parents and caregivers help develop a treatment plan with goals and objectives with the play therapist. The plan usually involves a combination of individual sessions with the child as well as family sessions.
Play therapy is my treatment of choice for preschool- and elementary school–age kids.
“Enter into children’s play and you will find the place where their minds, hearts, and souls meet.” —Virginia Axline
Resources on Play Therapy
Landreth, G. L. Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship (New York: Routledge, 2012).
Landreth, G. L., D. C. Ray, and S. C. Bratton. “Play Therapy in Elementary Schools.” Psychology in the Schools 46, no. 3 (2009): 281–289.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is a clinical child therapist with experience as a play therapist, adjunct professor, workshop leader and trainer, and behavioral health consultant. Her specializations include mental health trauma treatment, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), and expressive therapies. A self-syndicated newspaper columnist, she writes on children’s mental health issues and parenting. Melissa lives in Ohio.
Melissa Martin is the author of Tessie Tames Her Tongue.
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