What is Play Therapy and How Does It Work?

“So what do you do for a living”? 

The usual question we all face and ask others from time to time in conversation. The funny thing about this question when you’re someone who practices play therapy with kids is that many people don’t know how to respond to that. I often get responses like: “oh sounds like fun, you play with kids all day”. I usually smile to myself and think that yes in fact it is fun. However, fun doesn’t do justice to the process that happens in the playroom. Fun doesn’t reflect the healing, growth, self-expression and resiliency that I experience in the playroom.

Through play therapy, I have seen and felt the fear of domestic violence being played out in the doll house, where the child needed to share those memories with someone who is there to witness and validate those feelings without judgement.

I have witnessed children playing with baby dolls, feeding and bathing them, while they re-nurture themselves; a need they have as a result of childhood neglect. I have seen children with selective mutism speak and play with puppets, until they were able to work through their anxieties and speak outside of the playroom. I have been privileged to be able to provide to children the opportunity to experience growth under the most favorable conditions.

In the play room, the child is the most important person, they are in control of the situation and of themselves.

Being there as a therapist; accepting, understanding, giving them a sense of security, and reflecting their own behaviors to them in a way that helps them understand their own feelings a little better, allows them to play out their accumulated feelings of tension, frustration, insecurity, aggression and confusion.

Play is the natural medium for self-expression, and as Virginia M. Axline once said, “play is the child’s language, and toys are their words”.

The symbolic expression of play therapy invites the play therapist into the child’s world, where they are no longer confined by reality. Instead, play is used by the child to control their world.

They have the power in the playroom to be anything, and the capability to do anything. Therefore, they develop a sense of control and competence, which in turn helps develop their confidence and self-esteem.

Play therapy is a way to help children help themselves. For example, repetition of play behaviors that occur in the playroom, such as choosing the same toy or playing the same scenario every time they come in indicates that the child is working on an important issue. The repetitive behavior demonstrates that the child is determined to express the internal struggle and possibly find ways to manage and resolve this struggle.

Some examples of this in the playroom is when a child repeatedly buries the same toy in the sand, keeps  replaying the scenario of a toy being hurt and taking it to the hospital before dying or moves to the medical kit, and starts applying bandages to their arms. I’ve had many parents doubt and scoff at the idea of play therapy until they see results on their children’s behaviors and general well-being. However, play therapy cannot be rushed as it is based on the pace of the child. They will bring out their self-healing capacities and become free to be themselves once they feel safe enough with their therapist and in the playroom.

Play therapy works because play is a universal language and children don’t need to have cognitive or verbal skills to talk about their feelings and experiences.

And so at the end of the day, after all the toys are back on the shelves and children have come to do what they needed to do, it will always be difficult to answer the question “how was your day?” because as much as I try to explain, I will never be able to give a glimpse of what children share from their own worlds and how this is something that isn’t just fun, it’s play therapy.


  • Axline, V. M. (1990). Play therapy. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Ray, D. C. (2011). Advanced play therapy: essential conditions, knowledge, and skills for child practice. New York: Routledge.

Source: 360Moms

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