Play Therapy for Children

What is play therapy?

Play therapy uses toys, games, and drama to help children learn to deal with their feelings. Play therapy helps children express their feelings without words.

When is it used?

Play therapy is used to treat:

  • Anxiety or depression
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Learning disabilities
  • Autism
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Family issues such as divorce or the death of a loved one
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a car accident, natural disaster, or child abuse

Play therapy can be helpful for children of all ages but is most often used for children between the ages of 3 and 12.

What happens during a therapy session?

Play therapists create a safe and interesting environment for your child. This helps your child feel comfortable and willing to explore new ways of coping. Your child may use dolls, action figures, modeling clay, art supplies, or other toys to express themselves and work on their problems.

The therapist may observe as your child chooses the toys they wish to play with. Or the therapist may choose toys for your child based on his history and experiences. The therapist will observe how your child plays with the toys, the feelings he expresses, and any aggressive actions. The therapist will set limits on your child’s behavior if needed. Play therapy usually works in stages:

  • At first, your child may feel sad, fearful, or angry about many people or events.
  • As therapy progresses, your child’s feelings may get more intense and focused on certain people or events.
  • In time, your child grows less upset. Your child feels more positive and starts to see people and events in a more balanced way.

Usually, therapists work only with your child and regularly report their findings to you. They will also suggest how you can best support your child.

How do I find a play therapist?

Ask your child’s healthcare provider or school counselor to recommend a play therapist. Psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family therapists may provide play therapy.

The International Society for Child and Play Therapy lists Registered Play Therapists on their Web site. The Web site address is

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-04-17
Last reviewed: 2014-04-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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