Newsletter -- Dec 2008 issue

What is Play Therapy?
by Maureen Kaye, MFT, RPT

Play is the work of children - Freud

What is play therapy? Could play therapy be beneficial for my child? What age is appropriate for a child to participate in play therapy?

Children naturally have limited language development and skills depending on age, maturity and experience. With this in mind, a play therapist strategically utilizes play to assist a child with the expression of underlying feelings, fears, emotions, and experiences appropriate to their development. Play therapy differs from regular play in that the therapist helps children to address and resolve their own problems. When a child is struggling with feelings and experiences, it often manifests in their behavior or mood – at home, school, or with friends. This behavior may look like: tantrums, opposition, anger, aggression, anxiety, sadness, arguing, fighting, poor school performance and feelings of isolation. Although play is beneficial for anyone, play therapy is typically (though not exclusively) used for working with children ages 3 to 12.

For a child, play is their natural language and toys are their words. With the support and encouragement of a therapist with specialized training, a child learns to feel safe and supported as they build feelings of trust with the therapist and the environment. Through a child’s play, the therapist observes, encourages, and engages with the child and their play. The child develops an increased sense of control over themselves, their behavior and their environment, building self-esteem, a sense of empowerment, self-confidence and more positive behaviors. Through the therapeutic process of play therapy, children can resolve (or prevent) psychological and emotional difficulties, helping them achieve optimal growth and development. Through play and metaphor, a child is better able to express unspoken words - their feelings, fears and experiences, as the therapist encourages and supports them in their process. The child learns to feel safe as they explore within appropriate boundaries set by the therapist. In this unique environment, a child’s inner-world is allowed to surface.

In a directive play environment, the therapist targets specific areas for skill-building such as social, behavioral, and problem solving. With play therapy, even the most troubling problems can be addressed and lasting resolutions can be discovered, rehearsed, mastered, and adapted into lifelong strategies. Typically, therapists do not interpret a child’s play – they often work from a ‘curious’ stance, asking open-ended questions allowing the child to tell ‘their’ story.

In addition to the benefits for children, play therapy is helpful in working with families. With playful therapeutic family games and interventions, the therapist is able to explore and assess dynamics within the family. This helps to provide insight, assist with conflict resolution, help to build skill development and provide tools for better communication and understanding. This process will help foster a loving, balanced, supportive and harmonious family.

Maureen Kaye is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Registered Play Therapist at Families Counseling. In addition to her specialty in working with children, Maureen also works with adults, couples, and with parenting skills. She is also trained in EMDR for working with trauma. For further information or questions, please contact Maureen at (805) 428-6655 or learn more about her here.


Families Counseling is owned by Deborah Tucker, M.A., and is the practice site of several other licensed therapists. Each therapist's practice is separately owned, and completely independent.