The Importance of Play and Play Therapy

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

The word 'play' has a variety of meanings and explanations. Play is a physical or mental activity that takes place for the sole purpose of amusement. Games have a different outlook for different ages. For example, for an infant, play is a self-soothing activity that involves exploring things through their eyes; for the toddler, it's more of imitating others. Following the direction of others, for teenagers, it is learning; for adolescents, connected to their leisure activity; for adults, it is a diversion and relaxation.

Play is not dependent on toys, items or external objects. Games can be an excellent medium for motivation and engagement of the individual. Play is the foundation of learning, yet many are not connected with it. Play in early childhood plays a role in child development. Play helps children learn rules and what to expect in different situations. As children get older, they learn how to act in society, through play.

Nowadays, parents are so busy with their day to day activities, work and other responsibilities that they may not get a chance to explore play with their kids. For such parents and all other parents, play holds an integral role in building relationships and understanding their kids. There are children who are unable to process their emotions and convey thoughts to parents or other adults. Depression, anxiety, stress, hyperactivity and sensory issues are widespread nowadays. Therapists use play therapy as a medium for exploring trauma, abuse and bullying incidents, which are increasingly common.

Play Therapy has foundations in psychoanalysis; both disciplines are similar, in that they provide access to the child's inner world.

Play therapy is a therapy mainly used for children, defined as follows:-

"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." Association of Play Therapy (2008)

Play therapy is a form of child-led counselling, for children who experience social, emotional, or behavioural difficulties. As adults, when we are worried, we usually use words to express ourselves, but sometimes children need an external way to take out or express their emotions. Most children don't have the vocabulary to talk about their experiences, especially non-verbal kids; for them play is a mode of communication. However, they can express themselves and show how they are feeling, using the language of play. Play therapy provides a safe and confidential place for children to work through their problems. Play therapy gives children an open platform, where they reflect on their feelings and emotional regulation, without being judged by the therapist.

A trained therapist/clinician carries out these sessions. The therapist uses playtime to observe the child and understand the child's problems, without labelling. Many therapists use creative art materials, musical instruments, puppets, books and costumes in their therapy. There are many other new techniques that we can incorporate during a play therapy session, like a sand tray. While playing with these children, they often unconsciously play out the experiences that are troubling them, or express and externalize in some way the things they are feeling inside. In doing so, children get to experience the enormous relief that comes with expressing stressful thoughts or worries. Play therapy gives kids a chance to see their troubles from a new perspective, to ask for help if they need it. Play therapy is the best medium of empowering kids, by making therapeutic relationships, reflective listening, tracking and following the child as a leader.

Play therapy differs for every child. The therapist first conducts interviews with the child and parents. After observing the child, the therapist will set goals and some necessary limitations. A play therapist pays close attention to how a child reacts when separated from the parent, when the child is alone and when the parent returns. The play therapist uses these observations to decide what to do next. Some therapists bring parents and siblings into play therapy.

Meta-analysis research, conducted in 2000, included 94 play therapy outcome studies involving children. Results revealed a large positive effect on treatment outcomes across modality, gender, clinical vs. non-clinical populations, setting and theoretical schools of thought. Additionally, positive play therapy effects were highest when a parent was fully involved in the child's treatment (Bratton, Rhine and Jones, 2000).

Play therapy has shown to be beneficial in many studies, important in many aspects of life. Implementing clinical practice can be helpful and can help in achieving a breadth of goals.


Bratton, S., Rhine, T. and Jones, L. (2000) A Meta-Analysis of the Play Therapy Outcome Research from 1947 to present. International Journal of Play Therapy. October 2000.


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