“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood,” by Fred Rogers. As this quote from the iconic “Mr. Rogers” reminds us, it has not been long in our society that child’s play and play in general has been found to be, not a luxury, but an essential part of growing and learning. And with the development of Play Therapy came the idea that play is also healing.

But how can play really help? Many parents may be encouraged to take their young child to a “play therapist” to work on behavioral or emotional challenges they may be experiencing. And as an observer, a parent may wonder, “It’s just play. How does that help?”

True Play Therapy, which is different than “playing a game in a therapy session”, has roots that reach far back into the history of psychotherapy.  Believe it or not, one of the first cases published about doing psychology with children was by Dr. Sigmund Freud in 1909.  This was the first case recorded in which a child’s difficult behaviors were attributed to underlying emotional needs and not a result of “bad training.”

Anna Freud, the youngest child of Dr. Sigmund Freud, took the family baton, between 1946 and 1965, and studied the use of play with children in child psychology settings to facilitate healing and gain access to a child’s inner world. Many others followed in the years to come. Fredrick Allen, in 1934, focused on the use of play to assist in the development of the therapeutic relationship and the development of self-acceptance in the child.

As time went on with a growing body of work and writing, such a Virginia Axlines’ books in the 1950s on a child-centered approach to Play Therapy. In the late 1960s and 1970s Dr. Garry Landreth formally developed Child-Centered Play Therapy.  And In 1982, the International Association for Play Therapy was established. 

Play Therapy has now become a widely accepted approach for working with children in child guidance settings. But why is it so effective?

Five Reasons that Play Therapy is so effective in helping children are:

  1. Play Therapy is developmentally age appropriate:

It has taken a long time for our society and the mental health community to realize that children are not “small adults.” A child’s brain is still growing and developing, therefore articulating difficult feelings and emotions is hard. As Dr. Gary Landreth stated so well, “In play therapy toys are like the child’s words and play is their language.”

  1. Children like Play Therapy:

What better way to talk about difficult feelings than to use a modality that makes you feel comfortable and elevates your mood? And the ability to use the whole body for playful expression can assist with helping the child learn how to self-sooth and self-regulate, in turn decreasing anxiety, depression and disruptive behaviors.

  1. Play Therapy is Expressive and Creative:

Play allows children to symbolically create play scenarios that resemble their own emotional experiences and provide an opportunity for the therapist and/or parent to provide validation and reparative experiences.

  1. Play Therapy Allows for the Mastery of Emotions:

As a child’s play unfolds over a series of sessions the child, with the support of an accepting therapist, they can develop as sense of understanding and empowerment over challenging situations in their lives. This in turn can lead to increased self-esteem and decreased distress.

  1. Play Therapy is Flexible:

Play allows the therapist or parent to meet the child where they are. Whatever the child’s age, ability, personal or cultural background, play with a trained play therapist, whether individual or with family members, can allow the child to communicate what they feel and need whether in a simple or elaborate fashion. This ultimately creates (pardon the pun) a “level playing field.”

Ultimately, Play Therapy is the perfect way to support children through the healing process. Even as adults we can feel how playful experiences in our lives, lighten our mood and decrease stress. Why not use play to heal!

For more information about Play Therapy and to find information on Registered Play Therapists in your area, you can go to the Association for Play Therapy website, www.a4pt.org. Or contact The Guidance Center in Long Beach, San Pedro or Compton where Play Therapy is offered as well as other evidenced-based treatment models that support children, adolescents and families in having the brightest future possible.

Valerie Wilson-Lindberg, LCSW is a Registered Play Therapy Clinical Supervisor in The Guidance Center’s Long Beach Outpatient Program, where she helps guide children and families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures. She is especially passionate about using play therapy and other expressive therapies to assist children, adolescents and their families in strengthening emotional connections and facilitating healing. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2017, Wilson worked with children and adolescents for over 20 years in child welfare settings, community based organizations, intensive and outpatient services and in private practice as a therapist, clinical supervisor and clinical director. Wilson earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work at California State University, Long Beach.