Play Therapy: A Healing Tool for Children

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Bob Livingstone is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCS 11087) in private practice for 22 years in San Francisco, California. He holds a Masters Degree ...Read More

As a parent, you may be considering psychotherapy as an intervention for your child. He may be misbehaving at home, his grades may have plummeted, his fears have suddenly increased, and he may be sullen or filled with anger. Play Therapy may be the right modality for your child.

Virginia Axline wrote Play Therapy in 1947 and she developed the following principals for therapists: Must develop a warm and friendly relationship with the child, Accepts the child as she or he is, Establishes a feeling of permission in the relationship so that the child feels free to express his or her feelings completely, Is alert to recognize the feelings the child is expressing and reflects these feelings back in such a manner that the child gains insight into his/her behavior, Maintains a deep respect for the child’s ability to solve his/her problems and gives the child the opportunity to do so, The responsibility to make choices and to institute change is the child’s, Does not attempt to direct the child’s actions or conversations in any manner, The child leads the way, the therapist follows, Does not hurry the therapy along, It is a gradual process and must be recognized as such by the therapist and Only establishes those limitations necessary to anchor the therapy to the world of reality and to make the child aware of his/her responsibility in the relationship.


Play Therapy is practiced widely throughout America today and can be utilized with children ages 3-12. Older children can also be good candidates for Play Therapy depending on their maturity level and their emotional needs. Some older kids may find it easy to talk about their feelings while immersed in playing a board game rather than being asked questions by the therapist in the traditional way.

The Play Therapist has many tools at her disposal. He has art supplies, card games, therapeutic board games, regular board games and sand trays. One of the main strategies that the therapist employs while using these vehicles is to develop a close alliance/relationship with the child.

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The child, through play therapy can learn to trust the therapist and no longer be resistant to talking about his problems or ways to make himself feel better in an appropriate manner. During the play, the therapist will be gradually getting to know the child by asking him what sports she likes, how does she get along with her parents, what is her understanding of why she is coming to therapy, What television shows she likes, What makes her angry and what makes her sad.

The child begins to sense that the therapist really cares about him and this increases the trust the child has for her. This is another means to help the child open up about the difficulties he is having. I have worked with many children in divorce situations who initially find it difficult to trust any adults because their parents have placed them in the middle of their conflict. The moment that the child can reveal how burdened and guilty he feels about the divorce, then I can praise him for being so honest and reassure him that the divorce was not his fault. I can also work with the parents to give them tools to stop placing their kids in the middle of their conflict.

Play Therapy can also assess the security level a child has by how intently he wants to win the game and his reaction to losing. I have found that kids who have to absolutely win every game and have a tantrum when they lose, are having issues of low self-esteem and self worth. These issues can be worked on directly in the therapy session by simply asking the child “Why is it so important to win?” Through this discussion, I may be able to get to the root of his low self esteem and help him and his parents develop a plan to improve it.

When the child first comes into the play therapy office, he is excited about all the different games and things to do. The toys and games are a means to motivate the child to want to attend therapy sessions and form a bond with the therapist.

Play Therapy is a wonderful healing tool for children. As a therapist, it allows for the possibility of developing a close relationship with the child. If the therapist actually builds that alliance, she has a very good chance of helping him with his struggles.

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