What exactly is play therapy?
Play therapy is a method of providing counseling/therapy that utilizes play and toys as a way of communicating with and understanding the child (or adolescent or adult in some circumstances).
Play therapy does not all look the same, as there are many models of play therapy utilized by mental health professionals who are trained in various theories of counseling. The one thing that all play therapists do have in common is that they use play as a way of communicating with the client.
I play with my kid all the time. What is the difference between me playing with my child and a play therapist playing with my child?
Parents playing with children has various developmental benefits, including the development of cognitive, physical, social, and emotional skills. One of the best things parents can do to help their children to develop optimally is to clear the schedule from tutoring and academic-based activities, turn off the screen and just play!
A play therapist playing with children also has similar benefits to that of parent-child play but takes those benefits to a therapeutic level. The difference between a play therapist and a parent or other caregiver is that the play therapist is trained in utilizing the play in a therapeutic way. The Association for Play Therapy (APT) explains that play therapy occurs when “trained Play Therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”
Registered Play Therapists (RPT) go through training to understand how to use play in a therapeutic way to help your child to work through the challenges he or she is facing and to develop skills for facing each day. Parents may try to do this through play and conversations—which is wonderful and encouraged—but play therapists are trained for this very role and are passionate about helping your child to thrive.
My child’s therapist has toys in her office. Is she a play therapist?
Many therapists utilize toys in their counseling practice because they work with children. However, it’s important to note that just having toys and games in an office does not mean that a therapist is a trained play therapist.
Despite many child counselors utilizing these techniques, it’s important for parents to know that play therapy is not using games or toys as a distraction to try to “trick” kids into talking nor should it be used as a reward for children after they “do the work” of therapy.
Play therapy is utilizing the toys and play as the therapeutic intervention and takes place only when trained play therapists are the professional providing the services.
The credential of Registered Play Therapist (RPT) is provided by the Association for Play Therapy to those mental health professionals who:
- Are licensed mental health professionals in their state,
- Have achieved training in the theories and application of play therapy, and
- Have received supervision from an approved Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor in the practice and provision of play therapy in a clinical context.
My child has lots of fun in play therapy. How do I know if it is working or if he just enjoys coming to play each week?
There are various play therapy theories that are all rooted in play. Because the focus is on play, children generally tend to enjoy the play therapy experience, which can lead to parents questioning if their child is actually doing anything besides “just playing” with their therapist.
Because play therapy respects the developmental needs of children, play therapy clients often believe that they are just playing. The purpose of many play therapy theories is to help the child to feel valued, respected and connected. Children naturally do not explain these details to their parents as being “therapeutic” because while they benefit from what is happening, they don’t always recognize what is happening and what value it brings to their daily life.
During play, they do not recognize that building that tower and engaging with the therapist assisted with their skills in frustration tolerance, or that this doll house scene gave the therapist excellent insight into how the child views the world. In their mind, they are just playing and feeling safe and happy throughout the process. While your child may be feeling like they are just playing, your child’s therapist definitely does not have the same viewpoint. The play therapist is trained to use play for therapeutic benefit.
If you have concerns about your child’s play therapy experience, it may be beneficial to talk with your child’s play therapist about what to expect from the process and what role you can play in order to facilitate your child’s therapeutic process in the play therapy experience. It may also be beneficial for you to learn more about the play therapist’s theory and how the process works, to allow you to feel more comfortable to be patient to let the process progress at your child’s pace.
What role does a parent play in play therapy?
Because each theory of counseling is different, each particular play therapist may approach involvement of parents in a different way. Some approaches to play therapy involve strict confidentiality with no specific guidance for parents, while others may directly involve the parent in the play therapy room.
To learn more about what your role will be in your child’s play therapy, you are encouraged to talk to his or her play therapist to learn more about his or her approach to play therapy and how you as the parent will be utilized in the process.
What does a child talk about in play therapy?
Play therapy looks different for each play therapist because of their chosen play therapy theory. Some play therapists are directive, which means they use toys in a way to direct the child towards specific skills or goals. Other play therapists are non-directive, which means that the toys are used by the child in the way that the child finds appropriate, and the play therapist intervenes in a non-directive and non-pressuring way.
Some directive play therapists may directly engage the child in play-based conversations and interventions that relate to the details of the child’s life, while other non-directive therapists put no requirement on what the child will say or do in therapy and allow the process to progress according to the child’s needs.
If you have something specifically that you would like for your child to talk about in play therapy, you are encouraged to talk with your child’s play therapist about their chosen theory and approach to play therapy. While it’s obvious that your intentions are positive, the play therapist may actually advise against talking directly to the child about the specific event or behaviors in play therapy as focusing on those could negatively impact the therapeutic relationship and progress.
This may seem odd as the outsider looking in, but if you think about your own experience in therapy, how therapeutic would you find it if a therapist forced you to talk about something that you were embarrassed about, ashamed of or were not quite ready to talk about yet? How productive do you think your time in therapy would be if you felt forced to do something that didn’t seem right for you or to talk about the ways in which you messed up this week?
Children feel the same way and for that reason, the playroom is first and foremost supposed to be about comfort and safety to allow the child a safe space to work through life’s challenges. As a parent, you may find that your child learns skills related to your specific concerns without ever directly talking about or addressing that topic in the playroom.
How long does it take for play therapy to result in some noticeable change in my child’s behavior?
While some counseling theories have an identified number of sessions that are part of the therapeutic protocol, in many theories, the process of therapy can be a slow one. That is frustrating to clients and their family who are hoping for a quick fix once the commitment to therapy is made. The truth is that while everyone involved in the therapy process—the client, family and even the therapist—wants change to happen quickly, that is much easier said than done.
Naturally, children attend play therapy with a certain sense of anxiety. They may wonder who this new person is, what his or her role is in the child’s life and what is to be expected of the child while in the playroom. The child may need to take the first few play therapy sessions just to get to know the therapist and to understand the rules and expectations of the playroom and how they differ from the rules at home, school or daycare. Change may be slow at the beginning, as the child becomes more comfortable with the process.
It can be common for parents to desire change to happen quickly and to show up at the second or third session stating, “Nothing has changed.” This is normal and should not be cause for concern. Your child is progressing through the therapy process at an age-appropriate speed and needs time to get used to the process. If you are still feeling like no change has taken place after 6 or 8 sessions, then it would be important to talk with your child’s play therapist to ask for guidance on how you can be helpful in the process or to discuss your thoughts on why progress has not occurred.
Often, it can be difficult for parents who are spending time with the child each day to see the gradual progress that has occurred. Many times, when the parent indicates that no change has taken place, a quick review of the child’s behavior at the start of therapy helps the parent and therapist to see that some progress has been made that has been difficult to see while those gradual changes have been happening in day-to-day life.
Play therapists understand your desire as the parent for your child to develop the skills necessary for a happy and emotionally healthy life, which is your motivation for wanting change to happen quickly and completely. Your child’s play therapist can walk you through the progress that your child has made thus far, make future plans for the goals that you would like for you and your child to achieve, and discuss what role you can play in assisting with that.
Is play therapy covered by health insurance?
Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy and is billed as such to health insurance plans. If your health insurance has coverage for mental or behavioral health services, then play therapy is included in that coverage.
To learn more about your official out-of-pocket cost, you are encouraged to contact your insurance company directly to ask about the cost of outpatient mental or behavioral health services.