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What Is Play Therapy and is it Effective for Young Clients?

Alliant International University
Reviewed By
Published on: 06/02/2017
Last Updated: 05/24/2023
4 minute read

Expressive language, or lack thereof, can be one of the major barriers that hinder communication between children and adults. Kids may not have the capacity to use words to explain what they are thinking or feeling like adults do.

This often presents a challenge while working with children in a therapeutic context. However, to knock down these barriers, other therapies can be used – namely, play therapy.

But what exactly is play therapy and is it effective for young clients?

How Play Therapy Works

Play therapy works similarly to “talk” therapy for adults, except children are able to use their preferred method of expression – play – to describe their inner world.1

In a typical session, toys, games and other materials are carefully set out for the child. These items are selected based on the child’s ability to manipulate each item without help and for their appropriateness to the child’s unique circumstances. The child is offered a safe and non-judgmental space to choose from the allotted toys and materials, explore their feelings, and act out real-world experiences.

As the child expresses themselves with toys, the therapist is invited into their thoughts. A relationship forms between therapist and child through which the child is able to express, control, cope with, or reject their thoughts, feelings, and problems with the process of play.

Play therapy may be used in mental health clinics, schools, residential treatment facilities, state agencies, hospitals, or recreational facilities.

Benefits of Play Therapy

Play therapy isn’t simply letting children play with toys until time runs out. It is an evidence-based therapeutic approach. Research shows that play therapy can be effective in treating a range of issues children face, including abuse, aggressive or acting-out behaviors, anxiety, autism, bedwetting post-toilet training, divorce or separation, grief, reading difficulties, speech difficulties, and phobias.

Play therapy helps children by allowing them to…

  • discover and learn to cope with their emotional experiences
  • express their feelings appropriately
  • take responsibility for their behavior
  • explore creative solutions to their problems.
  • cultivate self-efficacy and confidence in their talents and abilities
  • communicate with others
  • learn to accept and respect others as individuals
  • develop social and relational skills

Play therapy interventions are most effective in children and adolescents ages 3 to 12 years old. However, even older adolescents may also benefit from various play therapy techniques.2

Play Therapy Training

The field of play therapy is founded in research and theoretical concepts. Therefore, in order to work as a play therapist you need adequate training to learn the appropriate practices and interventions. Registered play therapists must receive specialized education, which includes hands-on practical experience with supervision.3

Students in Alliant International University’s California School of Professional Psychology have a choice of two clinical psychology graduate programs: the Ph.D. or the PsyD. In either program, students may choose tracks that allow them to gain more specialized training in play therapy.

Most adults don’t place much value on the process of play. In the field of play therapy, however, therapists come to understand its true power. They recognize that play is the most basic method through which children learn new skills and communicate their inner thoughts and feelings.

If you are interested in providing therapy to young children, contact one of our Admissions Counselor today to find out more about this therapeutic approach that can make a lasting impact in a child’s life.


  1. Pietrangelo, Ann. “Play Therapy: What Is It, How It Works, and Techniques.” Healthline. Healthline Media. Accessed November 23, 2021. 
  2. “Play Therapy Makes a Difference - Association for Play Therapy.” Accessed November 23, 2021.…;
  3. “How to Become a Play Therapist.” Academy for Play Therapy Training™. Accessed November 23, 2021. 

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