What is Play Therapy?

Many people are puzzled about how children can participate in psychological therapy or counselling.

what is play therapyThis is because children often do not have the language skills, or understanding, to be able to talk through what is troubling them, unlike adults.

As with any psychological therapy, a positive relationship between therapist and client is of paramount importance. By building rapport with their young client, the psychologist can help the child to feel accepted and supported, potentially boosting both self-esteem and confidence in the child.

However, the way a psychologist will approach therapy with a child, is very different to how they might work with an adult. Play Therapy is one technique commonly used with children, to help them work through emotional and behavioural difficulties.

What is Play Therapy?

Children make sense of the world through play.

The psychologist working with your child will be aiming to create a safe space for your child to work through their issues, in a way that it natural to them. By utilising play therapy with a selection of toys and materials, your child will be given the opportunity to explore their feelings and particular experiences.

Don’t be fooled – play is serious business! And play therapy is a well-established, evidenced-based approach that allows children to express, communicate, and develop new skills, as they work through  their emotional responses.

There are different approaches to play therapy, and many therapists will integrate different aspects according to the child’s age, presenting problem, and preferences.

Two Different Approaches

In non-directive play therapy, the child leads the therapy session and makes the choice of what they would like to play with.

The role of the therapist is to ensure that there are a variety of toys to help explore expressive play themes – such as nurturing/real life, aggression, and emotional release – following the child’s lead, only setting boundaries when necessary and doing so in a respectful way. It is believed that with the right conditions, the child will be able work through their issues instinctively.

With a directive approach to play therapy, the psychologist takes on a more active role, and a variety of different techniques may be used.

These may include carefully chosen games and storybooks, with a specific purpose. These allow the psychologist to guide the conversation, and ask your child questions. Stories may be created using dolls, toys and puppets; art activities may also be used to help your child express and cope with their emotions.

While play therapy can help many children overcome emotional and behavioural issues, it may not be appropriate for everyone. An assessment beforehand is required to determine the best ways to provide support for your child; in some cases, such as where children are displaying challenging behaviours, the most effective intervention may involve working primarily with you and/or your partner, as the caregivers.

Tegan Gonczar, BA (Hons), Grad Dip Ed (Secondary).

Tegan Gonczar is a Brisbane psychologist with experience in providing psychological counselling to children, adolescents and adults; she has a passion for working with people of all ages, to help them overcome obstacles, learn effective ways of coping and lead happier and more fulfilling lives.


  • Geldard, K. & Geldard, D. (2008). Counselling children: A practical introduction. London: Sage Publications.
  • Landreth, G. L. (2012).  Play therapy: The art of the relationship. New York: Routledge.
  • Landreth, G. L., Sweeney, D. S., Ray, D. C., Homeyer, L. E. & Glover, J. G. (2010). Play therapy interventions with children’s problems. New York: Aronson.