HBH Treatment & Therapies

Healing Through Play: What is Play Therapy and How Does Play Therapy Work?

Play therapy for children and adolescents in Western, MA and Greater Boston Area

Interview with

smiling adult and child color

When it comes to child counseling, time spent talking may be less important than time spent playing with stuffed animals.

Plato once said that, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Play is fundamental during childhood development. Play naturally encourages children to communicate, learn, self-discover, and self-express. It stimulates a child’s creative mind, regulates their emotions, and boosts their self-esteem.

Our trained therapists and counselors at Handel Behavioral Health understand that children, particularly those with limited language development, can’t express their emotions through words. Play, however, is a natural medium through which children can communicate and form a trusting bond with their therapist.

Play therapy gives children the rare opportunity to be in control over their environment, and express their emotions in the way they know how.

Deena Traum, Licensed Psychologist, PsyD at Handel Behavioral Health

If your child is dealing with an emotional or mental health issue, and you’re not sure how to help them explore their feelings they might benefit from play therapy treatment with one of our trained therapists at HBH. To learn more about what play therapy involves, and how children can heal through play therapy, please read on. We can also be reached by phone at (413) 343-4357.

What is play therapy?

Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy treatment primarily used with children, between 3-12 years old.

Therapists use play therapy to help children express their feelings and resolve internal conflicts through the language of play.

In play therapy sessions, therapists will use various media, including toys, puppets and stuffed animals, sand play, art, and board games to help children communicate their feelings.

The media is like the children’s words, and play is their language.

What does the process of play therapy involve?

“When I’m building a therapeutic relationship with a child, I’ll observe and assess how they interact with the toys and their environment. Sometimes they’ll explore my office freely for toys, and other times I’ll give them options.”

-Deena Traum, Licensed Psychologist, PsyD at Handel Behavioral Health

Therapists learn a lot about the child through observing how they interact with the toy(s) in the office, and how their behavior changes from session to session.

Children struggling with more anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and control issues are typically more structured in their play compared to other children.

Children might choose specific activities to engage themselves in, or the therapist might offer them an imaginative storyline to act out: creating a scene in the sand box, telling stories, or using stuffed animals to create a family dynamic. The therapist might assign familial roles to the toys to gain insight into the child’s family life.

The therapist might ask what’s happening during playtime, and ask the child questions about conflicts that arise and how to resolve them. The childs’ answers, as well as the scene they’ll act out, can provide valuable insight into the internal issues troubling the child. For example, a child might repeatedly create a “bad guy” scenario with their toys: indicating that a child might struggle with trauma or violence from their past.

Through play, the child builds more trust with the therapist and becomes more apt to share their feelings. However, they aren’t forced to open up, they are encouraged to share when they feel ready and with their own method of communication.

What are the benefits of play therapy?

“Play therapy is really about giving children a safe space to explore what it feels like to be in control. There are few opportunities for children to be in control of their environment. This allows children to self-discover through play; they find their own voice within the room.”

-Deena Traum, Licensed Psychologist, PsyD at Handel Behavioral Health

Forming an open therapeutic relationship with a child takes time, but trust tends to grow through play. As the child becomes more comfortable with their therapist, they may become more verbal and creative in their play.

Play therapy can help children:

  • Take more responsibility for certain behaviors
  • Develop healthier coping strategies and creative problem-solving skills
  • Develop self-respect
  • Empathize with others
  • Alleviate their anxiety
  • Learn to fully experience and express their feelings
  • Form stronger social skills
  • Form stronger familial relationships

If your child has a diagnosed mental or physical illness, play therapy does not replace medications or any other necessary medical treatment. Please talk to one of our trained mental health counselors or therapists at HBH to determine if play therapy is right for your child.

What types of problems does play therapy address?

“For children experiencing major transitions in their life, like their parents going through a divorce or moving schools, they’ll have huge emotional reactions. Play therapy can help regulate their emotions.”

-Deena Traum, Licensed Psychologist, PsyD at Handel Behavioral Health

Play is a natural medium for children to express their feelings, solve problems, and develop skills; play therapy can be beneficial in a variety of circumstances, including:

  • Anxiety, depression, and grief
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder and control issues
  • Aggressive or angry behavior
  • Domestic violence, abuse, or neglect
  • Natural disasters or trauma
  • Family issues like divorce, separation, or death of a close family member
  • Behavioral problems in school
  • Development delays or learning disabilities
  • Eating and toileting disorders
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Facing medical procedures, chronic illness, or palliative care

What are the types of play therapy?

Just as there are many different ways that a child plays, there are many different types of play therapy, including:

1. Directive play therapy:

With directive play therapy, the therapist takes a hands-on approach and leads the child through guided play activity that helps them express their emotions. The therapist will typically give specific instructions and supervise the child as they carry out the play.

2. Non-directive play therapy:

Non-directive play therapy involves less of a structured play environment. The therapist allows the child to engage in whatever play activity of their choice and express themselves with limited interruption.

Sessions might last between 30 minutes to an hour, once a week, depending on the child and how well they respond to the therapy session. Sessions can take place individually or in groups.

Techniques can involve:

  • Creative visualization
  • Storytelling
  • Role-playing
  • Toy phones
  • Puppets/dolls/stuffed animals/other toys for imaginative play
  • Arts and crafts
  • Water and sandplay
  • Blocks and construction toys
  • Musical play
  • Physical creative movement and dance

How to get started with HBH

If you have a child who might benefit from play therapy, please contact HBH Therapy at (413) 343-4357. Our trained mental health professionals at Amherst, Wilbraham, West Springfield, Franklin, and across Massachusetts will answer all of your questions and concerns, and guide your child along the path of healing.

During treatment at HBH Therapy, one of our trained play therapists therapists will help your child understand and communicate their emotions, develop healthier problem-solving and coping strategies, and learn how to resolve their internal conflicts. Contact us today at (413) 343-4357 or request an appointment online.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting and nonprofit communications and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College. Nettie is a believer in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing and storytelling as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. Nettie is endlessly curious about all things mental and behavioral health.

Deena Traum Headshot

Deena has a Doctorate in Child-Clinical/School Psychology. She has worked with children of all ages for her entire professional career. Deena has worked in early intervention, in clinical settings, and most recently, in a public elementary school. More About Author →