By Sharlene Christensen
The practice of play therapy is a treatment approach that may be used by various mental health professionals such as School Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Psychologists, and Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselors. These are professionals who have earned a Master’s Degree or Doctorate Degree in their field. Some may also receive advanced training and experience in play therapy to earn the credential of Registered Play Therapist (RPT) or Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor (RPT-S).
While play therapy is most frequently thought of as a model of therapy aimed toward children, persons of all ages can benefit from this therapeutic approach. Research shows that the use of play therapy with adults is increasing (Pedro-Carroll & Reddy, 2005; Schaefer, 2003). Mental health professionals are more frequently using benefits of play therapy to effectively help children, families, and adults.
A school counselor may use play therapy techniques with individual children, in small group therapy sessions, and in a the larger classroom setting. The school counselor in an elementary school would likely use toys to help children express their thoughts and feelings. While a middle school or high school counselor may use art, games, sand tray, and role plays to help teenagers confront and work through their emotional, social, behavioral, and academic problems (Schmidt, 2008, Draper, Rittter, & Whillingham, 2003).
A psychologist may use play therapy while conducting psychological assessments. By using toys, games, or art they can learn more about the client’s emotional difficulties such as anxiety, or depression. They can gather more information regarding the client’s academic and social development. They can determine if there are physical or learning disabilities. Ultimately, using play therapy in the assessment process will give the psychologist more insight into the client’s life and increase the ability to accurately diagnose and identify the problem areas that need to be resolved during the course of treatment.
A Licensed Clinical Social Worker may use play therapy with hospitalized children to help them work through the medical challenges they may be facing. They may use play therapy for children that are victims of sexual or physical abuse, neglect, or for children who have been exposed to domestic violence. Additionally, they may use play therapy to help children and families that have been traumatized or affected by natural disasters. Young children are likely to have difficulty in expressing their thoughts and feelings verbally. Play therapy can help them communicate what they cannot say verbally by using toys or art.
A mental health professional may use play therapy techniques to conduct individual, group, or family therapy. Many professionals in private practice have a play therapy room filled with toys where they conduct child-centered individual play therapy for children ages 3-12. The mental health professional may use the same playroom to help a parent and child improve their relationship though filial therapy, a play based approach.
Play therapy they can strengthen whole family relationships and helps children improve their functioning and increase their feelings on happiness within the family. A mental health professional may use play-based approaches to help the family cope with divorce, grief and loss, and emotional or behavioral problems within the family. Sandtray or other play approaches may also be used with some couples in therapy to help them work through relationship conflicts, improve their communication, and help them reach their goals.
The Association for Play Therapy (APT) reports that play therapy is a treatment of choice in mental health, school, agency, developmental, hospital, residential, and recreational settings, with clients of all ages (Carmichael, 2006; Reddy, Files-Hall & Schaefer, 2005).