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Play Therapy

by Dr. Garry Landreth and Sue Bratton 


In the process of growing up, children's problems are often compounded by the inability of adults in their lives to understand or to respond effectively to what children are feeling and attempting to communicate. This "communication gap" is widened as a result of adults' insistence that children adopt that means of expression commonly used by adults. Efforts to communicate with children on an exclusive verbal level assume the presence of a well-developed facility for expression through speech and thus confine children to a medium that is often awkward and unnecessarily restrictive.


Play is to the child what verbalization is to the adult. It is a medium for expressing feelings, exploring relationships, describing experiences, disclosing wishes, and self-fulfillment. The problems children experience do not exist apart from the persons they are. Therefore, play therapy matches the dynamic inner structure of the child with an equally dynamic approach. 




A major function of play in play therapy is the changing of what may be unmanageable in reality to manageable situations through symbolic representation, which provides children opportunities for learning to cope. 



Given the opportunity, children will play out their feelings and needs in a manner or process of expression that is similar to that for adults. Although the dynamics of expression and the vehicle for communication are different for children, the expressions (fear, satisfaction, anger, happiness, frustration, contentment) are similar to those of adults. Children may have considerable difficulty trying to tell what they feel or how their experiences have affected them. If permitted, however, in the presence of a caring, sensitive, and empathetic adult, they will reveal inner feelings through the toys and materials they choose, what they do with and to the materials, and the stories they act out. The play therapy process can be viewed as a relationship between the therapist and the child in which the child utilizes play to explore his or her personal world and also to make contact with the therapist in a way that is safe for the child. Play therapy provides an opportunity for children to live out, during play, experiences and associated feelings. This process allows the therapist to experience, in a personal and interactive way, the inner dimensions of the child's world. This therapeutic relationship is what provides dynamic growth and healing for the child. 


Because the child's world is a world of action and activity, play therapy provides the therapist with an opportunity to enter the child's world. The child is not restricted to discussing what happened; rather, the child lives out at the moment of play the past experience and associated feelings. If the reason the child was referred to the therapist is aggressive behavior, the medium of play gives the therapist an opportunity to experience the aggression firsthand as the child bangs on the Bobo or attempts to shoot the therapist with a gun and also to help the child learn self-control by responding with appropriate therapeutic limit-setting procedures. 

Without the presence of play materials, the therapist could only talk with the child about the aggressive behavior the child exhibited yesterday or last week. In play therapy, whatever the reason for referral, the therapist has the opportunity to experience and actively deal with that problem in the immediacy of the child's experiencing. Axline (1947) viewed this process as one in which the child plays out feelings, bringing them to the surface, getting them out in the open, facing them, and either learning to control them or abandon them. 



Play therapy is based on developmental principles and, thus, provides, through play, developmentally appropriate means of expression and communication for children. Therefore, skill in using play therapy is an essential tool for mental health professionals who work with children. Therapeutic play allows children the opportunity to express themselves fully and at their own pace with the assurance that they will be understood and accepted. 



Axline, V.M. (1947). Play therapy: The inner dynamics of childhood. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin. 

Landreth, G.L. (1991). Play therapy: The art of the relationship. Munice, IN: Accelerated Development. 

Landreth, G.L., Homeyer, L., Glover, G., & Sweeney, D. (1996). Play therapy interventions with children's problems. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson. 

(ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated in any format.)

Dr. Garry L. Landreth, internationally known for his writings and work in promoting the development of play therapy, is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas. He is the founder of the Center for Play Therapy, the largest play therapy training program in the world, and has conducted workshops focusing on play therapy throughout the United States and in Canada, Europe, China, South Africa and South Korea. Dr. Landreth has more than 100 publications and videos including three books on group counseling and eight books on play therapy.

Sue Bratton, is clinical director of the Counseling Department at the University of North Texas, and co-author of The World of Play Therapy Literature.



Because children's language development lags behind their cognitive development, they communicate their awareness of what is happening in their world through their play. In play therapy toys are viewed as the child's words and play as the child's language--a language of activity. Play therapy, then, is to children what counseling or psychotherapy is to adults. In play therapy the symbolic function of play is what is so important, providing children with a means of expressing their inner world. Emotionally significant experiences can be expressed more comfortably and safely through the symbolic representation the toys provide.

The use of toys enables children to transfer anxieties, fears, fantasies, and guilt to objects rather than people. In the process, children are safe from their own feelings and reactions because play enables children to distance themselves from traumatic events and experiences. Therefore, children are not overwhelmed by their own actions because the act takes place in fantasy. By acting out through play a frightening or traumatic experience or situation symbolically, and perhaps changing or reversing the outcome in the play activity, children move toward an inner resolution, and then they are better able to cope with or adjust to problems.  

In a relationship characterized by understanding and acceptance, the play process also allows children to consider new possibilities not possible.

in reality, thus greatly expanding the expression of self. In the safety of the play therapy experience, children explore the unfamiliar and develop a knowing that is both experiential-feeling and cognitive. It can then be said that through the process of play therapy, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and children express outwardly through play what has taken place inwardly. 


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