‘I think it is time we seek some support regarding our child’s behaviour.’ 

Don’t you just feel for this parent? Wanting the best for our children comes with the territory of parenting, but for those starting out on the journey of seeking support, the choices can be overwhelming. As adults, if we encounter emotional setbacks, trauma, difficult relationships, or stress, it is assumed we seek out the services of a Psychologist. Because of this, often parents naturally turn in this direction for their children as well. But it can be worthwhile to consider the unique needs of  children and be informed of all the options when making a decision. The following seeks to shed light on the emerging field of Play Therapy and how it differs from traditional psychological interventions.

Play Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is specifically appropriate for children.

It is empirically researched and well established in countries like the UK and USA as it is highly effective in treating a wide range of childhood challenges.

Underpinning Child Centered Play Therapy is the belief that play is the natural way children communicate, process, heal and grow. Play therapy usually occurs in a playroom with a range of carefully selected toys. There are a number of different modalities of Play Therapy, but for the purposes of this article, we will explore the features of Non directive or Child Centered Play Therapy.

Child Centered Play Therapy is informed by neuroscience.

It considers the sequential nature the brain develops and also any significant traumas or events that could have impacted it as different areas were developing. Through building a trusting relationship with the trained Play Therapist, children are able to engage in play that will help build or rebuild the neural pathways needed to enact change, help process, heal, and support the child. It is considered to be an ‘inside out’ therapeutic intervention as the therapist is not teaching skills or behaviours, but rather building capacity for that child to heal or grow, by responding to what they are bringing to the play and the process.

In Play Therapy, the way children play and use toys is comparable to how adults would choose words to express themselves in talk-based therapy. Therefore, it is meaningful for the child to lead the play. A Play Therapist is trained to read the child’s play in order to connect, corrugate and understand their experience and world view. This makes PT especially appropriate for children as it does not require them to access the parts of their brain needed to verbalise or discuss what is troubling them and is particularly wonderful for children who may have experienced trauma in babyhood or before language developed. As most parents know, it can be difficult for children to describe in words what they are feeling or thinking. This is because unprocessed feelings sit in the body, not the brain. Play affords them a wordless language in which to access therapy and which is also inherently body based.

Psychologists work in a broad variety of ways and use lots of different approaches. One widely accepted approach is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT. This approach utilises talking, questioning, modelling and the skill of thinking about thinking (metacognition) in order to build skills or capacity for young clients. Intervention of this type, will likely include very specific goals and shorter timelines and the psychologist may adopt a directive approach where they plan and lead the session. Because of this, CBT is in contrast with Child Centered Play Therapy as it requires children use the higher parts of the brain that are related to logic, reasoning, communication and problem solving in order to try and address the presenting issues. The effectiveness of this treatment lies in child’s ability to access and use that part of the brain, which happens to be the last part to develop fully in early adulthood making this tricky for most children.

In more contemporary psychological approaches, toys are often used to engage children. It is important to note that the change achieved in this way is the result of the teaching or discussion happening between the psychologist and child, and not the play itself. Simply put, toys do not equate to Play Therapy as it is more about how the toys are used to evoke specific therapeutic powers of play, which is knowledge held by Play Therapists acquired through specific training.

Childhood is a unique stage in life that neurologically requires children to play and make sense of the world and themselves through relationships, which makes play therapy an effective form of treatment for ages 2 to 12. With this in mind, however, CBT can be particularly effective for older children or adolescents who may have accessed play therapy and built the neural pathways in the lower (emotional and relational) parts of the brain in order for them to be able to access the higher areas required for talk based therapy. The two interventions can complement each other in this way.

Parents who are standing at the precipice of treatment plans for their children do well to enquire into the training and methods of the therapist, but also consider how their unique child might respond to these methods. Asking questions about techniques, goals and timelines, will help to guide parents in reaching an informed decision about which Child Centered Play Therapy service will best suit the child and family.

For more information on both professions visit

Australian Psychological Society (APS): playtherapyhub.com.psychology.org.au/

Australasia Pacific Play Therapy Association (APPTA): www.appta.org

Australian Play Therapy Association (APTA): www.apta.asn.au

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