Play Therapy

Play therapy is counseling or psychotherapy that uses play to assess, prevent, or treat a wide range of emotional and behavioral difficulties. In my practice, I usually use play therapy techniques for children and young teens, although there are times when play therapy activities may be helpful for older teens and adults.

From the outside, play therapy looks like it’s just about having fun with toys. However, research shows play therapy is effective in working with children who struggle with issues with depression, anxiety, ADHD, behavioral problems, trauma, and difficulties relating to others.

Why It’s Used

Children lack the cognitive and verbal skills to talk about some issues. Loss of a primary caregiver for example, can be very complex and a child may have trouble putting their thoughts and feelings into words.

Play can be a hands-on way for children to work on issues that are distressing to them. They can act out scenes, address specific problems, or create characters who share their emotions. Children often act out their feelings with toys. A child who has lost a loved one may use puppets to portray a sad character who misses a friend. Or, a child who has witnessed domestic violence may use a dollhouse to depict a child hiding under the bed because the adults are fighting.

Depending on the type of play therapy that is being employed, the therapist may intervene at various points in the play to help resolve an issue. Or, the play therapist may observe the child as the child is helping a character work through his feelings.

Issues Play Therapy Addresses

Play therapy is often used to help children process stressful events such as relocation, hospitalization, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and natural disasters. Play Therapy is also found to be effective in working with children who struggle with impulse control, anger, and symptoms of ADHD.
  • Trauma and crisis
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • ADHD
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Grief and loss
  • Anger management
  • Aggression
  • Divorce
  • School-related problems
  • Social issues
  • Physical and learning disabilities

Common Tools and Approaches

Many play therapists have a dedicated play therapy room that is filled with items that help with the therapeutic process. In my case, because I see all ages, I have an area set up with play therapy items, some of which is stored out of view. I use varied play therapy items that include:

  • Action figures
  • Therapeutic games, like The Talking, Feeling, and Doing Board Game or The Stop, Relax, and Think Board Game, as well as typical games that tap into the child’s specific issues.
  • Dollhouse with dolls
  • Puppets
  • Art supplies
  • Sand tray with figurines
  • Toy cars
  • Animal figurines such as dinosaurs and cats or dogs.
  • Blocks

plastic animal toys on wooden surface

Types of Play Therapy: 

Filial Therapy: The parents get involved and the therapist collaborates with the caregiver on ways to interact with the child through play. The goal is to close a communication gap between the child and parent. Sometimes, filial therapy sessions involve learning new ways to deal with a child’s behavioral or emotional challenges.

Sand Tray Therapy: The child can create a scene in a small box filled with sand using miniature toys, such as people and animals. The scene created acts as a reflection of the child’s own life and allows a chance to resolve conflict, remove obstacles, and gain self-acceptance. Sand Tray Therapy usually involves talking with a child as well, in a way that encourages them to reframe problems in more adaptive ways.


Bibliotherapy: The therapist and the child may read books together to explore specific concepts or skills. In my sessions, I sometimes use books that are specifically tailored to a child’s needs, such as social anxiety, aggression/anger, or depression.

Imaginary Play: A child may be given toys that spark the imagination such as dollhouse, puppets, or action figures. During these sessions, I typically engage in play alongside the child, especially in teaching new ways to cope with their specific issues.

Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy: The therapist may use play to help a child learn how to think and behave differently. A doll may be given advice about how to change her thinking or in some of my sessions I ask the child to give a stuffed animal advice on how he can cope with a stressful situation.

Does Play Therapy Work?

Researchers have shown that play therapy is moderate to very effective, as demonstrated in over 100 research studies. Moreover, play therapy has proven equally effective across age, gender, and presenting problem. With younger clients, research has found that play therapy is most effective if the caregiver is involved in the process. In my own practice, I work to involve caregivers, as much as is feasible, especially when we are working on parenting, reunification, and behavioral problems in the home.


If you believe that you or a family member might benefit from counseling or if you have questions about issues with your child, please know that you don’t have to navigate this challenging time on your own. If you’re in Rappahannock County VA or the surrounding area, please call me at 540-675-1195, or complete the contact form on the link above, to discuss counseling and to schedule a free 30-minute initial consultation. I’m happy to discuss your specific needs and situation and answer any questions you have about play therapy as well as other therapies I provide. 

Ann Baumgardner, PhD LPC.   Piedmont Counseling Center