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Play Therapy Heals in the Language of Children

The natural language of the child is play

Children frequently are not able to articulate their stress, worries, or challenges verbally. A human’s brain is not completed growing till ~25. This means we need to be realistic about how our children communicate including knowing the stage of their brain development.

Play to child is like water to a plant- necessary and harmful if they don’t get enough.

Play allows for expression and learning to happen in the lower more developed parts of the brain while engaging the higher level cortex (cognitive part which is still developing).  Play integrates the brain as it grows. 

Play is the way! 

When a child plays, the toys they use are their words, the play is the story. 

The story that is being worked out, processed, and incorporated into their developing brains and psyche. 

Children communicate and process their experiences through play. 

Play therapy is built on a relationship with a therapist who understands children, how their brains work, knows their developmental expectations, and how to best communicate with them (and their parents!) to ensure that everyone is on the same page and working together towards optimal growth. Healthy families are the goal.

Figuring this World Out

Children are impacted by the world around, even ways you may not have known.

Children are experiencing this global pandemic in ways that only history will tell us. We do know it is a traumatic life altering event for them. 

We have lot of research however, to know how other global tragedies, natural disasters, and refugees from war zones are impacted. It will impact and change their development even genetically to be passed on to the next generations.

Adults frequently hide or shelter children from the news or information. What we know is that whether or not children SEE the news, they know that something is wrong. They SENSE the stress and impact the world has on their primary caregivers and that alone makes them feel anxious and afraid. Children mirror the stress of the adults around them, not knowing information makes this all the more frightening for children.

Children are observing the world around them and trying to make sense of it. Play Therapy offers children a safe place to process those experiences, ask those questions, and make sense of the world around them. It is in play therapy that healing and prevention can occur.

Play helps integrate the right and left hemispheres of the brain, as well as builds up from the primitive lower brain to the higher level cortex or cognitive brain, allowing for full brain integration. One of the major goals of play is that it integrates the brain to help generate healthy patterns of functioning and development. 

This is true for children AND adults, though many adults forget the magic of play(we know it feels good we often have just lost the courage to engage our play circuits!). As you can tell, play is crucial to development and healing. Play is necessary for children who have been impacted by a major tragedy, trauma, or event to process this information so that it has less of an impact later on in life. 

Play Therapy helps children by:

  • Increasing their self-esteem/confidence

  • Encouraging children to problem-solve their own challenges and build autonomy

  • Have a place to speak freely

  • Be seen/heard/understood with unconditional positive regard

  • Learn communication skills to connect with others in a positive way

  • Understand their emotions

  • Learn skills to calm their bodies and brains

  • Normalize their experiences in the world

  • Help them feel like they are not alone 

  • Give them words to express their experiences

  • Play does it all, so parents encouraging free play and engaging a child in play therapy hold many benefits for long term gain.

What is Play Therapy?

Play Therapy is an evidence-based practice for working with children in mental health. 

Play Therapy uses the natural language of children and the powers of play to help children process their feelings and experiences. 

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) defines Play Therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained Play Therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development." 

What this means is that Play Therapy is not the same as regular, everyday play. While spontaneous play is a natural and essential part of the developmental process, Play Therapy is a systematic and theoretical approach to treating children.

Play Therapy should only be provided by mental health professionals who have met the required education, licensure, and additional specialized training and supervision specific to Play Therapy. These individuals are identified as Registered Play Therapists (RPT). This designation is different from a therapist that just plays during therapy (eg. boardgames, card games).

How do I know if my provider is a trained Play Therapist?

When looking for a therapist for your child, it’s hard to sort through all the credentials and specializations listed on bios. Some professionals write in their bios that they “do play therapy” with children. Professionals who work with children and adolescents may incorporate toys into their work, but are not trained Play Therapists, and should not represent themselves as such.

Play Therapists have specialized education and training in a variety of subjects, including:

  • Child Development 

  • Brain Development 

  • Neurological benefits of Play 

  • Effects of trauma on brain development 

  • Family Systems 

  • Parenting Skills 

  • Play Therapy Theories and Modalities of Treatment.

Here are the credentials you need to look for to ensure that the provider is a trained Play Therapist by the Association for Play Therapy:

  • Play Therapy Training: This means the clinician is working towards the required hours and education to become a play therapist, and may be working toward state licensure. A clinician can provide you the level of training they have received, including a Play Therapy Certificate, 100+ hours of Play Therapy specific training etc. 

  • Registered Play Therapist (RPT): This means the clinician has completed all required hours and education to become a play therapist, as well as completed all the supervised hours to achieve licensure. This takes 2+years of additional training for them to complete.

  • Registered Play Therapist Supervisor (RPT-S): This is a clinician with an RPT designation who has also completed all required education and hours needed to supervise other play therapists working toward full licensure. 

  • School Based-Registered Play Therapist (SB-RPT): This credential is for professionals who practice as a school counselor or school psychologist, and utilize Play Therapy. 

  • Child Mental Health Specialist (CMHS): This designation is given to a mental health professional who has completed the required education and supervision of specialized training devoted to the study of child development and the treatment of children. A CMHS does not have to be a Play Therapist, or vise-versa, but often go hand in hand. 

Parents should seek out help when they are stressed with parenting or you are feeling helpless because “nothing works.” If a child appears to be different than their peers, struggles with social interactions, appears more emotional or hypersensitive, appears to be worried or down, struggles to play, gets angry all the time, has tantrums happen often than you may want to seek help from a Registered Play Therapist. These are all things a clinician trained to help children can help with. You don’t have to be alone.

Clinician’s trained to work with children are also trained to help parents, encouraging healthy relationships. Finding a clinician for your child can be beneficial for the whole family. Remember, Play Therapy can be preventative and not just a last resort. Children are more stressed than they have ever been due to recent events. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for support. If there is a waiting list, get on it! 

I've found a play therapist, now what do I tell my child?

Whatever your reasons are for bringing your child to see a play therapist, telling them what to expect can be challenging. Parents often ask us what they should say, what they should call us, and how to prepare their child for taking the next steps. So we've created a handout for parents to give to their child before the first session.

Download the above pdf here

Play Therapy is an amazing form of treatment for children of all ages and can be beneficial in helping children work through difficult emotions and experiences.

If you believe that play therapy would be helpful for your child and want to find a Play Therapist in your area you can visit the Association for Play Therapy here.

To schedule an appointment with us click here.

Cary M Hamilton LMHC, RPT-S, NCC, CMHS, CDWF

Sarah Moran LMFT, RPT



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