Play Therapy: A Therapeutic Intervention Utilizing the Natural Language of the Child

By Julianna Buckmiller, LSWAIC, CMHS

Julianna Buckmiller, LSWAIC, CMHS is a Child and Adolescent Therapist with Developing Minds located in Bothell, WA. Julianna works with clients from a strengths-based perspective, focusing on developing resilience and a collaborative process between client and therapist. During therapy, considerations are taken regarding where the child or adolescent is truly at and what is going to best engage them at this moment—be it artistic expression, play therapy, narrative therapy, creative writing/journaling, or more structured interventions. There is a focus on the fulfilled development of the whole individual, taking into account a systems approach, intersectionality, and developmental psychology. Her approach is deeply rooted in attachment theory; focusing on developing a healthy and secure bond between therapist and client to better facilitate trust and overall therapeutic growth. Julianna specializes in treating anxiety, depression, trauma, and attachment difficulties.

What is Play Therapy?

Play Therapy is an intervention that seeks to engage and assist children utilizing the language that is most familiar and accessible to them–the language of play. One of the most unique challenges in therapy with children is successfully getting a child to feel comfortable in a therapeutic setting, and play is a well-researched method of allowing a child to process their unique needs in a non-intimidating manner. Play is the therapist’s method of allowing a child to freely express what is troubling them when they may not yet have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings. The child utilizes toys as their words and play as their language while the therapist carefully listens and reflects back to a child what they are observing. Play therapy differs from normal play because the therapist is actively working to help the child to address methods of expressing and solving their problems.

The Association of Play Therapy 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.”

Play Therapy Techniques

Typically play therapists begin the process by creating a safe and welcoming environment for the child–many therapists will utilize between 1-4 sessions to establish a secure rapport and bond between child and therapist. Play therapists will typically then utilize a variety of techniques from their toolkit such as: sand tray therapy, therapeutic storytelling, creative visualization, role play, artistic interventions, or reinforcing frustration tolerance, coping skills, prosocial communication techniques, or other therapeutic skills that are reinforced and taught in live play scenarios such as in sports or board games. Many play therapists will also weave in other interventions during sessions such as techniques from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Problem Solving Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Parent-Child Interactive Therapy.

Why Play therapy?

Research conducted by Play Therapy UK suggests that 71% of the children referred to play therapy will show a positive change during and after their time in treatment

Through play therapy techniques, the therapist assists the child to learn to successfully communicate with peers and adults, express and experience feelings in a healthy manner, modify and change behavior, and to develop and reinforce problem solving skills. Play therapy works at these core difficulties via methods that are non-threatening to children ages 3-12 who may otherwise have difficulty expressing themselves in a traditional therapeutic setting. The Association for Play Therapy says it best when they state: “Play provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their development”. 

Play therapy will benefit children in teaching them the following:

  • To develop an awareness that increases responsibility for their behaviors and to gain more successful strategies in managing them.
  • To develop resilience, an awareness of their strengths, and their confidence in their ability to face a variety of life’s complexities.
  • To develop self acceptance, self respect, and other core facets of healthy self esteem and self concept.
  • To learn methods in which to safely experience and express a full range of emotion.
  • To cultivate empathy and the child’s ability to relate to, understand, and respect the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others
  • To learn new social skills and methods of relating to and communicating within the family.
  • To develop creative problem solving strategies and new approaches to problems.

Reviews of over 100 play therapy studies suggest that the overall therapeutic effect of play therapy interventions ranged from moderate-high success rates over a variety of problem areas as stated by the Association of Play Therapy including but not limited to: 

  • children experiencing a variety of life stressors, such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, stressful/traumatic experiences, physical and sexual abuse, and domestic violence
  • Children experiencing a social/emotional/behavioral diagnosis such as anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression and other mood disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, oppositional defiant and conduct disorders, anger management difficulties, crisis and/or trauma, grief and loss, divorce and family dissolution, academic and social developmental challenges, in addition to physical and learning disabilities. 

To explore play therapy in more detail, please take a look at Developing Minds’s website, where you can also sign up to work with Julianna and many of our other incredible providers. We offer play therapy, art therapy, dance and movement therapy, as well as cognitive and dialectical therapies for patients aged 4 to adult. We also have in-house medication management services. Get started today!