• Jasandra Oeffinger, LPC

Why Play Therapy?

Updated: Feb 13, 2019

If you’ve heard the term “play therapy” but aren’t sure what it really means, you are in the right place! To kick off National Play Therapy Week, we are going to start with some Play Therapy 101.

Play therapy is a developmentally appropriate, evidence-based counseling approach for children… But what does that really mean?

Before we break that down, let’s think about adults in counseling. Adults typically come into my office and sit on the couch for therapy. We have a conversation… They spend time discussing their experiences, exploring issues from different perspectives, and gaining insight into the ways they can learn, grow, and heal.

You probably can’t imagine a young child doing that same exact thing and there is a good reason for that. The child brain is at a completely different stage of development than the adult brain.

Play therapy meets the needs of a child at a child level, not at the level of an adult.

These are two big reasons talk therapy does not meet a child on their level:

  • Children have not yet developed the verbal abilities to communicate like adults do. They are still expanding their vocabulary and learning conversation skills. If someone began talking to you about a subject you know very little about, you might have a few pieces of information stored in your mind to help you out at first. After 30-minutes, there’s a good chance you would feel frustrated or confused, and perhaps you would mentally checkout and just start nodding your head a lot. This is what happen when adults insist children sit down and talk about things they do not understand.

  • Children are concrete thinkers and learners. The brain does not put a lot of work into developing abstract reasoning skills until around age 11. Until then, kids have a hard time seeing “the big picture” of things. They are driven by emotion and react to things based on facts they’ve learned from previous experiences. Concrete symbols (like toys) help children understand and communicate effectively.

What happens in play therapy?

Play therapists speak the language that children are most proficient in—Play! With a therapeutic relationship and a safe and accepting environment, children can fully express themselves. They communicate their thoughts and feelings through play in a way that they are unable to do with words. With the help of a play therapist, children explore problems and find solutions by practicing new ways of thinking, feeling, and doing.

A general example of this process is a child throwing puzzle pieces everywhere after several failed attempts to put the puzzle together.

  • A play therapist may reflect to the child “You feel so frustrated and now, you don’t even want to see that puzzle anymore. You broke it all apart.” The play therapist puts words to the child’s experience and now the child is more aware.

  • After time, the child may choose to return to the puzzle and complete it. The play therapist then reflects “You have such a big smile. It feels so good to figure that out.” The feeling of accomplishment and pride (which are abstract), are brought to the immediate attention for the child in that moment. The child is in the process of learning to handle frustration and overcome challenges in a healthy way.

We humans learn best through experience and play therapy is a process that provides a physically and emotionally safe way to grow from a range of experiences.

Play therapy is evidence-based.

There have been numerous studies done on the effectiveness of play therapy. The Association for Play Therapy indicates that play therapy can help children:

  • Become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies.

  • Develop new and creative solutions to problems.

  • Develop respect and acceptance of self and others.

  • Learn to experience and express emotion.

  • Cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others.

  • Learn new social skills and relational skills with family.

  • Develop self-efficacy, feel more capable and assured of their abilities.

And that is all for Play Therapy 101!

Our next article will cover some common questions about play therapy, including information on what brings children to play therapy and how to find a play therapist.

If you want to see your question about play therapy or child development answered in this week's blog posts, get in touch with us by emailing

#playtherapy #childdevelopment #nationalplaytherapyweek #mentalhealth

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jasandra Oeffinger, MA, LPC is a therapist and co-founder of Human State of Mind Counseling in Houston, Texas. She works with young children, as well as adults, who struggle with anxiety, self-esteem/identity, stress, trauma, life transitions, and problematic behavior. Jasandra is also a doctoral student and conducts research on a variety of topics, with a large focus on play therapy and young children with traumatic experiences.

If you are interested in working with Jasandra, visit

Are you a teen or "twenty-something" adult in need of support and guidance? Learn more about our fellow co-founder, Stephanie Longtain, MS, LCSW and her work with tweens, teens, and young adults.

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