For most adults, therapy usually looks pretty standard — stark offices decorated with books, comfortable furniture, and diplomas hanging on the walls. You sit across from your therapist and talk about your feelings, your concerns, and what you think you need to do to improve your situation. While that might suffice for adults, and for teenagers who are old enough to start understanding their own mental and emotional health, therapy isn’t just for grown-ups and if you’ve ever tried to sit down and have a conversation with a five-year-old, you know that you need to use a different approach to get them to open up. That is where play therapy comes in.  What is play therapy, and what do you need to know before you take your little one to their first appointment?

What is Play Therapy?

First, if you’re unfamiliar with the practice, what is play therapy?

Psychiatry professionals have a long and convoluted definition that describes this particular type of therapy, but when you break it down to its base components, it’s simple — it’s using play to communicate with children who might not understand or be willing to answer therapy questions when asked directly.  Instead of sitting them down — or laying them down on a reclining chair, as it’s represented in so many shows and movies — play therapy engages their minds and their hands with games, toys, coloring or other fun tasks.

They don’t even realize that they’re providing their therapist with all the information that they could need.  As far as the kids are concerned, they’re just having fun, even though they’re learning cognitive and social skills that they will need to thrive later in life.

Types of Play Therapy

There is more to play therapy than just handing a child a video game or a set of blocks and leaving them to their own devices.  There are play therapy techniques and applications designed for children of all ages, from infancy all the way through school-aged children.

There are three different types of play therapy, and each of them has its own application.  Diversional play therapy is used to keep kids entertained and help to fend off boredom. It’s also referred to as recreational play and even in a professional environment, sometimes kids just need to play.

Therapeutic play is designed to help children cope with and express the various emotions that they’re experiencing.  This can be valuable for children that have difficulty coping with challenging-to-understand emotions, or those that have experienced a traumatic experience.  The third type of play therapy is developmental which helps children who may be experiencing challenges with cognitive, physical, or social development.

Getting Ready for a Play Therapy Appointment

Even as a parent, play therapy is something that you might not be familiar with, so getting ready for your child’s first appointment might make you a little anxious.

During your first appointment, you’ll be the one doing most of the talking.  You’ll have a conversation with your child’s therapist about things like their development, as well as how they’re doing currently and any concerns that you might have. Be as honest as possible because this, along with a pre-treatment assessment, will serve to build the foundation of your child’s future sessions.

The pre-treatment assessment will vary from child to child, depending on their age and ability level. Then, for the next few sessions, you’ll go through the Introduction phase where your child will just spend time getting used to their therapist and the situation as a whole. From there, you’ll move into various growth, learning, and even negative reaction phases.  It will be different for each child — what works well for one might be totally useless for another — so it’s a learning process for both you and the therapist.

Benefits of Play Therapy

It might sound a little counterproductive — paying to send your kid to play with a professional therapist for an hour or two a week — but there are a number of surprising benefits of play therapy that you might not see, looking at it as an adult. Play therapy gives children the tools to express and process their emotions. This is something that we might take for granted as an adult, but when you’re a kid, the world is a  big, new, and scary place, and you don’t always have the words or the tools to express yourself, so you lash out and misbehave.

Play therapy can also foster independence, teach creativity, and help children learn how to regulate their own behaviors, among other benefits that you may discover along the way.  As we’ve said before, play therapy is unique to each child.  You may be surprised at how different they become once they learn how to process and express their emotions in a healthy manner.

Looking Forward

If your child’s pediatrician recommends play therapy for your little one, don’t be anxious.  This can be an invaluable tool to help children learn how to process emotions, regulate behavior, and learn how to thrive in a world that will eventually want them to stop playing — all without your child even realizing that they’re working toward improving themselves. Play is the language of childhood, and play therapy uses that to help your children grow.