The What’s and Why’s of Play Therapy

By  Tracy McConaghie, LCSW, RPT/S

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is the systematic process of using play and play materials to work with and help children with emotional and behavioral concerns. It is the ideal therapeutic model for children dealing with divorce, death, anxiety, trauma, anger, difficult life transitions, and other situations that cause stress or emotional pain. Children are small; the world and life’s problems can be very big.  When using play materials, children are in charge and they are in their natural element.  This allows them to explore feelings and situations in a safe and empowering way.

In a play therapist’s office there are toys that reflect a wide range of themes and experiences:  nurture, danger, safety, aggression, family, school, emotions, etc. Play therapists create a space and provide toys that allow children to find a way to express and process emotions and experiences.  By doing so, they gain emotional mastery and develop strategies to cope with difficult situations.


What happens in a play therapy session?

Play therapy can be non-directive, directive, and a combination of the two.  In non-directive play therapy, the child freely chooses what to do with their session, and the therapist facilitates, observes, reflects or may even participate in that play.  Non-directive play therapy allows children to follow their own heart and choose what they need to mange their feelings and solve problems.  Because play is the natural language and process of children, we can trust that they will choose play activities that offer what they need in the context of an accepting relationship with their therapist.

In directive play therapy, the therapist chooses or leads a play-based activity that they believe will be useful to the child.  This may include a game, role-play, art activity, or suggestion to make a sand tray or scene about a situation in the child’s life.  This type of play therapy may also include teaching the child about anxiety, divorce, social skills, and other issues that are common challenges for children.  Although therapists lead activities when using this type of play therapy, they still make sure to meet children where they are and respect their stage of development and needs. In addition, those experiences still include play because they can be fun uses of puppet, art, games, role-play and other playful experiences.

Play therapists often use both types of play therapy, depending upon the needs of the situation and of the child.


Play Therapy and Confidentiality

Parents understandably want to know about their child’s play therapy sessions because they are concerned about their child’s progress and want to understand and help their child as best they can.  A play therapist provides feedback to parents while still respecting a child’s confidentiality.  It may be surprising to some that a child needs confidentiality for their therapy sessions, but it is needed just as it is for adolescents and adults.  In therapy, clients of all ages experience a safe and accepting relationship with their therapist – this is the essential foundation of good therapy.  This safety is created in part by knowing that the therapist cares for, respects and holds what they learn from their clients as precious material to be handled with care.  Even children need privacy and rely on the freedom that confidentiality creates in order to make the most of their sessions.

Although play therapists provide confidentiality for their child clients, they still meet regularly with parents.  At these meetings, therapists are able to provide parents with useful feedback and insights about their child.  They also rely on these meetings in order to receive parent input about the child’s emotions and behavior to assess the effectiveness of the play therapy. It is very common for parent sessions to happen frequently so that the therapist and parents can work as a team to develop parenting strategies and address family dynamics.


Do’s and Dont’s for Parents

DO accept that play is therapeutic in its own right, and that although a play therapy session may seem like “just playing” to adults, it is actually a powerful and essential therapy tool for children.

DO keep in mind that sometimes therapy sessions for children include things that at first look may not seem like therapy, such as playing card games or checkers.  These activities provide a way for therapists to develop a relationship with a child, create a comfortable background activity for talking about important issues, and address concerns such as fairness, social skills, and acceptance of winning and losing.

DON’T ask your child to explain what they did in a session.  Just as when we ask children what they did at school, they are likely to say “I don’t know” – this is in part because it is difficult for them to process verbally, in part because children sometimes feel interrogated  and defensive when asked questions, and also because they want privacy.  Instead, say something like “I hope you enjoyed your session today,” or “I am glad you have ________ to help you.”  These open-ended statements are more likely to result in input from a child than a direct question.

DO let your child’s therapist know if you need more information about the play therapy sessions or have questions about them. They want to include you and want to understand your needs regarding frequency of feedback.

DON’T assign your child a task or agenda for the session, such as “make sure you tell the therapist about___________, or don’t forget to work on _______________.” Most of the time children eagerly look forward to their time with their therapist, and hearing from their parent what they “should” do can reduce the feeling of freedom and safety they have in a session. Instead, ask for some time with the therapist to provide your input about goals for the therapy.



You can learn more about play therapy from the Association for Play Therapy’s website, and by talking with your child’s therapist about any questions or concerns you have.

Tracy McConaghie, LCSW, RPT/S, CPDLT, works with clients of all ages, with a specialty in children, teens and parenting. Her husband Andrew is a couples counselor, and together they run McConaghie Counseling in Alpharetta. They can be reached at 770-645-8933, or