Play Therapy


Image courtesy of Vlado at

Play therapy is an empirically validated treatment found to have a large positive effect on children with a wide variety of presenting clinical concerns.  Play therapy is a developmentally responsive approach allowing early intervention which can prevent the onset of severe and costly problems across the life span.  Current brain research supports the necessity of play in optimal brain development. Therefore, play is especially critical for young children whose development has been arrested by traumatic events.  Play is a natural medium of expression for all children, providing an expressive means for the therapist to enter the child’s inner world.

Incorporating play in the therapeutic process is essential for non-verbal children and critical to the expression of pre-verbal trauma.  Children can gain a sense of mastery and control through play, allowing the child to make the unmanageable manageable.  Play can provide the child an opportunity to organize and make sense of their experiences and their world. Through play the therapist can learn the child’s perceptions of their experiences, feelings, reactions, and beliefs about the experience, needs and wishes, the child’s perception of self, of others and the world.

Professional play therapists are trained to structure the therapeutic relationship and the play setting to facilitate an atmosphere of freedom within therapeutic limits, promote spontaneity and creativity, and offer a wide variety of carefully selected appropriate play materials and provide an orderly and consistent room arrangement to allow the child to explore a wide variety of concerns while feeling safe, secure and supported. Contrary to some popular misconceptions, therapeutic play is not always fun. Posttraumatic play may lack joy and spontaneity, may be intense or repetitious in quality, and, in extreme forms, may result in physiological responses including clearing of the throat, urination, defecation, and labored breathing.

Image courtesy of Prawny at

Image courtesy of Prawny at

Play and other expressive therapies such as sandplay, art, and music therapy are crucial components in the treatment of trauma as research indicates that cognitive and verbal interventions alone do not alter parts of the brain that mediate trauma symptoms.  Play therapy is invaluable as it allows the child to explore trauma and related thoughts and feelings within a context that is developmentally responsive and psychologically manageable.

About the Author: Dana Aucoin, MSW, LCSW is a therapist at Aspire Indiana’s Willowbrook outpatient office located in Indianapolis. While the beliefs and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Ms. Aucoin, you can learn more about Aspire Indiana at

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