Play is essential to the healthy development of every child. Play supports social, emotional, cognitive and physical growth and development. Play is a part of children’s lives that happens naturally and in its own right has immense value1-2.
Grown-ups across many different professional fields have taken an interest in play. Play does not belong to a single profession or field such as psychology, education, or medicine. Rather, a range of people train to harness the different powers of play for a variety of purposes, to support the healthy development of human beings at any age. This week, we are celebrating the work of one type of play professional: play therapists.
What is play therapy?
Defined by the British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT), play therapy is “a way of helping children express their feelings and deal with their emotional problems, using play as the main communication tool.” BAPT expands on this short definition by explaining:
“Play therapy helps children understand muddled feelings and upsetting events that they haven’t had the chance to sort out properly. Rather than having to explain what is troubling them, as adult therapy usually expects, children use play to communicate at their own level and at their own pace.”
Play therapy typically happens in a designated playroom with intentionally curated toys to support a child’s ability to explore a wide range of topics in their play such as divorce, illness or death in the family, anxiety, trauma, life transitions and more. Research shows that play therapy can be effective in various settings across age, race, and gender3-4.
Why do we need an international awareness week?
Around the world, the term play therapy has frequently suffered a reductionistic fate of becoming a catch-all for any mental healthcare or more general healthcare that involves toys or play-based techniques. While playful interventions are finding backing and support in schools, medical settings and childcare settings – something to celebrate in its own right – using the term ‘play therapy’ to describe them makes it more challenging for high-quality play therapy, a systematic therapeutic approach, to be recognised or put into place. This ultimately means that children and young people might miss out on developmentally responsible support for their mental health.
Results from research on play therapy show improvement in children’s disruptive behaviours, academic progress, self-esteem and self-identity, relationships, anxiety, healing trauma, and internalising difficulties3-6. The effectiveness of play therapy is one important reason why families and caregivers need to be able to access play therapy from an accredited play therapist, not just play-based techniques, which, while valuable, may not be as appropriate for their child.
What’s the difference between Health Play Specialists and Play Therapists?
As mentioned, play therapy is not currently a well understood profession. In the UK, there is also confusion about the difference between health play specialists and play therapists.
Play therapists are: registered professionals with a graduate mental health degree and extensive specialised play therapy education, training, and supervision. They use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychological difficulties to achieve optimal growth and development.
You can find out more about play therapists through the Association for Play Therapy, United States (APT) and the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education.
Health Play Specialists are: registered professionals who use play as a therapeutic tool for children and young people who are in-patients or out-patients in hospitals, hospices and other community settings. They use play strategies to support children and young people in their understanding of their medical conditions, treatments, lifestyle changes, and procedures throughout their healthcare journey.
Learn more about health play specialists from the NHS and the Healthcare Play Specialist Education Trust (HPSET).
Continuing play therapy research
As a play therapist myself, I am excited that my doctoral research can contribute to expanding knowledge within the field of play therapy. My research explores different intersections of the following topics: play therapy, trauma, and children’s perspectives on their mental health care.
I am currently recruiting participants for the following studies:
- An online survey of registered/qualified play therapists’ experiences practicing during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
- A creative methods study with children who have been in play therapy for trauma, to gather their perspective.
If you are a play therapist interested in participating in either of these studies, please get in touch via email at email@example.com.
You can also find out more about my work as part of our Play in Health team here.
1 Six Benefits of Play (The Genius of Play, 2023)
2Why play is important (raisingchildren.net.au, 2022)
3The Efficacy of Play Therapy With Children: A Meta-Analytic Review of Treatment Outcomes (Bratton et al., 2005)
4A Meta-Analytic Review of Child-Centered Play Therapy Approaches (Lin & Bratton, 2015)
5A meta-analysis of play therapy outcomes (LeBlanc & Ritchie, 2001)
6Child-Centered Play Therapy in the Schools: Review and Meta-Analysis (Ray et al., 2015)
Click to download our infographic all about play therapy and why it can be an important tool for supporting children’s mental health.