What Is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is an approach to counselling that allows children to heal by using creative, playful, and imaginative outlets. Because this approach addresses cognitive, behavioural, social and emotional challenges, play-based therapy can be a helpful tool for children/adolescents, ages 3 to 12, who struggle with mental health issues. 

Since its founding in the 1930s, many researchers and clinicians have developed a wide range of models and theories based on the original framework of play therapy created by Dr. Margaret Lowenthal. And though there are now many different approaches to therapeutic play, all adaptations seek to help children reorganize and assimilate thoughts, feelings, and behaviours through play in order to reach optimal development.

Decades of research have validated play therapy as an evidence-based approach. And since regulatory boards in our country only approve of evidence-based approaches, play therapy is widely accepted in Canada and regulated by the Canadian Association of Play Therapy. 

This approach has been demonstrated to successfully treat children struggling with low self-esteem, anxiety, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), bullying/social skills, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), attachment and adjustment issues, self-regulation, and aggression, among others. In essence, play therapy can be used for just about every emotional, psychological, or behavioural issue experienced by children.  

How Does Play Therapy Work?

The most important step during play therapy sessions is building a trusted relationship between the child client and their therapist. This relationship should be an encouraging and supportive one that ultimately models effective interpersonal behaviour and communication for children struggling with mental health challenges.  

Play therapy often begins with a session attended by the parent to gather relevant background information, discuss goals, and create a treatment plan. Depending on the needs and preferences of the child, any combination of toys, art, music, dress-up, sensory play, or puppets may be used. In some cases, play therapy is directed by the therapist, and in other cases, play is directed by the child themself. Regardless, the counsellor helps facilitate and support the process of change.

Because children have a hard time understanding and verbalizing their emotions, play becomes the predominant mode of communication. Play can then be used by the counsellor to help the client to foster emotional wellness, increase personal strengths, enhance relationships, facilitate communication, elaborate on ideas, and reflect feelings so that the adults around them can better understand and appropriately respond to the child’s needs. 

In addition, play allows children to process difficult or confusing events so that they can have a stronger sense of control over outcomes. Psychoeducation through play improves problem-solving, relaxation techniques, and enhances coping skills and resilience. For this reason, play therapy is especially effective in targeting trauma or adverse experiences. 

Furthermore, internal motivation improves and a sense of catharsis contributes to effective self-soothing. Over time, the client is also able to integrate difficult experiences, self-advocate, and communicate needs knowing they are in a safe and controlled environment. 

How We Incorporate Play-Based Therapy Into Our Practice

At Sharon Blott Psychological Services, our registered psychologists, Melissa Martin and Sarah McEvoy (both members of the Canadian Association of Play Therapy), have decades of experience working with children and adolescents in various capacities. Sarah draws from various modalities dependent on the client’s needs and concerns. She incorporates play-based techniques alongside behavioural interventions drawn from strength-based approaches, solution-focused, cognitive-behavioural, and Gestalt and Adlerian theories.  

In addition to these approaches, we may include sandtray play into therapy. Using this method, child clients can access unique kinesthetic tools, create distance from difficult emotions and experiences, and gain a sense of control as they construct scenes using miniature figurines.

We recognize that the therapeutic relationship and effective parental support are the most essential agents for change when it comes to our child/adolescent clients. Thus, we make sure to take sufficient time to understand the child’s needs before taking any prescriptive or interventional measures. Because trust and confidentiality are so important in play therapy, we work at the child’s pace to help them effectively process difficult emotions and feelings. 

Our clinicians are dedicated to providing person-centred care and honouring the privacy of all of our clients, regardless of age. Therefore, parents will be involved in sessions on a case-by-case basis. Sarah has had great success in coaching parents with behavioural strategies that can be applied outside of the context of therapy if sessions are held without direct parental involvement. And regardless of the treatment plan, parents are regularly updated on progress and recurrent themes while maintaining the confidentiality of our child clients. 

We have witnessed a wide range of narrative and talk therapies that can target the mental health challenges experienced by the child/adolescent population, but none prove to be as effective as play therapy. When children are empowered to explore their emotions and experiences in a way that honours their imagination and verbal limitations, lasting positive changes can be made. 

Play Therapy Can Help Your Child Learn To Effectively Manage Their Emotions

If you have a child, age 3 to 12, who struggles with anxiety, emotion regulation, or behavioural issues, play therapy at Sharon Blott Psychological Services can give them tools for coping and effective communication. 

To schedule a free, 30-minute consultation with our registered therapeutic play clinician, email Sharon or, depending on where you live in Calgary, visit our North East contact page or our South East contact page