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What is Play Therapy?

By: Dr. Jeremy Fink, LCSW, Psy.D.  |  January, 31st, 2017

Most children who go to psychotherapy in the age range of between 2 and 7 years-old generally are doing some form of play therapy. There is a great misconception by parents and even some in the mental health field that it’s just playing. Once a parent compared their child’s play therapy sessions to a playdate with a schoolfriend.  

The reason for this misconception is that people don’t have a very good understanding of what’s developmentally appropriate. Older children and adults rely heavily upon concrete logic in their lives, which focusses on facts, the here and now, physical objects, and literal definitions. Younger children, specifically between the ages of 2-7, but sometimes older children as well, engage more in symbolic play and symbol manipulation; however, they lack a grasp on concrete logic.

Because of a younger child’s focus on symbolic play and pretending, and their inability to take the point of view of other people (Paget’s egocentrism), play therapy is tantamount to grown-up talk therapy. During play therapy children will often assign the roles of mommy, daddy, sister, brother, teacher, to toys, they will draw and explain scenarios that us adults would likely take years in psychotherapy to get around to talking about.

So while it may appear that the child in play therapy is just playing, he or she is doing so in the environment of a therapist’s office, where an empathy or understanding can be developed between child and adult. Themes in the play will be remembered by the therapist and played out over and over again, sometimes changing and other times remaining static. Through this process traumatic events, family issues such as divorce or separation of parents, grief and loss, can all be worked out. Ideally family involvement is a good idea, and through the child’s play therapy, the family can learn about their roles as well. In my experience, it’s usually the youngest member of the family that knows the most about the family's problems.