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Play Therapy: Parents’ Commonly Asked Questions, Answered!

14 Oct, 2021

by Jennie Risley

Play therapy is one of the many focuses of service that ChristianWorks offers through our CounselingWorks ministry.  While not all of our counselors provide play therapy services, we do have several practitioners on staff who are trained to work specifically with children ages 3 and up to pursue therapeutic goals for treatment in a developmentally-appropriate way.  For pre-teens and teens, we offer activity therapy services, which is a play-and-talk therapy hybrid approach that specifically meets the needs of older children and adolescents.

The Association for Play therapy (APT) defines play therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”

That is a mouthful of a definition! For a parent seeking services for their child, it can be difficult to sort through what those terms practically mean.  Hopefully, the answers to the commonly-asked questions below can help you begin to better understand what to expect when your family enters into a play therapy experience.

While there are different modalities, interventions, and philosophies within the realm of play therapy, the general purpose and evidence-based, core traits of the play therapy experience are similar.  Some of these topics we highly suggest that you speak individually with your therapist about, to determine if he or she is a correct fit for your family’s needs, and also to identify reasonable expectations for what to expect in a counseling relationship at that particular practice or agency.

For further review, these websites and videos, as well as the resources listed at the conclusion of this article, are helpful tools for better understanding the background and treatments of play therapy.  Make sure to check them out in order to build a better understanding of play therapy!




Commonly Asked Questions:

So are you just playing the whole time?

The most basic way of describing play therapy is to begin with the idea that “play is the language of children.” Thus, the job of a counselor is to, according to a local Dallas play therapist, “watch for themes that show up and (organically) incorporate skills to teach children emotional regulation and behavior change.”  Often, learning these skills may look much different from didactic, school-type instruction. In the playroom, children are “learning on the job” as the counselor reflects and responds to the child in ways that build insight and assist them in solving problems.  To the untrained eye, this looks a lot like unstructured play; but we can assure you that, when done well, the clinician is using a specific set of techniques to ensure that your child is practicing things such as connectedness, awareness of self and others, and emotional recognition and regulation.

Will you be diagnosing my child?

Not all practices or agencies provide diagnoses for their clients. This often depends on whether or not the agency accepts insurance.  As a parent, you absolutely have the right to know if, and when, a clinician is diagnosing your child.

What type of training does a play therapist have?

An RPT (Registered Play Therapist) is a counselor who has completed specific education, continued trainings, and 350-500 hours of supervised work in play therapy.  RPTs must hold a license to practice general counseling prior to pursuing an RPT status.  It is safe to say that someone with an RPT status has spent a great amount of time and energy to place specific clinical focus on working with children and therapeutic play.

Many other licensed therapists also offer play therapy services using skills that they have learned through graduate school or other trainings, even if they are not a fully-registered RPT.   It is always appropriate to ask your therapist about their training and experience in working with play therapy interventions prior to choosing to work with them.

I heard that the child is “in charge” in the therapy room, and that doesn’t fit my discipline model.

Especially in child-centered models of play therapy, there is little observable structure.  The reasoning for this is to allow children to organically “speak” through their play about what is happening in their inner world, their environments, and relationships.  However, this does not mean that there are no boundaries.  Counselors consistently practice setting limits in the play-room to ensure safety and build therapeutic trust.  To learn more about the A-C-T model of limit setting that is used in the play-room, chat more with your therapist!

Is play therapy effective?

Play therapy has been used in some form or another since the early 1900s, and through subsequent generations has grown into a specific, evidence-based modality of psychotherapy.  The Association for Play Therapy (APT) was formed in 1982 for the purpose of further developing and studying the efficacy of play therapy interventions (Kaduson et al., 2008).

The largest meta-analysis of play therapy research found that, overall, children who received play therapy interventions performed better on their emotional and social goals than children who did not.  Further, children whose parents were actively involved in the play therapy process achieved higher success on treatment outcomes (Kaduson et al., 2008). It could be assumed that when parents are active participants in learning play interventions, their children’s therapeutic growth is positively impacted.

Be sure to speak to your child’s therapist about “filial therapy” if you are interested in a specific type of parent-involved play interventions.

How long will therapy take? When will I expect to see a difference in behavior?

As all children and treatment goals vary, so will the expectations for the time for therapeutic progress. Your child’s specific challenges, frequency of counseling, and the clinician’s individual counseling style can all play into the timeframe for the counseling relationship.

Typically, a basic play therapy goal is for a child to begin to utilize skills and problem-solving techniques practiced in the play room across multiple environments.  Your child should begin to exhibit the things he or she is learning at school and at home; sometimes these shifts are minor and difficult to recognize. Your counselor can speak with you about how to notice and validate this progress that your child is making!

Remember, as a parent you can absolutely ask for more frequent parent consultations to discuss progress, treatment goals, and expectations for behavior change on a regular basis.  Sometimes changes happen more slowly, but your child’s therapist is consistently working to build a better understanding of your child’s motivations, barriers, and strengths that he or she should be happy to share with you.

What is my role as the parent in play therapy?

Your role is, simply put, invaluable.  You are the biggest resource for your child.  From the very beginning of the counseling relationship, you will have a shared role with the counselor in the creation of treatment goals.  Throughout the continued process, the counselor will meet with you regularly to not only provide updates but assist you in supporting your child’s treatment in a variety of ways.

And, as mentioned previously, we know that active caregiver involvement in the treatment process can lead to more positive outcomes for a child in counseling.  So make sure that you are actively asking how you can help your child outside of the playroom as he or she progresses.

Are there different kinds of play therapy? What kind do you use? Why?!

This is a question that we recommend you ask your counselor at your initial parent consult.  He or she should be well-prepared to answer it! You may even want to ask what a counselor’s “philosophy of counseling” is; this will provide an opportunity to hear how your counselor will be assessing your child and viewing the purpose of the counseling relationship.

Within the play therapy modality, here are both directive and nondirective (child-centered) philosophies.  These are often based on a clinician’s philosophy of counseling and sometimes based on child and family’s specific needs (Types of play therapy, 2013).

As well, some therapists utilize specific types of manualized processes such as Theraplay or TBRI to assist you and your child in meeting treatment goals and practicing connection with each other.

We have also mentioned “filial therapy” several times in this article.  Filial therapy is best defined as “a parental intervention based on child-centered play therapy from which parents are taught basic child-centered therapy skills” (Kaduson et al., 2008). Filial therapy can be a way for you to practice the same types of interventions and connective activities utilized in the playroom.



We know that working with a new counselor can be daunting, especially when the needs of your children are involved.  Please let us know if we can continue to help you understand what to expect in the play therapy room. We are here for you!




Bratton, S., Ray, D., Rhine, T., & Jones, L. (2005). The efficacy of play therapy and filial therapy with children: Summary of the Meta-Analytic findings. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.a4pt.org/resource/resmgr/publications/Meta-Analytic_Literature_Rev.pdf.

Center for play therapy. What is Play Therapy? | Center for Play Therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://cpt.unt.edu/what-is-play-therapy.

Kaduson, H., Schaefer, C. E., & Ray, D. C. (2008). Evidence-Based Play Therapy. In Contemporary play therapy: Theory, research, and Practice (pp. 136–157). essay, Guilford Press.

Play therapy makes a difference – association for play therapy. Mental Health Professionals Applying the Therapeutic Power of Play. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.a4pt.org/page/PTMakesADifference/Play-Therapy-Makes-a-Difference.htm.

Ray, D. C, & McCullough, R. (2015; revised 2016). Evidence-based practice statement: Play therapy (Research report). Retrieved from Association for Play Therapy website: http://www.a4pt.org/?page=EvidenceBased

Types of play therapy. Utah Play Therapy. (2013, January 25). Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://utahplaytherapy.org/types-of-play-therapy/.

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