Play therapy is a technique whereby the child's natural means of expression, namely play, is used as a therapeutic method to assist him/her in coping with emotional stress or trauma.  It has been used effectively with children who have an understanding level of a normal three to eight year old, who are; distraught due to family problems (e.g., parental divorce, sibling rivalry), nail biters, bed wetters, aggressive or cruel, social underdeveloped, or victims of child abuse.   It has also been used with special education students whose disability is a source of anxiety or emotional turmoil.

    Practitioners of play therapy believe that this method allows the child to manipulate the world on a smaller scale, something that cannot be done in the child's everyday environment.   By playing with specially selected materials, and with the guidance of a person who reacts in a designated manner, the child plays out his/her feelings, bringing these hidden emotions to the surface where s/he can face them and cope with them. In it's most psychotherapeutic form, the teacher is unconditionally accepting of anything the child might say or do. The teacher never expresses shock, argues, teases, moralizes, or tells the child that his/her perceptions are incorrect.  An atmosphere should be developed in which the child knows that s/he can express herself/himself in a non punitive environment.   Yet, even though the atmosphere is permissive, certain limits may have to be imposed such as restrictions on destroying materials, attacking the teacher, or going beyond a set time limit.

    Many psychologists, counselors and other professionals may view this technique as being within their jurisdiction only.   They may be correct when referring to long term, in-depth counseling.   However, although this technique is usually practiced by school counselors, social workers and psychologists, it can easily be modified for use by the teacher in the classroom for less intensive problems.  If you plan to conduct pre-planned sessions, it is best to obtain the permission of administrators and parents.

A video by one of Dr. Mac's former students.

How To Use Play Therapy

This procedure is for a "non-directive" version of play therapy. There are many variations on the practice, but the materials typically remain the same.

1.   Identify a youngster who might benefit from play therapy.
2.   Decide if you will have a separate session with this child or whether you will sit near the student during your class play period or recess.
3.   Obtain materials for the session. Recommended items include:
        -manipulatives (e.g., clay, crayons, painting supplies)
        -water and sand play containers
        - toy kitchen appliances, utensils, and pans
        - baby items (e.g., bottles, bibs, rattles, etc.)
        - dolls and figures of various sizes and ages
        - toy guns, rubber knives
        - toy cars, boats, soldiers, and animals Toys&Materials4KidsWithBehaviorChallenges
        - blocks, erector sets
        - stuffed animals (other suggested items can be located at the resource posted here

4.  Place the materials in specific places where they can be located for each session.

5.  Meet the student and introduce him/her to the play area.

6.   Inform the student of limitations and how long the session will last (usually 30-60 minutes).

7.    Allow the student to choose the materials with which to play.  Do not suggest materials or activities.   If the youngster wishes to leave before the session ends, that is allowed.  However, in most cases the student is not allowed to return that day.   He is informed of the time of the next scheduled session.

8.    Use the "reflection" technique (see the filed named "Non-Directive Counseling) to respond to the student's comments.   If  the student is not speaking or is non-verbal, your role will change; you will be describing what the student is doing. Just make a report on the actions. DO NOT offer interpretations or judgements of the actions. ("He's a nice boy." "It's wrong for children to hit.") Some supervising adults ask probing questions to get the child to speak or investigate a situation further. ("I wonder why the grown up is doing that.", "What do you think that the girl is thinking right now?")

9.    As the end of the session nears, inform the student of that fact, stating the number of minutes left. This procedure helps with transition back to other activities.

10.  Upon reaching the time limit, inform the student in a manner similar to the following:  "Our time is up for today.   We'll have to stop now and put the toys back where we found them."   The student is not allowed to continue playing if you deem that s/he must return to other activities.

11.  Inform the student as to when the next session will be held.

Click here for an example of how a teacher introduced play therapy into her classroom


Activities and Discussion Questions

1.    Read the file on the home page of "" titled "Non-Directive Counseling Techniques" for pertinent additional information.

2.    Write some utterances that kids might say about problem areas in their lives.  Verbalize a "reflection" for each of the comments.  You can restate the comment exactly, restate part of the comment, or reflect the content of the comment.

Other Resources

MATERIALS For Effective Play Therapy

To view a vast array of quality items, toys, games, and other materials designed specifically for conducting play therapy sessions, go to:




Axline, V. (1969). Play therapy.

Axline, V. (1969). Dibs: In search of self.

Heidi Kaduson & Charles Schaefer (2000). Short-term play therapy for children.
                                        Order at

Nemiroff & Annunziata (199-). A child's first book about play therapy. Washington, DC: Magination Press                                Order at:

P.R. White (2000). Clay therapy: A manual of therapeutic application of clay with children.  To investigate or order:          Order at:


Fetch Dr. Mac's Home Page

Author: Tom McIntyre at