What to Look for in a Good Play Therapist?


Play therapy is a research-based treatment approach which is proven to be effective for a wide range of issues. Play is a child’s natural way of self expression. In play therapy, the therapist allows the child to explore the wide range of toys given to them and closely observes how the child engages and plays with the toys. The therapist intervenes to shift the play if it becomes 'stuck'. This shift helps the child resolve underlying issues. As the relationship develops, the child often becomes increasingly confident in their ability to test out a range of problem-solving solutions as they are not worried about 'failing' or 'disappointing' the therapist.  This process builds the child's confidence and problem-solving skills. An experienced play therapist will adjust to the child's progress, and support to navigate through increasingly difficult psychological, emotional, or developmental challenges.

How to Tell If a Psychologist Values Play Therapy

Depending on clinic space, therapist training, and the age range the therapist focuses on, a child play therapy space may consist of a few games tucked on a clinician’s shelf, a dedicated play area in the corner of a room, or a room that is designed to function as a play therapy space. Having an entire room dedicated to child based therapy is one indicator that the therapist prioritizes the children in their practice. 

Therapists who prioritize children in their practice, and who are willing to invest in a range of therapeutic toys, games, and crafting materials, are likely to have much more training, experience, and general capacity to treat distressed children. Kids often feel a great sense of comfort and support when they enter a room that is clearly intended for them, as opposed to being asked to play in an adult-focused space. The experience of having a room "just for them" can help the child settle more quickly into the therapeutic process.

Another important element in identifying therapists who prioritize children and play therapy is their training and experience. Many psychologists, therapists, and other clinicians will say they do "play therapy", but have minimal training or supervision in this area. While a general clinician brings a certain understanding of therapy to a situation, working with children is significantly different than working with adults. True "play therapists" are specialists. Much like pediatricians who have taken advanced training and supervision to treat children, psychologists who specialize in child therapy and working with teens, will have completed additional instruction and education in either specialized clinic programs that work with the most complex children and adolescents, and/or specialized training programs requiring many hours of education and supervised practice before being granted certification in "play therapy" or "expressive arts therapy".

As well, many elements of play therapy will vary based on the child’s age. This means it is important that the therapist identify the age range they are skilled to work with.  Play therapy with children ages 0-5 is a different specialty from play therapy with elementary school aged children, or expressive art work with teenagers.

How does Play Therapy Benefit Children?

Play therapy can help kids experience a wide variety of social, behavioral, emotional, and learning challenges. Such challenges may include changes in family dynamics such as divorce of parents, moving to a new home, death, chronic illnesses, hospitalization, traumatic experiences, domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, or recovery from natural disasters or war. Play therapy helps children:

  • Develop problem-solving skills

  • Become comfortable with expressing a range of emotions

  • Develop respect and acceptance of self and others

  • Learn new social skills and relational skills with family

  • Improve behavior and emotional self-regulation

  • Increase personal confidence

  • Strengthen parent-child attachment

  • Improve family communication

Play therapy may help parent-child attachment pertaining to adoption/fostering, special needs - children with difficult or mismatched temperaments as compared to their parents, or children who struggle with emotional, psychological, or developmental challenges. Play therapy helps both the child and family by addressing the cause of concerning behaviors, communication styles, and negative interaction patterns. When you are trying to find the right therapist for your child, do not be afraid to ask about the therapist's training and certification in play therapy.  

Our professional Edmonton psychologists have completed extensive training in play and art therapy, with specializations in working with preschoolers, school age, and teenage children. Our therapists work closely with children and their families using age appropriate play and expressive art therapies. The outcomes typically include improved parent-child relationships and a better sense of being for the child. To know more about play therapy and expressive art services from our professionals please feel free to contact us with your questions.