Play Therapy: How Playing Benefits Mental Health

Dr. Vinci Cheung
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4 min read

kid playing with toys at play therapy

Play is more than just fun. Adopted as a psychological treatment approach, play therapy has gained huge popularity among parents as one of the best treatment approaches for children. More parents sign their children up for play therapy sessions because playing is a highly approachable treatment option that most children will hardly resist. Before deciding whether play therapy is suitable for your children, here are a few tips on what play therapy really is and how to sign up for a play therapy session in Hong Kong. 


What is play therapy?

In general, play therapy uses play as a medium of communication and helps clients overcome mental health problems. This intervention has the therapeutic goal of bringing about positive changes in children and facilitating their developmental stage by playing. 


According to the Association of Play Therapy, play therapy refers to the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process in which trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help children prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development. 


Play Therapy International further defined play therapy as the therapeutic play that occurs between a child and his/her therapist in a safe, confidential and caring environment, in which their special playtime allows healing to occur following our natural inner tendency towards health. 

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Play therapists in Hong Kong

Professional play therapists typically obtain certificates from training programs in play therapy accredited by the British Association of Play Therapy (BAPT), Play Therapy UK (PTUK) or the Association for Play Therapy (APT)


In Hong Kong, the Academy of Play and Child Psychotherapy (APAC) from the UK offers a play therapy training program that allows individuals with a university bachelor’s degree to become play therapists. 

How does play therapy work?

Toys and play materials

In play therapy, toys and materials are carefully selected by play therapists to identify those which can facilitate children’s emotional expression, allow creative expression and encourage explorative play. 

When selecting appropriate materials, a play therapist usually follows toy selection criteria from the organization he or she received professional training. 


Essentially, toys and materials used in play therapy should encourage children to:

  • Express a wide range of feelings
  • Explore real-life experiences
  • Test their limits in reality
  • Enhance self-understanding
  • Develop self-control

Duration and frequency of play therapy

One play therapy session usually lasts for 30 minutes to one hour, whereas the number of sessions typically depends on the progress of the children. Furthermore, play therapy can be conducted either individually or in groups depending on the children’s needs. 

Types of play modality

Play therapy often involves various play modalities for children to choose from, where different play modalities serve to achieve different therapeutic goals. 


The Play Therapy International has listed the following examples of play modalities commonly used in play therapies:

  • Sand Play
  • Arts and crafts
  • Puppets and masks
  • Music and musical instruments
  • Clay
  • Dance and movement
  • Therapeutic storytelling
  • Creative visualization
  • Drama and role-play

Choosing the right play therapy approach

Play therapy has two primary approaches: non-directive play therapy and directive play therapy. 


Non-directive play therapy

Non-directive play therapy is also known as child-centered play therapy. This approach believes that children have a primary drive towards health and better functioning, and they possess the ability to solve their problems satisfactorily if offered the opportunity. 


Based on these assumptions, the role of the play therapist in non-directive play therapy is to create a suitable environment for the children to experience self-actualization from play. Furthermore, it is expected that play therapists should express genuineness, non-possessive warmth and empathy in non-directive play therapy. 


Directive play therapy

In contrast to non-directive play therapy, directive play therapy helps children develop insight into their complex emotions. Moreover, activities in directive play therapy are more structured and prepared by the play therapist. 


The role of the play therapist in directive play therapy is to act as a co-facilitator of the therapy session and to actively take part in elaborating the process of play. Play therapists are also encouraged to initiate interactive play with the child in directive play therapy.

Benefits of play therapy

Play therapy is regarded as a creative therapeutic approach that is often used for treating children’s mental health issues. Several studies have found that play therapy is effective in:

Apart from the overall effectiveness of play therapy, play therapy can also benefit children experiencing the following challenges:

Preparation before the first session

Parent interview

Before the session begins, the play therapist will invite the parent(s) for an interview. It is expected that the play therapist will first explain play therapy, then discuss with the parent(s) the situation of the child. In a typical parent interview, the parent(s) may explain their concerns for their child and the goals they hope to achieve from play therapy. After that, parental consent is obtained by signing an agreement. After screening and assessment, the child will be invited for a first visit to the playroom. 


Screening and assessment

Play therapists will conduct screening and assessment of the child before the first session by gathering information from the child’s parents. In addition, the play history of the child is also taken into consideration, for example, types of toys the child has played with. Such background information is essential because it helps to prepare the first session.


When assessing the child, play therapists will also link the child’s situation to child developmental theories and other relevant theories in psychology. The process of assessment is ongoing and will be carried out throughout the sessions with regards to the play themes, relationship and the emotional experience of the child. 


What does a play therapist do?

The role of play therapists changes depending on the play therapy approach (directive vs. non-directive) they adopt. However, in both approaches, play therapists have to maintain boundaries with the children. For example, play therapists may ensure the children understand the rule such that the children should never take the toys and materials outside the playroom.

What are the disadvantages of play therapy?
Can you be a play therapist if you don’t have a degree?
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This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and is not sponsored. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.

Dr. Vinci Cheung
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