17 Benefits Of Play Therapy That May Help Children

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated April 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

There are many therapy techniques available for adults. However, many individuals may not know that families with children can choose between various options as well. One popular method is called play therapy. Play is many children’s natural medium and can be one of the natural languages of children. Play therapy techniques allow your child the ability to play while revealing their thoughts, feelings, and emotions that they may struggle to express verbally.

What is play therapy and how can it help my child?

Play therapy is a form of therapy designed to help children express their emotions in ways other therapies don’t often utilize, such as toys or art. The Association for Play Therapy 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.” Child-centered play therapy often helps children between the ages of 3 and 10 who have experienced trauma or live with a mental health condition in their everyday lives. 

Play therapists use activities for children — perhaps art therapy or toys such as action figures, stuffed animals, crafts, water, construction toys, dance, and sand play blocks — to help a child express themselves. Often, these types of therapy are helpful for children with autism spectrum disorder or learning disabilities who may have trouble with communicating. By providing a safe space for creative expression, this can help children learn how to express their emotions, relieve stress, gain insights into past trauma, and work to create positive change in their overall mental health.
If you're considering this treatment modality for your child, learning how play therapy for kids functions and how it might benefit them can be valuable.
Does your child need play therapy?

Potential benefits for children

Child-centered play therapy from school counselors or a licensed mental health professional can allow children to feel and express complex emotions and thoughts using nonverbal and universal means of expression. Child development psychologist Jean Piaget observed that young children were not often capable of expressing complex motives, feelings, and thoughts, as their brains were still developing the capability of abstract thought. 

However, children at play may express these symbolic and complex feelings and thoughts nonverbally. For children, playing can be a creative outlet that merges imagination and reality in a way that a therapist can observe without intervening in freedom of expression. If you are thinking about play therapy for your child, below are 17 benefits to consider. 

1. Creating a safe space

Children might not feel they can safely talk about their thoughts and feelings with families. Play therapy can give them a safe place to have fun and talk to a compassionate professional. Play can also take away any pressure to use words to discuss emotional topics. Letting children use play may allow them to express themselves subtly. In some cases, the child might not know what their nonverbal actions communicate to the therapist. Still, a trained therapist may interpret them to help the child with behavioral or emotional issues. 

2. Build self-esteem

Because your child may express themselves and feel heard, they could also build their self-esteem and learn to express themselves through therapeutic play work. Additionally, play therapy can help children build coping skills as they deal with challenging life events such as natural disasters, domestic violence, and traumatic incidents. By participating in play activities, children can learn healthy ways to interact and cope with difficult emotions and experiences. Occupational therapists, school psychologists, and social workers often use play therapy to help children improve their mental health and well-being.

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If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

3. Gain real-world problem-solving skills

As your child plays, they may improve their problem-solving skills independently. They set up their own stories with their toys and games and might work toward resolving minor or significant problems through roleplay. 

A therapist could also present them with a problem in play therapy, where they will be tasked with figuring out the resolution independently. For example, the therapist could ask the child to show them how one toy would react if the other ate his food without asking. The child's response through role-playing could indicate at-home behaviors or patterns. 

4. Learn coping mechanisms

Working through play therapy means your child could learn how to deal with challenging thoughts or emotions. They can gain coping strategies in play therapy that might benefit them as teens or adults. In play therapy sessions, children can learn how to interact with friends and other family members in healthy ways and develop positive behaviors. While working with licensed mental health professionals, they can also gain new insights into their thoughts and emotions and understand how a difficult situation makes sense to them. Play therapy can be a safe and effective way for children to deal with family issues, medical procedures, and other stressful life events.

5. Facilitate emotional healing

The primary foundation of play therapy is helping a child cope with emotional distress and challenging events. Through the process of attending sessions, they may learn more about themselves and the situation they are in. Children might feel more comfortable displacing their emotions onto a toy or roleplay instead of facing them head-on, as early-life adverse experiences can be challenging for a young mind to understand. 

6. Gain decision-making skills

Making decisions can be part of growing up and may be included in play therapy. Your child may experience choices through the course of their free play therapy, or their play therapist may present them with choices to help them understand what it takes to decide while weighing out choices.

7. Learn responsibility

Through making decisions in different types of play therapy, your child may learn how to accept responsibility for the choices or behaviors they have engaged in. They might also learn about not taking the blame for actions they are not responsible for. Play can show children responsibility. Additionally, at the end of the session, the child might help the therapist clean up the toys to learn organizational skills. 

8. Pick up new social skills

Learning to talk to people and interact with older kids and peers can be challenging but necessary for children of all ages. Play therapy and playacting can teach them more about interacting with others positively and healthily. The therapist takes a hands-on approach and guides the child through play activities, helping them understand and practice appropriate social behaviors while reducing aggressive behaviors.

9. Make friends

Through the development of social skills, your child may be able to learn more about how to make friends and what it takes to maintain those friendships. Play therapists can support children experiencing social anxiety or shyness. Additionally, if your child partakes in group sessions, they may learn more by socializing and playing with other children experiencing similar symptoms or experiences.

10. Learn to understand the world

Children often learn how to understand the world around them through play. They reenact what they see or experience to help them understand what it means for their life. By playing in a structured environment, they can understand their environment and experiences in safety with a professional who provides insight and compassion. 

11. Discover innate healing

Children may learn more about caring for themselves to promote healing. Self-care can be essential for humans of any age, so children may learn it through play. They can self-soothe by controlling their environment and how they play. Relaxing types of play therapy could include drawing, cuddling a stuffed animal, or participating in sand tray therapy. In palliative care, play therapy can be especially helpful for children facing serious or life-threatening illnesses.

12. Build confidence from within 

As your child understands more about themselves and their place in the world, it could make them feel more confident and comfortable expressing themselves. Learning how to socialize could also build confidence around others. Through play therapy, they may learn about their capabilities.

13. Increase focus 

Directing children toward play therapy activities in sessions can help them build their focus and learn how to pay attention to specific situations. This practice may help them focus in school, relationships, or the workplace down the line. 

14. Encourage imagination and creativity 

Play can help children express themselves through imagination. Play therapy encourages exploring various situations and worlds to create a new and exciting approach to emotional learning. It may also increase their cognitive ability and memory capacity. 

15. Learn to process emotions 

When children play, it can help them process their thoughts and emotions. In play sessions, when your child interacts with tools like an emotion wheel, it shows them what certain facial expressions look like. The provider might act out certain emotional behaviors using toys and ask the child to repeat them when they point at a particular emotion on the wheel. 

16. Decrease negative behaviors

Many children express themselves in undesirable ways if they cannot express their thoughts or feelings. In play sessions, children can use any of the toys and space available and may have room to let their imagination run free. At home, they might not be able to use every item in the room, as it could be a breakable vase or a heavy object. Therapist offices are often dedicated to safe, child-friendly furniture and toys. Children can let out their energy in sessions and go home feeling refreshed. 

17. Helps families build connections 

Part of play therapy may include interactions between the parent and child. During the session, you may help your child formulate ideas and learn from the therapist as they teach you about play therapy concepts. 

Does your child need play therapy?

You're not alone if you are concerned that your child might have a mental health condition. According to the CDC, approximately 20 million children ages three to 17 have been diagnosed with mental health conditions like ADHD, anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As children often express emotions indirectly, play therapy can benefit those experiencing distressing symptoms or confusing thoughts and feelings. 

Talking to a therapist can be uncomfortable or frightening for a child who does not know what the adult in the room is expecting or asking for. They can use their imaginations and interact with toys to communicate by playing. This may allow them to express themselves and discover strategies to grow closer to their family. 

Play therapy support and online counseling

Although counseling for children can be highly effective, some parents may also benefit from counseling while their child is partaking in counseling. Talking to a therapist about your struggles with your child's behaviors, emotions, or symptoms may offer relief. Although many parents may feel too busy to attend in-person counseling, you can also consider online counseling. 

Online counseling has been proven as effective as in-person therapy and can be done from home while you care for your children. Additionally, you can choose the methods most comfortable for attending counseling and gain journaling and webinar features. Online platforms like BetterHelp offer over 30,000 therapists to choose from, including those specializing in parenting concerns. Additionally, if you have a teen child aged 13 to 19, they can attend online counseling through a platform like TeenCounseling, which offers many of the same benefits. 


Play therapy can allow children to connect with their emotions and understand their cognitive processes. Through play with a trained play therapist, they can create scenarios to understand complex issues like conflict, loss, emotions, and mental health symptoms. If you're interested in trying counseling for you, your child, or your family, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for further guidance on this form of treatment and how it could benefit you.
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