Play Therapy Research

How Can You Tell if Play Therapy Works?

Go to Google Scholar, type in the term “play therapy” and you will find hundreds of studies with hundreds of results, some positive and some negative. So does play therapy actually work? It depends on what you call play therapy, how you use it, who you use it with, and what you use it for. The thing is, the field has struggled to show its effectiveness because there is no standard “play therapy” (and maybe because so much of the benefit is due to the tricky therapeutic relationship between client and therapist…but that’s another story). If you're wondering whether play therapy works, first you have to decide exactly what you mean by "play therapy".

Play Therapy Research

Follow the Breadcrumbs of Metaphor into a Child’s Trauma

Here’s the dilemma: “Traumatized patients want clinicians to help them to forget traumatic events, in order to move on with their lives. Clinicians who offer trauma-focused treatments encourage patients to revisit the past, repeatedly and in detail, as a means of processing the traumatic event(s) as a verbally accessible memory.” The quote is from an excellent article published in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience exploring the treatments we offer for trauma and patients’ perspectives of these treatments. How do children experience trauma? How do they report it? How can we help to treat it? The questions are especially complex within a framework where we could do more harm than good if we’re not careful; when removing a band aid from a child, it’s best to rip it off – but ripping away the protections a child has built around trauma can leave the wound raw and unmanageable and retraumatizing a child can be every bit as real and debilitating as a child’s first experience of trauma.


Does Pretend Play Really Create Child Development?

It's one of the things we child psychologists have always believed: pretend play creates social skills, creativity, and the ability to tell a narrative (among other things). So when I read this article published in Psychological Bulletin, I expected to write a fun coronation of pretend play. What I found absolutely shocked me: the researchers from the University of Virginia couldn't tell if pretend play is a means to an end or if it's merely a sign that things are going well. More specifically, the article weighs three possibilities: Is pretend play necessary for positive development? Is it one of many routes to development? Or is pretend play a symptom of other factors that lead to positive development? Here's what they found:


How to Show Growth Without Directing the Course of Play Therapy

Parents, insurance companies, schools, or managed care settings want results; there are “problems” that we as child play therapists are supposed to “fix”. But how can you work toward treatment goals while remaining true to the open-endedness of child-centered therapy, the most common play therapy theoretical orientation? On one hand you want results, and on the other you want to let the child guide the process. An article in The Family Journal lays out a strategy for collaborating on treatment goals with a young client’s family. Here’s the problem as the article says it:

Group Play Therapy

Back to School? How Play Teaches Learning Skills

My first career was as a 6th grade English and Social Studies teacher and I remember that first day of school; within hours or even minutes, there was an obvious difference between students: some kids could do things for themselves and others needed (or wanted...) things done for them. These things ranged from unplugging the top of a glue bottle to sharpening pencils to picking writing topics. I saw huge parallels between these self-care skills, school skills and social skills – kids with high self-efficacy tended to have it across the board.


Improvement Isn’t the Only Measure of Success in Therapy

Imagine you give a pill to a child with allergies. The allergies remain the same. Did the pill work? Of course not! But now imagine treating cancer: you give the patient a pill and five years later the patient’s health is unchanged. Depending on the cancer this very well may be an astounding result. Let’s look at similar success in play therapy. An article in the Journal for Specialist in Group Work used...


In Play Therapy, Do You Engage or Observe?

It’s kind of a funny question: of all the technical aspects of play therapy including the space you create, the interactions you use to draw out your clients, the ways you process these interactions, the boundaries you set, etc. the mechanical question of where you physically place yourself in the room can be an afterthought. The thing is, there’s a fairly rich debate in the world of play therapy about where is the therapist in the picture. Some theorists think the therapist should sit and watch (Axline, Wilson, Ryan, Landreth, etc.). Some think the therapist should join in the play, be it sitting on the floor or standing/kneeling with the child at a sandtray (Wettig, Franke, Fjordbak, etc.). And some think the therapist should hang back until invited into the child’s space (West, etc.).

Group Play Therapy

Sandtray Therapy Boosts Self-Esteem in Middle-School Girls

Before going back to school for psychology, I taught 6th grade English and Social Studies. I remember my girls starting the year as confident and competent young ladies – and then around Winter break, something would shift. Magically cliques would form, the social order would become clear, and my confident girls would suddenly become self-aware teenagers, careful to always be seen doing the right thing with the right people. Suddenly they saw themselves from the constant vantage point of the judgmental observer. As this awareness of their self in the world grew, you could see their self-esteem shrink – and it seemed as if no amount of teambuilding and class empowerment could slow the slide (thus part of my motivation to transition from teaching into psychology!). I just read a beautiful, fascinating article in the Journal for Specialists in Group Work that suggests group sandtray therapy may be one way to save the self-esteem of early-adolescent girls.

Welcome to Play Therapy

I'm very pleased to introduce Dr. Kristi Pikiewicz's blog, Play Therapy. Here's her wonderful and informative introduction to what she'll be talking about on here:

Play therapy is more than babysitting amid colorful clutter. It is a rich therapy tradition with a long history of...