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”.
I bring this up because a great example just popped up in the International Journal of School Health. In an article published September 1, researchers split 30 first-graders with dysgraphia into experimental and control groups and pulled out 15 kids for “play therapy” to see if it might help writing and spelling. Kids in the experimental condition got 14 sessions of play therapy over 2 months, while kids in the control group stuck with instruction-as-usual in the classroom. There were various tests before and various tests after.
Sounds great, right? But then check this out – here are example session descriptions: game with [letter] characters using sand box, stories about mute and silent characters, present shapes and then explain them from memory, relational domino memory game, writing words in the air, provide noises from a hidden source which is discovered and recognized by students, one person says a word and another person finds the right word to add to it, showing two images and having students find the slight differences, writing letters on the back of a student’s hand and asking them to recognize the word.
Now, I will admit that while it’s not my specialty, this sounds like a lovely intervention for dysgraphia. But in my opinion it’s about as close to play therapy as it is to a cooking class. But then the authors write that, “The aim of this study was to investigate the effect of play therapy on writing of students with writing disorders.” They meant to study play therapy! And if you were casually searching, it would look like they had studied play therapy.
This disconnect between the search term “play therapy” and the technique as most of us understand it creates confusion in both directions: in this case, without a very careful read it allows us to imagine that play therapy is great for dysgraphia (heck, maybe it is…but not because this study says so); but on the other hand, it can allow parents, teachers, other therapists, and researchers to dismiss play therapy as a failed intervention. For example, imagine this study’s “play therapy” technique had been used with trauma survivors – do you think there would be an effect? Probably not, and in that case, the headline could very easily (and very unfairly) read “Play therapy ineffective for childhood trauma”. You have to match the right pill to the right patient and with a pill that can take any shape researchers want it to take, sometimes it can work and other times it won’t.
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer here; it’s not as if practitioners around the world are likely to standardize their play therapy in a way that would allow us to study it more carefully. But next time you hear about the ineffectiveness of play therapy, you might ask its detractors to look a little more closely at the studies on which they base their opinions.
Play therapy by any other name would smell as sweet. But when a researcher calls a homegrown and non-standardized intervention “play therapy” and then shows it is either effective or not effective, it makes it harder for the rest of us to justify what we do.
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