By Nora Heston Tarte

Play is important. In a time when society is placing more emphasis on academics, and video games are taking over playtime, children can benefit from old-fashioned play. At the turn of the 20th century, play therapy has become a valuable way to communicate with children. It is especially helpful to those that may suffer from mental disabilities or disorders. For example, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often engage in play therapy to learn how to calm down and function better in their environment.

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) states play therapy is used to help children resolve their problems. Children who engage in play therapy find healthy outlets for their emotions as well as effective avenues for communicating their feelings to others. When a child acts out or misbehaves, it could be because their problem solving tactics have failed. Play therapy allows a licensed mental health professional to assess children based on how they play. From there, they use additional techniques to help children cope.

According to APT, children who can benefit from play therapy include those with a wide variety of social, emotional, behavioral and learning problems. It also includes children whose problems are related to life stressors such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, assimilate stressful experiences, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence and natural disasters, to name a few.

Why play therapy?

“A child’s means of exploration and experience is through play. So it is play that lays the foundation for effective neuro-development, coordination, emotional regulation, socialization, learning and general well-being,” explains Susan Gregg, OTR/L at SMART Pediatric Therapy, LLC in Goodyear.

Play Therapy allows registered play therapists (RPT) or other mental health therapists the ability to assess a child’s difficulties by watching them play.

Even spectators can sometimes spot a discrepancy is how a child plays with their peers. While some children swing joyfully on the monkey bars before jumping from a high play structure, others watch, hesitant to make moves themselves. Children who cry a lot, stay at their parent’s side or appear fearful of movement may have a nervous system that is easily overloaded and overwhelmed.

“For a highly trained therapist with extensive knowledge in typical and atypical neuro-development and sensory-motor processing, very valuable information can be observed about the child’s sensory processing through observation of play,” Gregg says.

How it helps

Children with special needs don’t fall into one category. While movement easily overwhelms some, others struggle to rest or take breaks. Sensory processing, or sensory integration, involves the brain’s ability to receive, organize and process sensations entering the brain. When these sensations don’t flow seamlessly, they can result in a sensory processing disorder (SPD). Play therapy that focuses on the flow of information can better a child’s behavioral and motor responses, Gregg explains.

The APT credits play therapy with several benefits to children. Children who participate in play therapy may become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies for dealing with problems, develop respect and acceptance of self and others, learn to experience and express emotion, cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others, learn new social skills and relational skills with family and develop self-efficacy, thus a better assuredness about their abilities.

What it looks like

Play therapy differs based on a child’s needs. At SMART Pediatric Therapy, therapists utilize a sensory gym, which provides many of the same play opportunities as a playground. From stairs, slides, swings and a trampoline to a zip line, rock walls, therapy balls, scooter boards and ramps, monkey bars and an obstacle course, there are many opportunities for staff to observe a child’s play behaviors.

“Our goal is to help children detect, regulate, interpret and execute appropriate motor and behavioral responses to sensations,” Gregg says. “Our goal is to enable the child to experience success at his/her ‘occupation’ of playing with friends, learning at school, completing daily routines (eating, dressing, sleeping, etc.), and enjoying typical family life.” Referring to play as a child’s occupation highlights the correlation between occupational therapy – therapy that encourages rehabilitation through the performance of daily activities commonly used with those recovering from physical or mental illness – and play therapy.

Therapists approach children based on their individual needs. While a child who comes into the clinic crying and overwhelmed may experience some of the same treatments as a child who comes in bouncing off the walls, their overall treatments will look different. The goal with both children is the same, to help them learn to process outside information better and thus improve reactions, but the approach is catered to individual needs.

After a child has been effectively calmed, if they were not calm upon entering the clinic, “heavy work,” or play, is utilized. Allowing a child time to move and work their muscles and joints is imperative to helping them sit still and focus.

“With the correct intensity and duration, proprioceptive input [input into their muscles and joints] has a calming effect on the nervous system and can assist with self-regulation, attention and focus,” Gregg explains. “I have had kindergarten teachers amazed by applying this one simple concept to the student who is simply unable to sit still and focus: wheelbarrow walks around the classroom where the teacher holds the child’s feet and he ‘walks’ on his hands. This activity calms the nervous system and can allow the child to sit and focus for the remainder of the class period.”

Bringing it home

When a child has stressors in their life that cause behavioral problems, or an underlying diagnoses that has the same results, seeing a therapist is an important part of their treatment. It is here that they can be diagnosed by a trained professional and learn techniques to help them grow. However, there are added benefits to bringing play therapy home.

The APT states that in all cases children and families heal faster when they work together. It is up to the play therapist to decide how to include the family. This can range from frequent communication about treatment to involving the entire family in family play therapy.

For more information about play therapy, visit the APT website,



Join our monthly eNewsletter to get Arizona Parenting delivered straight to your inbox!

You rock! Thanks for signing up to receive our monthly eNewsletter! Check your inbox for confirmation!