Play Therapy, the Science Behind it!

“So do you really ‘play’ with my child the whole session?” This is a question I hear often. The short answer is “YES!” The long answer is that play therapy is extremely research based and one of the best interventions for young children. Bonus points for me for getting to play for 50 minutes! Read the research and science behind play therapy!

Play therapy uses principles of play as a mode for therapeutic intervention. There are several different forms of play therapy, including but not limited to, child centered play therapy, sand tray therapy, filial therapy, expressive arts therapy, activity based counseling, and Adlerian play therapy. I offer all forms of play therapy, and guess what, some modes I even offer for adults, such as expressive arts and sand tray! Let’s face it, we could all use a little more play in our lives!

Child Centered play therapy is one of the most popular forms of play therapy. It was pioneered by Gary Landreth, PhD (fun fact, Dr. Landreth is a professor at the University of North Texas). Dr. Landreth uses many principles taken from the work of Virginia Axline, PhD.

Play is thought to be a child’s natural language, so toys are a natural way for a child to communicate. Child centered play therapy builds upon Carl Roger’s person’s centered approach to therapy of using empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. Much research suggests that children 9 years and below can benefit from child centered play therapy. According to Piaget, there are different stages of development, such as the preoperational development (3 to 6 years) and concrete operational development (beginning at 7 years old, and research indicates that child centered play therapy can be effective during these developmental stages (Dougherty & Ray, 2007). Through child centered play, the belief is that a child can work through difficult emotions, learn healthy coping skills and limit setting, and express themselves in a healthy manner (Dougherty & Ray, 2007).

Art therapy is a psychotherapeutic intervention that incorporates art as a means of an expressive channel. Art therapy can be an effective intervention for clients from preschool through adults, especially because it can be less of a defensive environment. Art therapy can have three different stages: goal setting, exploring problems, and solution focused (Bastemur et. al, 2016).

Sand tray therapy is another form of play therapy that can be used for preschool aged clients through adulthood. Through the use of therapeutic sand and minatures, healing can occur by understanding conscious and unconscious problems. Clients can tell stories through the figurines/minatures and are given the option at the end of a session to make any changes. This allows for insight into one’s problems, as well as the control to make changes in one’s life!

Filial therapy is a parent-training program to help strengthen the relationship between a parent and a child. During filial therapy, parents are taught to have special structured 30-minute playtimes with their child using a kit of carefully selected toys in their own home. Parents learn how to respond empathetically to their child’s feelings, build their child’s self-confidence, help their child learn self-control and responsibility, and set therapeutic limits during these special playtimes (Tortamis, 2015)

Adlerian play therapy is another effective play therapy model. according to Portrie-Bethke, Hill & Bethke (2009), “Integrating Adlerian play therapy and ABC [adventure based counseling] is a possible way to harness the inherent energy of children diagnosed with ADHD while simultaneously reflecting on their strengths and developing their relationship-building skills” (p 334). It is more of directive form of play therapy than child centered play therapy.

Play therapy can treat a number of presenting concerns including trauma, oppositional behaviors, autism spectrum disorders, social difficulties, mood concerns, anxiety, and AD/HD. If you feel like your child could benefit from play therapy, give us a call, 713.380.1151. We would love to work with your child!

Written by Amy Rollo, M.A., LSSP, LPC-S

Amy Rollo is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and owner of Heights Family Counseling. Amy has been practicing counseling and diagnostic evaluations for fifteen years. She has doctoral level training in the areas of child and adolescent counseling, evaluations, marriage and family therapy, and adult counseling. Amy Rollo provides counseling and evaluation services in the Houston Heights and surrounding areas. Amy’s goal in counseling is to journey with her clients in order to foster positive changes and growth in their lives. Read more about Amy's counseling style by visiting and read more about her services by visiting