Play Therapy 101: Part 2 – What Happens in Play Therapy?

In the first part of this play therapy blog series, we explored the core ideas about how Child Centered Play Therapy (CCPT) works. This time, in the second blog in this series, let’s look at what actually occurs during a typical play therapy session. This post discusses the unique environment of the playroom and also gives details in regard to the concept of self-directed play. 

Welcome to your playroom! 

Every time your child begins a play therapy session, the therapist always starts the same way by saying, “welcome to your playroom!” This is done to both welcome the child and to set the tone that this will be an experience centered on each individual child’s unique needs. The therapeutic playroom differs in several ways from traditional toy rooms, although it may look familiar to clients. Many counseling playrooms include playhouses, sandboxes, and rows of shelves filled with action/animal figures, costumes, art supplies and more. All these toys are used purposefully. Other therapists have portable kits with fewer, similarly strategic toys. 

The key difference between your home playroom and the therapeutic playroom is toy selection. In your home, you might have a cross-section of toys based on recent holiday gifts…or perhaps, your child accrued some bins of hand-me-downs from older siblings. Your child’s toys are likely based on popular opinion from peers, right? Child centered play therapy toys are more deliberately chosen. Determining the therapeutic value of specific toys is about selecting items that encourage children to use their imagination; these items facilitate play to represent the child’s thoughts and feelings. 

CCPT founding theorist Garry Landreth1 explains it this way: “toys and materials are used by the child in the act of play to communicate the child’s personal world.  Therefore, toys and materials should be selected that facilitate the seven essentials in play therapy: 

  1. Establishment of a positive relationship with the child, 
  2. Expression of a wide range of feelings,
  3. Exploration of real-life experiences,
  4. Reality testing of limits, 
  5. Development of a positive self-image, 
  6. Development of self-understanding, 
  7. An opportunity to develop self-control.” 

This focused criteria excludes play like competitive games because they do not fall within the seven essentials. The same goes for electronic toys and video games, both of which guide the child into a predetermined direction of play. In this regard, CCPT’s name describes it well. “Child centered” means the child gets to direct their own play wherever their imagination takes them instead of letting a toy or adult dictate what happens. 

The power of self directed play 

Why is the concept of self-directed play crucial to CCPT? Let us look at a typical week for a child. As parents/caregivers, we know the importance of consistency. But, we have a tendency to structure and schedule the creativity right out of children’s lives. In previous generations, children had free time to play as they wished to explore, imagine, pretend, and dream. Today’s world is too often an endless agenda of sports, classes, activities and play-dates. Though well intentioned, adult’s drive to provide children with structured and meaningful activities can have the opposite effect, suppressing emotional and developmental progress. 

Albert Einstein is popularly misquoted as saying: “play is the highest form of research.” Many experts actually attribute this quote to educational researcher Neville Scarfe; regardless of the source, the sentiment is true. Children require free, self-directed play as part of their identity development and environmental understanding. This is best expressed in Landreth’s1 commentary; he outlines how play provides the mechanism through which children begin to understand themselves. 

Play bridges the gap between concrete experience and abstract thought, and it is the symbolic function of play that is so important…play represents the attempt of children to organize their experiences and may be one of the few times in children’s lives when they feel…in control and…secure. The child-centered play therapy philosophy considers play essential to children’s healthy development. Play gives concrete form and expression to children’s inner worlds. (p. 27) 


In today’s blog post, we reviewed two major categories of information. First, we talked about the essential elements of play therapy as outlined by Gary Landreth, the founding father of the theory. Second, we described why self-directed play is so important to the process, and what that means.  In the next blog, we will discuss the different ways the trained child play therapist interacts with your child to help her develop healthier emotional and behavioral skills.

Landreth, G. (2012). In Play Therapy – The Art of The Relationship (Vol. 3, pp. 158). New York, NY: Routledge.



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