Three Play Therapy Techniques You Can Use at Home

By February 5, 2019Family

This week is National Play Therapy Week. If your child is struggling emotionally or behaviorally, play therapycan provide them with an opportunity to express themselvesin their natural language – the language of play – and allow the therapist to support you in better understanding and meeting your child’s needs. Even if your child is thriving, there are play therapy strategies you can use at home that can give your child more opportunities for self-expression and help strengthen your bond with your child.

Let Your Child Take the Lead

As a parent, it is natural that you want to ensure that your child is learning and growing. You may often find yourself directing your child toward activities or encouraging them to use their toys in certain ways. Change things up by following your child’s lead in play, even if they do not want to use their toys in expected ways. Perhaps your child wants to fill their dollhouse with toy soldiers instead of furniture. Maybe they want to make interesting patterns using Connect Four pieces rather than trying to line up four pieces in a row. Whatever they are doing, join in their play and follow along. There is no one “right” way to play. Your child is learning from all the many ways they play. Allowing your child to lead in play in a judgment-free environment will give them increased opportunity for self-expression, hone decision-making skills, help them to build confidence in their own ideas, and increase their connection to you by helping them to see that you are genuinely interested in them and their thoughts.

Provide Access to a Variety of Toys

It can be tempting to fill your house with the latest and greatest electronic toys. It is important to give your child regular access to toys that more readily lend themselves to emotional expression. Dr. Garry Landreth, author of Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship, discusses the following three categories of toys:

Real-Life Toys: these are toys that represent the objects and situations that your child encounters in daily life. Examples are dolls, toy cars, pretend medical kit, play money, and pretend food.

Aggressive-Release Toys: these are toys that allow your child to safely express angry and aggressive tendencies in an appropriately contained manner. Examples are toy soldiers, aggressive animal figures (dinosaurs, dragons, sharks, etc.), and a “bop bag.”

Creative Expression Toys: these are toys and materials that give you child the opportunity for free expression of feelings and creative thought. Examples are art supplies, play dough, dress up clothes, and kinetic sand.

Providing your child with a few toys in each of these categories will give them opportunities to express their thoughts and emotions through play, reducing the need to act out or engage in other undesirable behaviors. 

Goodbye Questions & Criticisms, Hello PRIDE 

If you are like most parents, when you play with your child you probably ask them lots of questions about what they are doing and also offer the occasional criticism. It makes perfect sense that you want to ask your child whythey chose to color that cow blue or tell them that they’ll waste that glitter if they dump it all out. There are plenty of times when questions and corrections should be part of your interactions with your child. However, these are both interjections that can interrupt the flow of your child’s play. Even the most well-intentioned question can cause your child to second-guess their choices. Try setting aside a few play sessions each week with your child where you avoid questions and critiques and instead focus on using PRIDE skills. PRIDE skills are a component of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT),  a form of therapy for young children with behavioral problems, and are as follows:

Praise: Give your child specific praise when they are engaging in a desirable behavior (“I love that you shared that with me”; “You worked so hard on building that tower!”). This lets your child know that they will receive attention for positive actions and clarifies what desirable behaviors are.

Reflection: Repeat what your child says to you. For example, if they say, “I colored this whole page!” you might say, “You colored the whole thing!” This lets your child know that you are listening to them and paying attention.

Imitation: Copy your child’s play. If they tell you they are making cupcakes with their playdough, you let them know that you are making cupcakes, too. This will show your child that they are leading the play, that you value their ideas, and that you are actively engaged with them.

Description: Tell your child what you see them doing (“You are putting the red block on top of the blue one.”) This will let your child know that you are interested in what they are doing and can provide opportunities for conversation without relying on questions.

Enthusiasm: Let your child know that you are excited about playing with them. (“I’m having so much fun with you!”) Showing enthusiasm lets your child know that you enjoy your time with them and will increase their connection to you as well as their desire to engage in behavior that is pleasing to you.

As your child gets older, certain PRIDE skills may no longer be a good fit.  But children of all ages will be thrilled to have opportunities to engage in enthusiastic, nonjudgmental play with you and to soak up praise and positive language.


Danielle Rothman, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist at Insight Into Action Therapy, where she provides therapy and psychological testing. She can be contacted at (703) 646-7664 ext. 11.

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