Four good reasons for using play during therapy

An article, written by Principal Clinical Psychologist Colby Pearce, which originally appeared on Colby’s blog site Attachment and Resilience.


Therapy is more likely to be beneficial when children and adolescents are willing participants. Many children and adolescents are reluctant, at-least initially, to attend and be involved in therapy. Either they don’t know what to expect, which causes anxiety, or they think that they have to attend because they have been “bad”. However, almost all children and adolescents enjoy playing and engaging in fun activities with a lively adult. So, incorporating fun activities into psychotherapy is a good way to help children and adolescents feel relaxed about attending therapy and, indeed, increases their motivation to attend.

Making and maintaining a connection

Research has found that the heart rates of mothers and children parallel each other during play[1]. Heart rate is a sign of the level of activity of the nervous system, which is commonly referred to as arousalArousal is one of the two components of emotion. So, during play, adults and children are emotionally-connected to each other.

Encouraging self-regulation

Most children and adolescents who are referred for therapy have trouble controlling their emotions, their behaviour, or both. The ability to self-regulate emotions and behaviour is thought to develop from adult caregivers providing a range of emotional experiences and intervening to ensure that children do not become overly excited or overly distressed during their early development. So, therapists can utilise play and the emotional connection associated with play to develop the child or adolescent’s capacity for self-regulation by facilitating the experience of a range of emotions of varying intensity and returning them to a state of calm.

Affirmative Experiences

Children and adolescents who are referred for therapy hold beliefs about themselves, about others and about the world in which they live. Often, one or more of these areas of belief is negative. That is, they might see themselves as bad and helpless, others as mean and uncaring, and/or the world as a harsh place. Simply telling children that they are good, that others are caring and understanding, and that the world is a safe place is rarely effective in changing children’s beliefs. Rather, they need to experience themselves, others and their social world differently. During therapeutic play, children and adolescents experience themselves as likeable and capable, experience others as fun and “nice”, and their world as safe and a source of happy experiences. This facilitates trust in others and the perception that therapy is a safe place for conversation about the reasons for their emotional distress and/or maladjusted behaviour.

Play is an important and natural approach for promoting the emotional wellbeing and positive adjustment of children and adolescents

For more information about Colby’s approach to therapy visit here or purchase Colby’s book:

A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder

Bestselling Adoption, Parenting and Social Work title for Jessica Kingsley Publishers!

Attachment Colby Pearce

Written by Secure Start Principal Clinical Psychologist, Colby Pearce, this book is widely-regarded as the ideal starting point for those interested in attachment theory, what happens when attachment relationships go awry, and what to do about it. Written in an accessible style, it is suitable for diverse audiences; including foster parents, adoptive parents, kinship carers and residential care workers. Highly regarded among teachers and educationalists who interact with children that have experienced complex developmental trauma, it is also rated highly as a resource for mental health professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, occupational therapists, psychotherapists and counsellors.

A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder can be purchased direct from Secure Start. Simply contact us to arrange payment and delivery of your copy.

Alternatively, you can purchase a copy direct from the publisher, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, by following the link here

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[1] Reite, M., & Field, T (1985). The psychobiology of attachment and separation. Orlando: Academic Press