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  • Writer's pictureBrooke Jacks

How Play Therapy Supports Young Children

When it comes to supporting the social-emotional development of young children, the language of play speaks volumes. In therapy, play is not just fun, it’s also a tool to encourage growth, learning, and development. As therapists, we see how play allows children to explore their feelings, express themselves, and become stronger.


How is play incorporated into therapy? 


When working with young children in a therapeutic environment, play is a major technique that assists clinicians in guiding children through processing, healing, and developing healthy skills. Through play, children can process what they may not understand or know how to communicate yet. Play allows us to uncover, identify, and explore what emotions are triggered and what needs are waiting to be met.


Play therapy is unique in that the child can guide the clinician initially. As rapport is built, children are provided with a space in which an adult can simply sit, observe, and listen to them without jumping in to fix, change, or tell them how they feel. By creating this space, we can avoid leaving children feeling disregarded or devalued in their own experience. As play therapy is incorporated into practice, we can give the child a safe place to make sense of what is happening or has happened to them. Utilizing specific play techniques such as dolls, sand trays, art, puppets, and more, helps set the tone for social-emotional learning to begin. 

Once a child has been able to explore this we can then help them change and/or create a new narrative. Giving the child power and control in their world, helping them take an experience and rewrite how it affects them, providing them with a new alternative way of behaving. 


Why is play important?


  • Play can allow children to process and explain their internal world to us in a way that makes sense to them when they do not have the words yet to describe it.

  • Play allows connection, understanding of modeled behaviors, and development of healthy independence and attachment.

  • Play allows exploration and an opportunity to try things out with peers and adults alike.

  • Play can teach children how to regulate emotions and develop healthy coping mechanisms taught to them in a language that they understand.


Utilizing games to incorporate social-emotional learning 


  • Chutes and Ladders (difficult times, ups and downs of emotions.)

  • Sorry (discussion of empathy, how to say sorry, social skills.)

  • Trouble (exploring consequences, rule-following, turn-taking.)

  • Guess Who? (active listening, communication skills, feelings guess who.)

  • Hedbanz (conversation skills, asking open-ended questions.)

  • Red Light Green Light (impulse control, active listening.)


Resource: "The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups" by Erika Christakis


Brooke Jacks is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist who specializes in child, adolescent, teen, and family therapy. Brooke has experience working in a variety of settings and has great knowledge of play therapy and early intervention techniques. Brooke can be reached at 323-486-3351 or by email at

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