The Therapeutic Power of Play (And 4 Ways To Encourage It)

The most illuminating example of therapeutic play I’ve heard was one that infant expert Magda Gerber shared. She had been asked to visit a child care center, and while touring the infant playroom with the center director she noticed one of the children holding a spoon and placing the tip at the opening of a baby doll’s bottom. The director also noticed, and she corrected the boy, “No, that goes in the mouth.” She demonstrated for him, taking the spoon away and holding it up to the baby doll’s mouth. As she returned to her discussion with Magda, the boy repeated his previous action. Again, the director stopped and corrected him.

It was late in the day, and the parents were beginning to arrive. The boy’s mother was one of the first. She picked up her boy and as she was leaving, stopped to say to the director, “Oh, I forgot to tell you this morning that poor Johnny had to have an enema at the doctor’s yesterday. He didn’t like it at all.”

Hundreds of studies prove the awesome benefits of play, and as Magda’s experience illustrates, one of the most profound is its use as a natural and powerful self-therapy tool. Children use play instinctively to process both environmental stress and inner-conflict. Play therapy helps them to make sense of confusing and bothersome events they might have been exposed to, eases worry and fear.  It’s especially valuable in the early years, before children can verbalize their feelings. Children “play out” disturbing feelings when they can’t tell us what’s wrong or ask us “What’s that?” or “Why?”

To encourage play therapy…

1. Let go of judgment, expectations and play agendas

Let play belong to your child. Rather than interfere as the director in Magda’s example did (interesting that the boy persisted anyway), allow your child to be playwright, director and lead actor when he plays. Relegate yourself to set design by creating a safe, enriching environment with open-ended, simple toys and objects where your baby can explore and experiment. Then let him mess it up and redesign as he wishes.  Never interrupt unnecessarily.

2. Take it outdoors whenever possible

Create a safe, enclosed outdoor play space with a chair and table nearby where you can relax (and maybe even do a little work) while you baby enjoys the enhanced therapeutic benefits of fresh air and nature. When the weather cooperates, move your life outdoors. Your children will sleep better, play better and even eat better. As a friend of mine once noted, “Food tastes better outside.”

3. Nurture the self-directed play habit

Play is a natural inclination for babies and they love it, but it’s up to us to begin the habit – to make it an essential part of their day. Young infants can (and will) let us know when they need to be held, but it is nearly impossible for a months-old baby to indicate “I’d like a little time to move freely and do what I want”.  And doing what I want is the key to play therapy.

Begin by placing an infant on her back and observing her response. If the baby complains tell her you hear her, ask her what she needs and if she wants to be picked up. Don’t jump the gun. Sometimes, like all of us, a baby just wants us to listen and try to understand. Brief episodes of this kind of “play” in which your baby might look around, stretch and twist, experiment with the workings of her limbs and study her fascinating hands will extend into longer periods. Your baby’s self-directed play soon becomes the highlight of your day together.

4. Watch, learn and appreciate

Most therapeutic play is far less obvious than the example of the boy and the spoon, especially before children are able to talk. Usually it’s below the radar, undetectable to us. We’re left wondering what our babies might be processing, if anything. And that will remain a mystery. But since birth itself is stressful, even the youngest infants could conceivably have issues to work through. Honing our observation skills helps us detect the more subtle examples.

In a recent class, a 16 month old toddler did something I’ve never seen before. She recently became a big sister and was separated from her mother for several days due to complications during the birth.

We have a row of three large wooden boxes in the RIE playroom. One of them has a round hole cut out at the top. This little girl took the largest baby doll and managed to push it down through the hole, which wasn’t easy. And she did it again. And again. And again. Hmmm…


I share more about the power of self-directed play (and how to encourage it) in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

(Photo by Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This really hits home tonight because my daughter just finally found the words/composure to tell me that she can’t deal with the teacher in her preschool class.

    Since late August after school began, every time she asks to play, she wants to “Play school” and she wants to be the teacher, or asks me to be Teacher but gets angry at me. She says things and does things I find a little odd, but its hard to understand them out of context. Some of it sounds like a lot of chatter or kid imagination, or maybe “trying on” the role. But it was always sort of a negative bent, “stop talking.” “You might have played in daycare but here we work.” And so on, becoming very, very rigid in the “way” she wanted us to play with her (which I stupidly chalked up to four year olds being a little rigid sometimes because they want to feel in control.)

    Turns out, her teacher is a very overbearing Tiger Mother woman who has been holding my daughter’s hand so hard that it hurts, to make her trace shapes or letters/numbers, and being incredibly demanding and precise in attention to detail, making her repeat things and re do things. My daughter was holding all of her emotions about those experiences in and trying to act them out at home through play, process it, and finally, she was able to very clearly tell us tonight “I do not want to go to this school any more I am scared of that teacher, she hurts my hand, I am not happy there.”

    It breaks my heart that I did not realize how serious it was for my daughter until now, that she was trying to tell me in the only way she knew how to explain something that big and complex for her, by acting it out.

    1. Dear Candace, try not to be heartbroken. It’s wonderful that you are now figuring this out, great that your girl has your sympathetic ear and that she’s had a play “outlet” for her feelings. It takes what it takes. Don’t blame yourself. Your daughter is insightful and even though this isn’t an ideal situation, it’s been an educational process for her. And you’ve supported you as best you could, all the way through.

      1. We told her she would not be returning to the school and for the first time in about 3 weeks, she has not asked to play “School” when she asks us to play with her. She wanted to play princess instead and she was much more relaxed and engaged. 🙂

        1. Obviously working through some “past life” princess stuff. Seriously, Candace, that is wonderful news. 🙂

  2. This is just beautiful and so inspiring. I want to have your wooden boxes in my classroom!
    Thanks again.

  3. Janet,
    Thank you for this wonderful post. There are many times that I hear my own daughter, 2.5 years old, talking to her animals (stuffed or pretend) asking them if they are okay, if they want to come with us, providing comfort, or just sharing stories about the way things work. She does this with other children too and it’s so rewarding to see her engage (whether with things that are animate or not) in such a nurturing and caring way. A little boy will soon be joining our family and I hope that she is able to use this kind of play as an outlet for understanding her feelings about this big change. I feel better prepared to identify and support that process- thank you!

    1. Kiyah, this gift you are giving your daughter will definitely ease the emotional transition she’ll have becoming a big sister. You’ll no doubt see some interesting things play out…and you can absolutely trust them. I’ve heard parents say that they wouldn’t allow a child to “hurt” a stuffed animal or baby doll, but I disagree. I believe that children need their play choices to be trusted, allowed, not corrected or judged, as long as they aren’t damaging property that doesn’t belong to them or hurting other living things.

      (I’m not suggesting your daughter is going to do those things! That just came to mind. 🙂 )

  4. I love this, Janet! I love watching children’s play themes and seeing what they play out. It can be so fascinating and give us so much insight. I always say, whenever a child asks you to play – say YES – it’s an invitation into their world where you will connect and learn more about them than any other way.

  5. Loving this (of course!!). And “Let play belong to your child” is such a great way of putting it, so I clicked there. Thanks for steering me to an older post, which I had missed. What a wonderful Margaret Flinsch quote that “children don’t play for fun. They play for real.” All that, and those pictures on the beach!!

    1. Thanks, Miven! Yes, those photos on the beach are inspiring, aren’t they? (And I love Margaret Flinsch.) Another blogger then posted about her boy “playing” in a similar fashion in the forest and linked to me. I’m thinking there’s some kind of toddler “planking” trend going on….

  6. Janet, I have been reading your very insightful posts. This particular one resinated with me more as I have trying to construct understanding around interruptions and disruption to self-directed play of children. I have been visiting schools in India, for observing patterns and perceptions of play for a research paper. My greatest challenge (an opportunity, actually) is to be non-judgmental about the disruptor and focus on the disruption and the effect that the disruption has on flow/engagement/mental processes.

    Thank you for sharing this…

    1. Hi Payal! Yes, not judging the way other adults interact with children can be a challenge, but I think it’s a worthy one. I know that my knee-jerk reaction would be to interrupt and interfere (with good intention) if I hadn’t studied (and fallen in love with) Magda Gerber’s approach.

  7. thoughtful one says:

    When I notice my 2.5 yr old doing something “odd” in his play (like your example of the spoon in the “wrong” place) I like to ask him what he is playing. Usually I get an answer that explains it well. – It is especially beneficial when he wants me to join in his play – I know what I’m supposed to do to keep within his play plans. 🙂 I can’t imagine ever telling him he is wrong when he is playing creatively.

  8. I just discovered your blog and I am so excited to find a blog that has so many philosophies that I believe in and am passionate about.

    It’s wonderful to see a post on therapeutic play, something that is not commonly known. When I worked at a children’s hospital, I was trained by a registered play therapist to use therapeutic play with patients and siblings in the playroom and/or at bedside. This became a great tool to use with my own child, especially during stressful times (like when we recently moved from Texas to Florida). I love to watch my 2.5 year old son play and act out his experiences and feelings with his “guys” and other toys.

  9. I’ll never forget my kids’ having a friend whose mother died when they were all about 4 or 5. For more than a year my kids’ play would revolve around dead parents. “Do you want to play ‘little brother goes to Navy Pier?'” “Sure, dead parents?” “Okay.” I knew they were working this trauma out in the only way they had. I was surprised how long it went on. But it’s a big deal, parents dying, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

  10. The value of play therapy is so obvious when we see children trying to integrate and/or understand their experiences through their play. Margaret Flinsch quote that “children don’t play for fun. They play for real.” rings a bell for me too. This is why Montessorians expose young children to real life experiences and activities and save fairy tales and fantasy for later after their brains lateralize and they are able to reason what is real and what is not real. The violence and scary stuff they see in cartoons and videos are also topics in their play which, if protected against, may not be such issues for them to try to understand.

  11. I love your site! After reading this post I’ve been sitting here for 5 minutes thinking about how my kids are playing and behaving, trying to figure out what else they are trying to tell me. One of my children spent a couple of weeks telling everyone ‘don’t bite my Mummy’!! I found out a week later that a little boy at kindy had been biting him. Last weekend he tried to jump in the river (at night time), I was horrified, I thought he was just being difficult! Then he told me he wanted to pick up a piece of rubbish – I really thought that was just an excuse to go for a swim. The following week I found out he there was a puppet show in kindy which taught them that rubbish in the water was very dangerous to sea animals… the poor little guy was just concerned. I need to spend more time listening to them!

    1. Wow, Karen, thanks for sharing these realizations… And kudos to you for being such a thoughtful, attentive mum!

  12. Dear Janet, I really love the concept of letting the play belong to the child. Thank you for all your insightful articles.
    However I am trying to balance between letting my child has his own playtime world while limiting the time of the play and wastage from happening. How do we do that? Especially when my 18 months old boy whom never gets bored with water play using a hose refused to stop even when it has been too long.
    Also, he is now interested in playing with his food (this week he is into mixing his food into his glass of water/jus, then tried to drink them of squash them with spoon). When we interrupt, he would get unhappy and scream at us. Would really appreciate for your kind expert input.

    1. This is an old post to a writer who most likely no longer needs suggestions — but I still want to leave a comment. Water play is fascinating and it’s no wonder little kids are drawn to it. As good stewards of the Earth, of course we have to limit how much a child can use in their play. I wonder if funnels or pieces of PVC piping might be incorporated (e.g., the child scooping the funnel through a bucket of water and then watching it stream back out; putting a piece of PVC piping on various objects and then experiment with the degree of slant and how that affects how fast water will get from one end to the other)? And sometimes it is okay to turn on the hose for a few minutes, as long as the child is capable of coping with, or has a patient person there to work through, any disappointment when it is turned off. There are always opportunities to model and/or explicitly teach emotional self-regulation and turning off the hose could be very useful in that context.

  13. An old post but felt like I had to comment as this was exactly what happened when disaster hit our family. When my daughter was 4 yo we lost her 10 week old little brother to SIDS. Over night our lives changed. In the months after she played “death” a lot. When she was with her close friends they also played the same games, the friends were also processing the sudden absence of our baby. It was hard to listen to, thankfully somehow we knew it was her way of processing and it stopped after a while. Thank you for this insight.

    1. Mette, thank you for sharing this. I am so sorry for your tremendous loss. Peace be with you!

  14. Thanks for the post. ♥ LOVE ♥
    As a play therapist I know the “Language of Play?” and I love can teaching others too. One of the most full filling aspect of my job is teaching moms and days to learn how to “speak” and “read” the “Language of Play” to understand what their child is communicating, and watching their child’s world open up to their eyes in ways they could now have even imagine.

    1. Kay, I would love to hear more about that myself…such an intriguing subject!

  15. I just read through this post and the comments and it’s great to have examples and experiences of play therapy shared as it’s something we’re currently navigating!
    My daughter is coming on 2 years old and this year has begun playing out some scenarios that regularly occur at her daycare, mostly to do with putting young babies to bed for rest. I realised that she was copying what the teachers were doing at centre, and it wasn’t necessarily the kind of thing we would do at home! It turns out child’s play is very enlightening. My daughter’s play therapy version of baby bedtime started to get a bit aggressive with lots of shooshing, really hard patting and loud commands to ‘lie down!’. I began spending a bit more time with my daughter in her class each morning to see what was going on in the room and noticed that the teachers were a bit stressed with a huge influx of new babies, and that my girl had totally outgrown the baby-focused environment even though she had a few more months to go before she could move up to a room for older kids. We talked to the centre and managed to get her moved up early and she’s thriving being with toddlers at her level. Now the at-home-play is all about sharing and no pushing/biting/hitting (something she and her classroom peers are all processing at the moment).

    1. Wow, this is all so fascinating, isn’t it? Yes, play therapy is often extremely enlightening. It is so helpful for understanding how our children receive what they experience. I love the thoughtful way you handled this situation, Amber.

  16. Hi Janet, I always love your blogs, just came across this one and wanted to ask you a question regarding my 16 months old son. I have encouraged self-directed play since he was 7 months old (it drove me mad not having one minute to myself and then I had this a-ha moment after reading your blogs) since then he’s been playing on his own very well but lately he is always taking my hand trying to take me to wherever he wants me to go and help him or get him something he wants. I always go with him and try to help him when he got a toy stuck or when he requires help getting into a box etc. but it seems to get a bit too much for me now, I seem to get interrupted constantly. There have been times when I couldn’t go with him straight away which I explained to him, but he will have a proper tantrum straight after. Have you got any suggestions?

  17. Love this post! I’m adding as a link to my blog post on “nourishing children’s soul purpose/gifts” because one of the most important aspects to connect with your child’s unique gifts is to let them have free time to play to allow both of you to see what she moves towards and loves(as write about often, thank you).

  18. Hi Janet,

    I really love your articles and I’m just trying to understand how to out them into practice as a new, first time Mum to my four month old. I’d love to hear about some examples of a “day in the life of” at different ages. I’m not sure if I’m providing my little one a rich enough environment. I’m also not sure how your advice ties in with the advice we receive to talk, sing and read to our little ones. Lastly, as my bub is currently too young to be rolling, I’m unsure how much to offer her toys within her reach versus just watching her be (without accessible toys).

    Many thanks,

  19. That is great to know! I am always looking for new ways to learn more about the field of play therapy, and an online training seems like a great way to do that. I will definitely look into it. Thanks for letting me know.

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