What’s the Difference – Art Therapy vs. Art in Play Therapy?

Art Therapy vs. Art in Play Therapy is an important distinction when using art in the child and adolescent mental health field.

What’s the difference between saying you’re an art therapist versus a play therapist using art?

There is a HUGE distinction.

I actually think this question crosses into the ethical representation of one’s clinical scope of practice. Usually statements like this bring me back to ethics workshops and feeling super anxious. Clinical scope of practice is essentially a fancy mental health phrase about the boundaries between the different mental health disciplines. It has to do with what each discipline has the training, knowledge, skill, and experience to provide to clients. This brings us to recognizing whether you are providing art therapy if you use art in your clinical work with clients or if you are using art in the play therapy process.

play therapy quote about the therapeutic powers of play

So, what’s the difference?

Why is it important?

Play therapists are trained to access the therapeutic powers of play using theory-based models to facilitate healing and change for your young clients. This includes the use of art in play therapy. Art therapists are trained to access the therapeutic elements of art making and art mediums using theory-based models in the healing process. In this article, I’ll discuss the difference between art therapy and using art in play therapy and why it’s important to understand the difference.

Art therapy

Art therapists have completed a master’s degree in art therapy. This educational journey includes foundational training in theory of art in psychotherapy, learning theory-based models for application of art in psychotherapy, and understanding of the different art mediums and how to use them ethically in psychotherapy. Art therapists study different art mediums and the use of design for therapeutic expression based therapeutic models. They need to meet specific requirements to earn the credential of Board Certified Art Therapist. Use of the term art therapist means you are stating you have gone through specialized training in art therapy. This is where the ethics aspect of terminology comes in because the way you represent yourself tells others what your training and experience entails. If you don’t have this training and experience then you cannot use the term art therapy or art therapist to represent your work.

Art in Play Therapy

A critical foundation in play therapy is helping your clients to access the therapeutic powers of play via theoretical play therapy models. The theoretical play therapy model drives the application of the way you engage your clients in the therapeutic powers of play for healing. Art can access the therapeutic powers of play and is still rooted in a play therapy theoretical model.

Play Therapy is defined by the Association for Play Therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained Play Therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development." (APT website, www.a4pt.org). Play therapists have a master’s degree in counseling, social work, marriage and family therapy, clinical psychology and then pursue additional training and supervision to obtain the Registered Play Therapy credential. (Actually lots and lots and lots of training and supervision)

Pacific Islander girl, pacific islander boy, and pacific islander art teacher creating art

Does it matter?

Yes! How you represent yourself needs to be congruent with your scope of practice – training, knowledge, skills, and experience using specific models. (You know - that professional boundary thing I mentioned earlier) Ethically the way you represent yourself in mental health tells people what and how you’ve been trained based on a foundation in theory and application. Representing oneself as providing art therapy would not be operating within your scope of practice if you are not an art therapist.

This is also true when representing yourself as a play therapist if you have not been trained in play therapy specific models. For example, use of the term “play therapist” vs saying you're a child therapist who uses play based interventions. And if you’re using play-based interventions then you ethically need to ensure you have the training grounded in theoretical application to use play therapeutically in the mental health field. The same thing is true with the use of the term “art therapy.” You still need to operate within your scope of practice.


  • Art therapists have earned a master’s degree in art therapy and go through a specialized process to earn the credential of Board Certified Art Therapist.

  • Using art in play therapy means you are helping your client access the therapeutic powers of play through the art making process. The play therapy process means your use of art is grounded in a theoretical model that informs how you apply the principles of the model.

  • Ethically and clinically it makes a huge difference because the way you “promote” or describe yourself provides information to clients about your scope of practice and what framework you’re using to facilitate the healing process for your clients.

  • There are ethical standards of conduct for each specialized area of psychotherapy model used and how you represent yourself.

Are you interested in learning how to use art in play therapy effectively and confidently to help your clients access the therapeutic powers of play for healing?

Well check out my upcoming Live Webinar- Integrating Art into Play Therapy with Children & Teens! This provides you with a play therapy based way to use art to access the therapeutic powers of play for healing using a neuroscience and developmental framework to guide your understanding of your client and choosing interventions. For more information, click here: Yes! I want to check out this training!

Want to learn how to take the information you're learning in play therapy trainings to ensure you get fantastic results for your child and adolescent clients?

Schedule a free 30-minute video call with me if you're ready to take your play therapy skills to the next level:  Yes! I'm ready

Categories: Play Therapy