Healing Trauma in Children Using Play Therapy

How can play therapy help traumatized children heal? Do you work with children who have experienced trauma? Play therapy can help.

Using play therapy to help traumatized children is a powerful modality to facilitate healing. Children often don’t have language to access the cognitive areas of their brains to articulate the impact of their trauma. They may be overwhelmed emotionally trying to manage the impact of trauma on their daily lives and in their relationships. Have you ever tried to get a traumatized child to explain their feelings and thoughts after they’ve emotionally dysregulated or been frozen with fear or simply shut down? Trauma tends to hijack the body and mind, especially higher cognitive processes, so it’s challenging to help children using traditional talk therapy modalities.

How can play therapy help traumatized children heal?

What makes play therapy so different?

play therapy with traumatized children and teens

What is play therapy?

Children explore their world through play. They explore different roles, engage their imagination and creative problem solving, figure out social rules and how relationships work, and work through difficult emotions. Play is the natural language of children.

Play therapy accesses the therapeutic powers of play to help children heal. The Association for Play therapy (www.a4pt.org) states that “play itself is the source of change, not the medium or the moderator why in which change occurs.” In a nutshell, play therapy is a way of being with children in a free and protected space using modalities grounded in theory that direct its application by accessing those therapeutic powers of play.

How does play therapy help traumatized children?

Play therapy can access experiences through symbolic expression using play and expressive arts such as art, sand tray, music, movement, and therapeutic story. Based on the work of Bessel van der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps Score (2014, Penguin Books), as well as countless other trauma researchers, we know trauma is experienced throughout the mind and body. Play is a full body experience and can access those areas impacted by trauma to heal. In their book, The Therapeutic Powers of Play (2014, Wiley), Schaefer and Drewes categorize 20 therapeutic elements of play. Through these core change agents of play, traumatized children can explore, challenge, communicate, and develop new skills. Play therapy allows the play therapist to bear witness to their young client’s traumatic experience in the healing process. 

play therapy for traumatized children and teens quote

For example - through sand tray a child can represent fears symbolically in a way that provides enough psychological distance to make it safe to explore. Through play, children can express anger, fear, sadness, worry, and other emotions stored in their bodies. Sometimes children are able to share their experiences verbally after symbolically representing it and sometimes they cannot. That’s the magic of play therapy – it doesn’t require children to verbally communicate to their play therapist. Their healing process is unique to them. Healing can still occur if they don’t verbally articulate everything to their play therapist. Using play therapy, the play therapist can use games to identify cognitive distortions because playing games feels safe while also changing distortions that activate fear or anger. Play is fun.  When provided a free and protected space, children can freely explore and resolve difficult traumatic experiences. They can heal the impact of trauma in their mind and body.


  • The foundation of play therapy that sets it apart from other expressive arts modalities is its roots in the therapeutic powers of play.
  • Play therapy accesses the therapeutic powers of play to facilitate the change process using theoretical models that guide its application.
  • Children who have experienced trauma can access those therapeutic powers of play in play therapy with a trained play therapist who uses a theoretical model to help them overcome the impact of trauma.

Want more information about using play therapeutically with your child and adolescent clients? Check out these free resources!  Free Play Therapy Resources 

Categories: Play Therapy, Trauma