How Do You Identify Themes in Play Therapy Sessions?

5 considerations when identifying themes in your client’s play therapy sessions to know what to look for and how to recognize important play themes.

What do you look for to figure out themes in your client’s play therapy session?

How do you know if what you’re observing in the play therapy session is actually important to understand what’s going on with your client?

These are questions every play therapist needs to understand and wants to know. Getting this wrong can have detrimental effects for your clients because you may misattribute what’s going on for your client. Your ability for successful treatment planning requires you to recognize themes in your clients' play therapy sessions. You also need to know if your client is making progress resolving their problems since that’s why they came to you in the first place.

Play therapy is an expressive arts modality, and as such, it often accesses projective and unconscious content. As a play therapist accessing projective content in the playroom, you’ll need to be able to recognize the potentiality of various symbols used during the play therapy process. Therefore, learning how to recognize and therapeutically hold that information are key skills needed to become a play therapy Jedi Master (LOL! I love a good Star Wars metaphor). Having good play therapy supervision/consultation and training are critical for skill development in play therapy. The following are five things to consider when identifying what’s happening in play therapy sessions with your clients and recognize play themes.

#1 What is the symbolic aspect of toys chosen?

In play therapy, not all toys are created equal. Play therapy accesses the therapeutic qualities of play, so choosing toys requires you to choose toys that have high therapeutic qualities. You want to choose toys that are rich in symbolic possibilities and the ability for your clients to access the therapeutic elements of play through the toys. If you need help choosing toys that are high in therapeutic quality for your playroom, here’s a free pdf to help you: Must Have Toys for the Playroom

When identifying themes in your clients’ play therapy sessions, think about the symbolic possibilities of the toys chosen. For example, food and kitchen toys tend to represent nurturing needs. Swords, handcuffs, and other weapons tend to represent expression of aggressive emotions as well as power/control needs. Children (often boys) will engage you in rambunctious play with swords, weapons, and/or handcuffs with themes of “good” guys and “bad” guys. Preschool and elementary aged children often play out themes of “good” guys and “bad” guys as an exploration of issues of “goodness” and “badness.” Developmentally, they’re likely coming to terms with the fact that humans are not “all good or all bad.” When provided with a free and protected space, your client will be drawn toward toys that will help them work through what they need to work through. This is why it’s important to make sure you have toys in your playroom that have high therapeutic qualities. Your job is to notice what toys they choose and how they use these “tools” in their sessions. The play therapy model used will dictate how you facilitate the change process, so it’s important to ground your clinical work in a theoretical model as well as choosing toys that are high in therapeutic quality.

#2 How is your client using the toy and what is said?

You want to notice what toys are chosen to play with during the play therapy sessions. You’ll want to notice if a specific type of toy is played with only once or frequently played with from session to session. To do this, think about the ways in which the toys are played with during play therapy sessions. This includes being aware of the words used by your clients while playing with the toys. Is your client yelling, playing alone, inviting you into the play, and/or “cooking” and “feeding” you? For example, playing with food and cooking is typically seen as nurturing play because food is nurturing and life sustaining. While playing with kitchen-related toys (food, pots, utensils, stove), is your client “cooking” alone and “eating” food alone or offering to cook for you? Is your client a server at a restaurant and engaging you in the play? If you’re using a directive play activity with puppets, what puppet characters does your client choose (symbolic quality) and how does that puppet interact with other puppets and/or you?

#3 What emotions are expressed during the session?

Another component to recognize themes in your clients’ play therapy sessions is to observe the emotions expressed during the play behaviors. Think about the emotions expressed while your clients are playing with the toys. Are the emotions typical for the play behavior? For example, is your client showing anger while cooking food? Cooking food doesn’t usually elicit angry emotions (unless you’re like me and find cooking stressful LOL!). Is your client laughing during battles when he defeats his “enemy”? Typically during battle play you’ll observe aggressive emotions. I often observe children laughing during our battle scenes at some point in the play behavior. This isn’t necessarily an indication that something is “wrong” or “bad.” It’s an indication that sometimes working through aggressive emotions can be cathartic and fun. Have you ever had an epic nerf gun battle? Sooooooooooo much fun and sooooooooooo cathartic. (I’m a mother of boys so we had lots of nerf battles in my house.) Is your client playing in the dollhouse and destroying it or organizing it? During dollhouse play, are “family members” members interacting calmly or is there conflict and danger?

#4 How long is play sustained and what precipitates a shift in play?

Another thing to consider when identifying themes in your clients’ play therapy sessions has to do with the duration of the play behavior and what precipitates a change in play behavior. How long does your client play with each toy and what precipitates a change in which toy is played with? Does your client sustain play with specific toys for most of the session or change quickly even after you’ve established therapeutic rapport? Does your client quickly change what toys they play with in a way that indicates avoidance of an emotion or issue? The foundational aspect of play therapy is that children use the therapeutic qualities of play to help them resolve their mental health difficulties. Therefore, observing and taking note of what happens in the playroom provides a wealth of information. You can get a good sense of your client’s personality style, ability to sustain attention, use of creativity to solve problems, social engagement skills, and what may be distressing to your young client through observation of their play.

#5 Are there recurring patterns and themes over time?

Lastly, the best way to get a sense of significant themes during play therapy sessions is observing recurring play behaviors over multiple sessions. Repeated use of certain play behaviors generally indicates your young client is using play to help resolve their underlying issue(s) and develop a sense of mastery and positive self-concept. You’ll learn to recognize your clients’ play behaviors, emotions, and words that reoccur over time during play sessions and how this changes during sessions and over time. You’ll pay attention to shifts in the play behavior. For example, perhaps your young client plays in the dollhouse and “family members” frequently argue during the play. Maybe these family members frequently engage in physical fighting and furniture is turned over, thrown out of the house, and maybe “bad guys” enter the home and “kill” family members. After several weeks, perhaps you notice that family members are engaging in less conflict and talking through decisions rather than engaging in conflict. This slight change in play behavior indicates a shift in the play therapy process. It may indicate your client has sufficiently worked through aggressive emotions and may internally feel less emotional distress within their relationships. It’s important to pay attention to shifts in your client’s play behaviors and emotions that manifest during the play process.


  • Notice what toys are played with and the symbolic possibilities of these toys.

  • How is your client using the toys in play including what they say and how they play with the toys. Notice if your clients engage you in the playroom or is their play solitary.

  • Observe how long your clients play with specific toys. Do they tend to show repeating play behaviors over time and what precipitates a shift in their play?

Want to level up your play therapy skills? Ask me about my online play therapy supervision/consultation services. As a Registered Play Therapist - Supervisor with thirty years of experience in the mental health field working with children, adolescents and families (20 years in play therapy), I can show you how to tap into your play therapy superpowers to facilitate amazing results for your young clients. Schedule a free 30-minute video call with me to see if this is a good fit for you (no pressure promise!)

Need help setting up your play therapy room without wasting time and money getting the right supplies? Check out my free pdf- Must Have Toys for Your Playroom

Categories: Play Therapy