How Do You Make Sense of Your Clients’ Art in Play Therapy?

Check out these 4 tips to identify themes with art in play therapy! Knowing how to recognize themes in your client’s art in play therapy is critical.

“How do you recognize themes in play therapy?” is one of the most frequently asked questions from play therapists during workshops, webinars, and supervision/consultation. It’s definitely a question I had when I first started using play therapy with children, adolescents, and families. And, it was an ongoing question I had as I continued to learn during the early years of my play therapy career. It's important for you to know how to recognize themes in your clients’ sessions. Play therapy is an expressive arts modality and, therefore, it has projective qualities. Recognizing what’s clinically relevant and why guides your understanding of what’s going on with your young clients. Having this information influences your decisions about how to help your clients.

Recognizing clinically relevant themes in your clients’ art during play therapy sessions requires you to understand developmental concepts, know what to look for, and how to make sense of it. You also need to understand how to create and maintain a safe therapeutic art-making space. That’s another topic entirely and I’m not addressing that topic here. In this article, I’ll share 4 tips to help you know how to identify themes in your child and adolescent clients’ art when using play therapy.

themes in play therapy using art, children's art in play therapy

What’s Your Play Therapy Model?

First, your play therapy model will influence how you make sense of what’s going on in your clients’ play therapy sessions. For example, Child Centered Play Therapy will conceptualize play behavior within their framework. Jungian Play Therapy will use a Jungian Play Therapy lens to make sense of the issues being worked through in play therapy sessions. A cognitive-behavioral play therapist will use a very different clinical lens to make sense of what’s going on and what interventions to use to address the defined problem.

There’s a lot of overlap regarding themes in play therapy, and art. This is due to the psychological-social-emotional issues your clients are working through related to their presenting problem. For example, grief and loss issues regarding the death of a loved one will show up in play behaviors indicating sadness, anger, safety, and death. You’ll notice how your clients symbolically represent these issues in their art-making process. These symbolic representations will be influenced by what’s going on in their lives. Another example is regarding children working through the impact of trauma. You’ll generally see symbolic representations of grief and loss, wrestling with the question of “why,” safety and danger, anxiety, sadness, and anger. You tend to see those nuances represented symbolically, and they’re influenced by the specific circumstances of the traumatic experience.

The specific lens of your theoretical play therapy model will influence how you understand what your clients are working through and what phase of treatment they’re in at any given time. This is how you conceptualize what’s happening in your clients’ sessions. Here’s a fancy term to keep in mind for this - clinical conceptualization. Are you having flashbacks to graduate school? That’s actually a good thing. It’s helpful to go back to your foundational roots sometimes to keep you grounded in theory and application.

Symbolic themes in your clients’ art can be understood based on how your theoretical model conceptualizes the problem. Keep in mind children and adolescents can regress back to earlier stages of treatment when they’re working through emotionally challenging issues. Using art therapeutically in play therapy is a projective modality. Therefore, you need to use your theoretical framework to know how to clinically “hold” the information safely and ethically. Here's a quick tip bonus tip - make sure to observe and therapeutically “hold” the art-making process over time to avoid making snap judgments. This is especially important since art is a projective modality. That’s a whole other topic and important to keep in mind when using art in play therapy.

Therapeutic Powers of Play with Art

Secondly, it’s important to understand the role of the therapeutic powers of play when using art in play therapy. Foundational to play therapy is using your play therapy model to access the therapeutic powers of play for healing. Art can access a variety of these healing agents as well. Understanding the therapeutic agents of art that your clients access provides information to you. It opens up understanding about what your clients are working through and how they’re doing it. This gives you more insight into your clients so you can ensure you use strategies that benefit them.

play therapy themes, art themes in play therapy

Here’s a few examples of the therapeutic powers of play when using art:

  • Access to the unconscious – I use art as a way for children and teens to process whatever is causing them distress. There are unconscious elements in their art because it’s a projective modality. These unconscious elements can be understood based on their symbolic representation and meaning. Your theoretical model will explain how you make sense of it. I like to use art prompts that access the unconscious when beginning play therapy so I can get a better sense of my clients. It also gives me information about what’s likely contributing to their struggles.

  • Creative Problem Solving – Figuring out what to draw and how to create it will access creative problem solving. Your clients make decisions about what art mediums to use, what design they want to create, and what to include in their art project. Each of these decisions provide information about their ability to make decisions and how they make decisions. Sit back and observe your clients’ decision-making process. Allow them to go through this process. Sometimes play therapists act too quickly to “help.” This may rob your clients of the opportunity to use creative problem solving. A concrete thinker will use the art making process in a very concrete way. Someone with the ability to access more abstract thinking will demonstrate that process in their art-making process. This will also be influenced by their stage of development. I’ll discuss this more in the next section.

  • Counterconditioning – You can help your clients engage in exposure to distressing experiences through art when you’ve created a safe, therapeutic space. For example, if your young client is having difficulty sleeping due to distressing nightmares, you can give an art prompt to draw their nightmare. After drawing their nightmare, you can use narrative therapy techniques to “give voice” to the characters in the nightmare to empower the “victim” to challenge the “bad guy.” I’ve used this art prompt (and sand tray prompt) with great success many times over the last twenty years. In this way you safely and slowly begin to expose your young client to the distress issue so they can work through it successfully. With counterconditioning you’re helping your client to challenge cognitive distortions and develop more effective strategies for managing emotional distress. You’ll notice my lens here is accessing the therapeutic powers of play using art with a cognitive behavioral therapy or DBT lens. This lens is influencing the way I conceptualize the problem. It also influences how I make sense of what my client is working on using art.

  • Self-expression – Feeling seen, heard, and understood is one of the most healing aspects of the therapeutic relationship. Using art provides the ability to visually represent internal struggles and explore these issues. Remember the saying - “a picture is worth a thousand words”? Art is a powerful way to allow your clients to experience release of emotion through self-expression. It allows your client to experience the healing power of feeling seen, heard, and understood by a compassionate other. I love to use the directive prompt for my young clients to draw life before the disruptive experience and life afterwards. For example, parents’ divorce, death of a loved one, or even moving to an unfamiliar place. The Before & After picture explores the impact of these transitions and changes. This gives me so much information about that experience from my clients’ perception.

Developmental Considerations to Recognize Themes in Art

Children’s cognitive and fine motor skills develop over time so their art making projects will look different at different stages. Since art is also a projective modality you may see a younger social-emotional aspect to your clients’ artwork. When this occurs, it can indicate a younger social emotional stage than the child’s chronological age. Understanding these developmental elements can provide information about your client’s developmental stage. This allows you to better understand them and the factors contributing to their presenting problems. For example, a 6 year old client’s social-emotional-cogntive-physical development is much different than that of a 10 year old child. There’s also a developmental aspect to drawing based on their stage of development. Understanding the developmental stages of drawing also provides useful information when identifying themes in your clients’ art during play therapy treatment.

children's social emotional development and art

Training and Supervision/Consultation to Recognize Themes Using Art in Play Therapy

Identifying themes is a complex task because the nature of play therapy and any of the expressive arts modalities is that they are projective in nature. Learning how to recognize themes and then understand what to do with that information requires the need for good training and supervision/consultation. Training provides you with the knowledge you need for using play therapy, and art in play therapy. Supervision/consultation provides you with support from an experienced play therapist to assist you when applying that knowledge to your specific clients. An experienced play therapist can help you develop strong decision-making skills that includes recognizing themes to guide your treatment decisions.


  • Identifying themes in play therapy is a complex process, including making sense of your clients’ art. There are a variety of factors to consider when making sense of your clients’ art. Understanding these factors ensures you use that information effectively and maintain the safety of the therapeutic art making process. This is the ethics component of using a projective therapeutic modality.

  • Recognizing themes in play therapy requires you to be grounded in a play therapy theoretical model. That theoretical model influences how you make sense of what’s going on with your clients and what’s going on in their play therapy sessions. This is also true when using art in play therapy sessions.

  • Art in play therapy sessions access the therapeutic powers of play. Recognizing what therapeutic elements of play are accessed using art can help you understand what your clients are working to resolve and how they’re doing that.

  • Children's development includes their social-emotional-cognitive-physical development. Their stage of development will influence their art-making process. You can use that developmental information to better understand your clients and their overall functioning which is interactional with their mental health.

  • Play therapy and art are projective modalities. This means training and supervision/consultation are critical to effectively and ethically using these modalities with children and adolescents.

Want to learn more? Check out this Live Webinar - Integrating Art into Play Therapy with Children & Teens! You’ll leave this Live Webinar with a solid understanding of what to look for in your clients’ art to identify important themes. You’ll learn how different art mediums create a unique therapeutic experience to facilitate healing. You’ll learn LOTS, and LOTS, and LOTS of art-based activities to use with your clients in play therapy.

Here’s the link to the training – Integrating Art into Play Therapy with Children & Teens – for more information and to register click here: Ohhh! I want to know more

Need help to know how to confidently use play therapy with your child and adolescent clients? Want to learn how to recognize themes in your specific clients’ art and play themes so you know what’s going on and how to help them?

If you’re ready to take your play therapy skills to the next level, schedule a free 30-minute video call with me. Together, we’ll figure out if my online play therapy supervision/consultation services are a good fit. Click here to schedule: Yes! I want to level up my skills

Categories: Art in Play Therapy, Play Therapy