Three Considerations Using Art Therapeutically in Play

How can you integrate art effectively in play therapy so your clients can access its magic for healing?

Using art in play therapy is much more complex than simply pulling out art supplies for your clients to use in play therapy sessions. It requires you to understand the complexities of the therapeutic art-making process during your play therapy sessions so your clients can access the therapeutic powers of play.

What does that mean?

It means to be really effective using art therapeutically in play therapy, you need to be able to answer these questions …

What theoretical framework are you using? (Remember - theory drives application)

How are you therapeutically holding your clients’ artwork?

What are you saying or not saying to your client about their artwork?

What do you do with their artwork?

To create a free and protected space that engages your young clients fully in the healing process using art, you need to consider these questions. Then, you need to figure out how to create a therapeutic space for your clients using art in play therapy sessions. To help you ensure you use art in play therapy sessions effectively, there are three things you need to think about. This article discusses three things to consider when you’re using art therapeutically in play therapy with children and adolescents.

two black male children and one white female child creating art

Art is Projective at Its Core

First and foremost, art is a projective modality. This is true even when you’re using art in a directive manner and/or with a cognitive restructuring purpose. What does that mean? Projective means art has the ability to access your client’s unconscious beliefs and ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Projective refers to what your client describes (or not) when your clients explain what they create. It also includes the underlying symbolic possibilities of what your client creates without their conscious awareness and/or willingness to talk about the deeper meaning of it. It’s what your clients say as well as what they don’t say related to its meaning and relevance. Because it’s a projective modality you need to make sure you’re “holding the space” in a safe and therapeutic manner. Make sure you understand how to introduce the art-making project, how to process the art project, and hold the art experience effectively & ethically. These are important responsibilities of the therapist in order to get the most therapeutic benefit and to ensure a free and protected space for your clients.

What is your theoretical framework?

Secondly, what’s your theoretical framework when using art with your clients therapeutically? Using art in a therapeutic manner with clients in play therapy means you need to ground your interventions in a theoretical framework that’s informed by research. Theory drives application, and informs how to understand the problem. This includes when using an integrated approach to play therapy. When using an integrated play therapy approach, you need to think about how you’re defining the “roots” of the problem. This guides your decision-making process about what art interventions you choose to address that problem so you can get at the roots of it. Making sure your art interventions accurately target the problem areas for your client is essential to facilitate deep change. Otherwise, your approach is likely to be haphazard at best or hazardous for a worst-case scenario. How you introduce and process your clients’ artwork can either support the free and protected space or actually create mistrust and insecurity in the play therapy process. Your theoretical framework guides your decision-making about how to accomplish these tasks.

Accessing the Therapeutic Powers of Play

Foundational to all play therapy models is how you help your clients access the therapeutic powers of play. The play therapy theory model influences how your clients can access the therapeutic powers of play to facilitate the healing process. Accessing the therapeutic powers of play is key to understanding how art can help your clients heal when using a play therapy approach. Schaefer & Drewes (2014) identified 20 therapeutic aspects of play to help children heal in the play therapy process. The authors organized these therapeutic aspects into four categories:

  • Facilitates Communication

  • Fosters Emotional Wellness

  • Enhances Social Relationships

  • Increases Personal Strengths

Art is the vehicle through which your clients can access the therapeutic powers of play to overcome their mental health difficulties. Art allows for self-expression, communication, and access to the unconscious. Art can also be used with directive activities to explore cognitive distortions contributing to anxiety, depression, and even activation of trauma responses. A “picture is worth a thousand words” to allow you to better understand your clients. There are so many ways art accesses the therapeutic powers play for healing. Understanding how you can help your client use art for healing is critical in order for it to be effective.


1. Using art in play therapy is more complex than pulling out art supplies and asking your clients to draw something. To be effective, you need to consider three things and make sure you are using intention when integrating art in play therapy sessions.

2. Art is projective at its core even when you’re using directive activities. You need to make sure you’re creating and maintaining a free and protected space for your young clients. Children and adolescents need to have the ability to access the “roots” underlying their mental health challenges to fully engage in the healing process. As a projective modality, there is usually more meaning underneath the description your client provides. This means you need to know what to say and do, and what not to say and do, when processing your clients’ artwork.

3. Even when using an integrated and directive approach with art you need to think about what theory model you’re using to engage your clients in the change process.

4. You also need to consider how that theory model allows your clients to access the therapeutic powers play since these are foundational to all play therapy models.

Looking for strategies to use expressive arts therapeutically with your adolescent clients? Expressive Arts in Play Therapy with Adolescents is a self-paced course that you can take in your own time zone when it’s convenient for your schedule. There are eight modules with pre-recorded training videos to show you how to use expressive arts to address the unique developmental issues of adolescents. This course examines how to use a neuroscience and attachment lens (with a little Jungian influence) with expressive arts to understand what’s likely contributing to their mental health problems. You’ll learn some mindfulness strategies to use with expressive arts. You’ll also learn lots of expressive arts activities to use with your clients right away.

Here’s the link for more information and to register: Expressive Arts in Play Therapy with Adolescents