Play therapy explained | How to use play therapy | Attuning to your child | how and why it works


Quick Summary: Play therapy is an effective and developmentally accommodating way for a child to communicate emotional or otherwise ‘complex’ information to an adult. A child will often tell you about what they are currently feeling or thinking about with their toys or drawing etc… If an adult can pay attention to the story line or scenario that the child is enacting with their toys (puppets, action figures, dolls, cars etc) the adult can gain an understanding of something that the child is unable to communicate with verbal language (be careful not to over analyze; often children are simply re-enacting something they saw on a TV show etc.) When a child feels as though an adult can understand them, they feel secure and validated in who they are… they also feel secure that the adult can meet their basic needs and their attachment needs. The security which arises from empathy and understanding promotes healthy relational, emotional, cognitive and physical growth for humans of all ages.

There are millions are great ways to play with your child. The below technique is not the only way… it is simply a good way to allow your child the space to communicate to you. Think of it like therapy for your child… this is not an exercise for you to teach… it is an exercise for you to learn so that your child feels understood and empathized for.

Offer yourself the space to accept that understanding and empathy is healing and health promoting intrinsically… we adults know this very well… very often we crave for our significant other to simply understand us as opposed to ‘Fixing it’.

Children are completely dependant on adults so your child may need something tangible during the exercise (to be fed, a piece of clothing, a hug etc)… allow yourself to consider that the most important thing that you are offering during this play time exercise is attunement, empathy, and the positive feeling that surface when a child feels important.



To offer this wonderful experience to your child at home simply:

* Sit with your child with the sole purpose of curiously observing him/her while tuning in to your child’s unique emotional experience.

* Pay attention to the non-verbal language of your child as they play with their toys… you may periodically reflect their experience if your like (if they laugh at their toy dinosaur you might say, “Oh this is a funny dinosaur.” it is further validating to the child if you can be present enough to laugh and smile at the dinosaur as well (as it truly is a funny dinosaur).

* Avoid your adult desires to dictate their play.

  • For this exercise you are attempting to understand them and to do so requires that they make up the scenario.
  • If they want you to play with them they will give you directions as to how your toy is supposed to engage in their scenario. If you are asked to hold a doll, you may ask, “What is this doll doing?”


* Avoid asking ‘adult questions’ or verbalizing your ‘adult analysis’ such as, “I see that your doll is over there all lonely by herself… is this how you feel now that your friend moved away.”

  • This can work with certain children, but it confuses many children and it is not necessary for your child to gain deep insight in order for them to be nurtured by your attunement.


* Your child will thrive within the healing arms of your undivided attention… you ability to be with your child free of judgment in the moment will be very nurturing for him/her.

* We all have the potential to see the world with the eyes of a child without projecting all our complicated beliefs onto all of our senses… let your child teach you how to see the world as the wonderful and exciting place that it still is.

Why This Play Exercise is important from a Human Development Perspective

Humans are ‘biologically wired’ to be social animals and we experience security, self-understanding, confidence, and bonding etc when another human offers both pragmatic and emotional understanding of our lived experiences.

When an adult can correctly interpret and accommodate/nurture the needs of a child then it is said that there is attunement between the adult and the child.

Children require attunement fom proper emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development.

  • It is ideal for the development of a child that they feel as though the adult in their lives can understand their unique ways of communicating… this understanding  (attunement) meets an intrinsic need of the child (this is vital for adults as well… we need empathy… we need people to show compassion and understanding for our emotional experiences).
  • The practical information gained from this ‘understanding’ also allows the adult to successfully meet the basic needs of the child (to be held, to be fed, to be changed, to be sheltered etc) which again, is vital for the child’s development.


Brain Development and Play Therapy

Children use primarily the right hemisphere of their brain for the first part of their lives. To dramatically oversimplify things, the right hemisphere is the artistic/emotional/non-linear/visual memory/ non-verbal language part of the brain where as the left hemisphere is linear/logical/time conscious/narrative memory/judgment/verbal language part of the brain.

The human mind is not fully developed in a child and children’s left and right hemispheres do not ‘communicate’ with each other like an adult mind should.

It is developmentally appropriate to expect an adult to use their left hemisphere to verbalize content from the right hemisphere… the means:

  • An adult can give you a verbal description of a visual memory and can relay the emotional affect of that image while putting that memory into a context which can be organized with both linear time and the adult’s relevant belief systems.


It is not generally developmentally appropriate to expect a child to be able to use their two hemispheres in such a synergistic way… they cannot generally do the above bullet point.

Why all this hemisphere talk? Attuning to you child during play is a way for them to communicate with you using their right hemisphere so that they do not have to experience the anxiety and feelings of inadequacy that often surfaces when you ask them to verbalize their experience and related emotions (which requires them to use there left hemisphere to narrate information from their right hemisphere).

Behavioral reasoning – Why play therapy is used in changing negative behaviors.

When an adult attunes to a child they offer a space for the child to understand their own (the child’s) emotional experience, their relation to others, and their relationship with their self.

Children feel emotionally deregulated when there is not a safe adult to attune too.

In severe situations, such as when a child is or has experienced child abuse, a child will act our behaviorally as they feel entirely emotionally confused and invalidated (which leaves them feeling uncertain about their very identity – they do not know who they are or how they can successfully related to other people, and they do not understand their own emotional experiences). The child will therefore ‘act out of control’ as they are quite literally living within a chaotic existence in which nothing makes sense including their own sense of self.

Often a Parent is doing an exceptional parenting job but for one reason or another they are not able to attune to something very specific that their child needs to communicate to them.

We all have at least a few rigid belief systems which inhibit our ability to be open-minded in the context of certain subjects.

Often parents will have unresolved issues from their own history which will impede their ability to successfully attune to their child if that unresolved theme is present (the inability to attune and the issue itself are often outside of the adults conscious awareness).

In a play therapy context the child finds an environment to openly express him/herself which allows him/her the space to organize his/her experience so as to feel regulated. (This is not too different from adult talk therapy. Fostering emotional, logical and existential organization is promoted in a non-judgmental empathetic context. People need their expression to be met with empathy and acceptance… children are better at expressing with play.)

In short, the ‘behavioral problems’ are often the result of feeling emotionally deregulated do to an inability to understand yourself and your own lived experience… self understanding is promoted by the empathy of another, especially in relation to children. 

Empathy adds structure to the chaos which was promoting the behavioral disturbance… the behavior is a symptom of an inability to successfully express and organize an emotionally significant experience. Our western ways of viewing the world tend to inhibit us from accepting such a notion although (ironically) this notion is substantiated by the linear (western) scientific method.

Is there more that one type of play therapy?

There are many different theories that affect the way that play therapy is administered in a professional context.


Above, I described a very common form of play therapy which is based on Rogerian therapy and Attachment theory. This form of play therapy can be conducted by most anyone who is able to attune to a child (this method will also teach people to attune that do not know how to do so already).

Analysis based play therapy

There are trained professional who are looking for themes which have been statistically correlated with certain events (for example: children who live in a household with domestic abuse might draw or re-enact in ways that are universal enough to provide the therapist with reliable ‘information’.

  • These professionals are trained to interpret the child’s play and art.
  • This is a less common form of play therapy that is used more commonly in forensic contexts… in contexts where the legal system and/or social services has good reason to be concerned for the safety of the child.
  • I strongly suggest that you do not try and interpret or over analyze your child’s play or your child’s drawings… even within the field of psychotherapy this is a very specialized intervention… most play therapists are not trying to deduce ‘factual’ information from your child’s play.


The attunement process, which  is intrinsically healing and helpful, does not necessitate that you retrieve overly sophisticated ‘facts’ beyond an understanding of subjects such as “I was scared when I stubbed my toe today… will you hug me again?”

Play with your child for the sole purpose of attunement… leave the analysis stuff for trained professionals… if there are disturbing themes is your child’s play it would be a good idea to ask a therapist for assistance before you jump to uncomfortable conclusions (most ‘abnormal’ play is perfectly normal… remind yourself that kids eat dirt… you could analyze that until your head falls off, but in reality they are just seeing what it tastes like.)

Let your child teach you how to play in this world…


Your child doesn’t overuse his/her left hemisphere (logical belief and knowledge projector)… the world is wonderful and novel when experience with the right hemisphere… allow them to teach you how to balance your hemispheres (they may be right dominant, but many adults seem to be left dominant.)




What do you think? Do you have any tricks to attune to your child?

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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