Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development

pp 1118-1119

Play-Group Therapy

  • Ashlea SmithAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Phoenix College


Adlerian play therapy; Adolescent and child behavior therapy; Age-related play therapy; Art therapy; Child-centered therapy; Child psychotherapy; Child therapy; Cognitive-behavioral play therapy (CBPT); Counseling; Directive play therapy; Expressive group therapy; Gestalt play therapy; Group activity therapy; Group play therapy; Group psychotherapy; Music therapy; Nondirective play therapy; Play therapy; Play therapy group; Sand tray therapy


A relationship built between peer groups of children or adolescents with a therapist specializing in play therapy, using group therapy techniques in a playroom setting as a means for youth to explore themselves and others (e.g., how one acts, thinks, and feels) through play.


Play is the universal language used by children to communicate their understanding of the world around them where the toys depict the words of the child. Play therapy is to children as talk therapy also known as narrative therapy is to adults. Typically, play-group therapy, commonly known as group play therapy is when a minimum of two or a preferred maximum of four children or adolescents currently functioning at similar developmental stages interact with each other and the therapist in a therapeutic playroom setting. However, the number of group participants should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Schaefer [3] recommended that the length of the group session should also be considered on a case-by-case basis with a group of preschool to elementary-aged children should range between 20 and 40 min, while children in middle or high school may attend the group for 1 h.

Landreth [2] described group play therapy as differing from the concept of group counseling due to the fact that it is not necessary to have group rules as well as group cohesion among members to promote growth; this is simply done by observing other children which ultimately empowers a child to attempt new things. It has been suggested that the use of play-group therapy may be more beneficial and expedite the therapeutic process with youth. Berg et al. [1] described group play therapy as a way to provide a sense of universality among the group members fostering a realization that other children experience problems too and they are not alone in dealing with real-life situations allowing children to increase their self-concept.

As with a group counseling session, the first step in play-group therapy is to create a safe and nurturing environment. Once this environment is established, the group process seeks to promote the expression of emotions while at the same time establishes the chance for children to offer empathy to other children in the group setting. When a child discovers that they can also be helpful to someone else in the group the comradery built among members increases one’s self-esteem and self-concept. The primary goal of play-group therapy is to foster social interaction skills and develop emotional coping skills. This typically utilizes a series of different modalities of play such as: art, music, board games, games, sand tray therapy, and other directive and nondirective forms of general play.

The primary role of the group play therapist is to facilitate an environment for growth, personal sharing of one’s story, a sense of universality, acceptance, and the development of social and coping skills. It is important for the group play therapist to verbally track the behavior and name the emotions expressed during the session by each group member. This is done by also including the child’s name for example, the therapist would state, “Gavin, you’re playing with the puppets” or “Samantha, you seem to really enjoy playing in the sand.” There are many theoretical foundations and therapeutic modalities that are used in play-group therapy just like those that are used in individual play therapy and other types of therapies. The group facilitator decides which approach to utilize in the group setting based on their particular specialty area and the population of children being treated. Some types or styles of play-group therapy that are frequently used by clinicians consist of: sand tray therapy groups, art therapy groups, child-centered group play therapy, adlerian group play therapy, jungian play-group therapy, cognitive-behavioral group play therapy, and gestalt play-group therapy.

Additionally, another key aspect of the play-group process is for the play therapist and the group members to set limits to ensure safety and enhance the child’s ability to express negative feelings while maintaining self control. The limit-setting serves to protect the play therapy room as well as uphold the legal and ethical standards of the profession. When working with children it is important to note as Schaefer [3] mentioned that although the child is the foci of treatment it is important to include the parents or guardians as the client(s) due to legal and ethical considerations. In essence, play-group therapy serves to provide a medium of treatment where children can learn from other children’s experiences while expressing their own emotions though the use of play.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
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