Play as Therapy: A Way for Children to Express Themselves

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Amy Dr. Amy Wickstrom is a licensed Marital and Family Therapist and Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor in private practice. She founded More Than a Toy in 2009 to teach parents how to have better relationships with their children and improve their behavior through play. Dr. Wickstrom was the "Family Expert" on KSON country radio station in San Diego and has been featured on NBC News. Her research and writing on play therapy is published in professional journals and clinical books, and she speaks at local and nationwide conferences, churches, schools, and non-profit organizations on topics relating to parenting, toys, play, and child therapy. 

 ECA-VA~1 A few years ago, a little boy was brought to me by his parents because he witnessed a hold up at a grocery store. Two armed men walked into the store while he was at the check out with his father, and the two men held up the cashier at gun point. Though no one was hurt, his parents were concerned about him because he never talked about it. They wanted me to make sure he was okay.

In my first session with him, he found two small bear dolls, lined them up on the edge of the sandbox, and shot them repeatedly with the dart gun. He never said a word, and he never played with anything else.

When the second session started, he immediately walked over to the dart gun and the dolls and started to do the same thing all over again, but this time he would take breaks to play with other things.

When he returned for the third session, he instantly picked up the two bear dolls, lined them up on the edge of the sandbox, and grabbed the dart gun. Then he stopped, looked at me, and said, “I don’t need these anymore. I’m okay.” He went on to play with other toys for the remainder of the session.

This story shows how children use play to share what they’re struggling with and make sense of it. For this little boy, he was able to effectively communicate with me what he witnessed through the dolls and the dart gun. He was able to make sense of his experience at the grocery store and move on. However, if I had sat him down on a couch and asked him to talk to me about what he saw, he probably wouldn’t have known what to say, and it may have also been very uncomfortable for him.

At this point in my career, I continue to provide play therapy to children in my private practice, but what I truly enjoy is teaching parents and other adults how to use toys and play to help their own children. In fact, I’ve dedicated myself to finding creative ways to reach out to parents to share the secrets of play therapy with them.

I’m motivated by the success stories of parents I’ve worked with, but also by a landmark publication in 2005. This study revealed that when parents are taught how to interact with their children using specific toys and skills, they are more effective than therapists. Yes, that’s correct… more effective than someone with countless years of formal training and a mental health license. Amazing!

It’s clear that toys can have tremendous value and meaning for children, far beyond what many toy companies and retailers currently recognize. I believe toys:

  • Should be understood as more than a means to entertain or educate a child
  • Can change a child’s behavior
  • Can help a child express thoughts, feelings, and life experiences

Put simply, toys give children a voice they would not otherwise have. When adults learn how to use them in specific ways, toys can be vessels of healing in a child’s life.

It’s exciting to think about parents learning how to touch their children’s hearts and minds through meaningful playtime together. I want to spread this information to every parent, not just those struggling with their child. It’s a goal I’ve given myself to, and I’d love for you to join me.

If you are interested in learning more about how to use toys and play to help children communicate their thoughts, feelings, and life experiences, I invite you to visit my website and sign up to receive my monthly newsletter!

Source: Amy Wickstrom, PhD, MFT, Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor

Founder of More Than a Toy (


Bratton, S., Ray, D., Rhine, T., & Jones, L. (Aug. 2005). The efficacy of play therapy with children: A Meta-analytic review of the outcome research. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(4).


One thought

  1. This was a great story on the power of Play therapy. As a child therapist, I’ve seen countless repetitive play in session which has helped children to express their feelings in their own language.

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