The ability to talk about ourselves and our feelings is a process that takes until adulthood. A child may not fully express their feelings, verbally, about what is happening in their lives, and more importantly, how it is affecting them. Children communicate through play using toys as their language. Play may offer a ‘safe space’ in which the child can explore their world.

Play Therapy is a term used for a group of techniques that a trained therapist uses to “hear” what a child is saying by the way they play. By understanding the symbols children use, the therapist can ‘listen’ to what the child is really saying and then help them to work through difficult emotions and cope with their problems.

Giving a child the opportunity to communicate enables them to gain more control over their feelings and anxieties. This doesn’t just mean the child who is ill but is just as true for their brothers and sisters. Play Therapy is just as important for them. They too, may need to express their feelings and fears and can do so in the same safe, confidential environment.

During Play Therapy, a therapist encourages a child to explore life events that may have an effect on current circumstances, in a manner and pace of the child’s choosing, primarily through play but also through language.

Play Therapy is a safe space for the children and the toys are specifically chosen to allow them to:

  • Explore real life situations
  • Express their feelings in the way most comfortable to them
  • Express their needs
  • Deal with inner conflicts

Play Therapy, can help individuals communicate, explore repressed thoughts and emotions, address unresolved trauma, and experience personal growth and is widely viewed as an important, effective, and developmentally appropriate mental health treatment.

Play Therapy as a Complementary Therapy


When children are experiencing adverse personal issues they will often act out or engage in inappropriate behaviour. Parents may be eager to help but may find it difficult or impossible to offer effective aid if a child is unable or unwilling to discuss the problem.

Play therapy is thought to be one of the most beneficial means of helping children who are experiencing emotional or behavioural challenges. Though the approach may benefit people of all ages, it is specially designed to treat children under 12. A typical session may last for 30-45 minutes and may be conducted with one child only or in groups.

Apart from the medical treatments, another important aspect of the healing process for children with cancer is to be allowed to heal, by being children again. Research has revealed that children need more than just medical care to heal and recover, as wholly as possible. They need to be able to “play.” This is one way to help them psychologically and emotionally, whilst they undergo the physical treatments.

Research done in the late 1970s revealed that 59% of childhood cancer survivors with a mean age of 5 years, 7 months were considered to be impaired psychologically.

The areas where most difficulty was evident were:

Internalising Problems

• Feelings of loss of control
• Hopelessness
• Depression
• Anxiety
• Frustrations

Externalising Problems

• Withdrawal
• Aggression
• Non-compliance

Other Common Difficulties

• Poor self-esteem/self-image
• Changing sense of identity, more negative
• Decreasing social competence
• Learning problems

Play therapy can help children with cancer express their trauma, negative emotions and then integrate their experiences in a healthier way. It can enable children to move beyond the crisis of childhood cancer, helps children deal psychologically as well as physically with cancer and build resilience.

How is Play Therapy Administered?


The aim of a play therapy session is for the child to communicate about their feelings, behaviour and thoughts, using play as the tool. For this to be effective, an important focus is to build a trusting relationship between the therapist and child, as this relationship plays a vital part in the functioning of the therapy.

In the play room there will be a great selection of play materials so that the child has a wide choice to choose from. The selection may include puppets, art and craft materials, sand and water, clay, small figures, dressing up props, musical instruments and books.

The child is the one who leads the session, so the format in this sense is free and there is no pressure put on the child to talk about their difficulties. The trained therapist will use specific techniques in order to assess how the child reacts to the world, events and the people who inhabit their world. Gently the therapist will lead the child to help them gain an awareness of their feelings and allow them to express their feelings safely.

Play Therapy can include:

  • Drawing and painting
  • Free play
  • Storytelling
  • Drama
  • Music lessons
  • Computer lessons
  • Arts and crafts
  • Photography
  • Morning exercises
  • Movie nights

Research into Play Therapy for People with Cancer

play therapy

Play is considered to be especially important for the healthy development of children who have experienced stressful events or past trauma.

While the effects of trauma tend to reside in the nonverbal areas of the brain—the hippocampus, amygdala, thalamus, and brain stem—a person’s capacity to communicate and process adverse issues resides in the brain’s frontal lobes.

As a result, children affected by trauma may find it difficult to let other people know that they need help. The physical and role-playing activities associated with play therapy have proven instrumental in helping to move traumatic memories and sensations from the nonverbal brain areas to the frontal lobes.

Below are some samples of research done about the efficacy of play therapy and the importance of play to children:

1. The authors conducted a meta-analysis of 93 controlled outcome studies, published 1953 to 2000, to assess the overall efficacy of play therapy and to determine factors that might impact its effectiveness.

The overall mean treatment effect was 0.80 standard deviations, considered a large treatment effect. Further analysis revealed that effects were more positive for humanistic than for non-humanistic treatments, and that utilizing parents in their child’s play therapy produced larger overall treatment effects than play therapy conducted by a professional.

Play therapy appeared equally effective across age, gender, presenting issue, and clinical vs. psychotherapy, and further suggest that doubts about the efficacy of play therapy can be laid to rest.

2. Gestalt Play Therapy can assist in restoring a sense of wholeness as part of the healing process for oncology child patients. It can benefit a hospitalised child in ways such as allowing the child to rehearse his medical experience and gain a feeling of mastery over procedures, while allowing him to strengthen the self concept and increase self esteem.

3. Research carried out at Case Western Reserve University shows that observing children as they play can give a good indication of how emotionally charged their memories will be. The research shows that playing out emotions during therapeutic play can help children who are experiencing traumatic situations. It can also help them process their emotions more easily.

4. The number of long-term, adult survivors of childhood cancer therapy will continue to increase, and almost 75% will have a chronic health problem resulting from their cancer therapy, whereas 40% will have a severe, disabling, or life-threatening condition or death caused by a chronic condition that resulted from their therapy.

In addition to being followed by their primary care physician, all long-term survivors of childhood cancer therapy should attend a specialised late effects clinic yearly and be evaluated by a member of the oncology team, either the physician or the pediatric oncology nurse practitioner, who initially treated them.

While your child will benefit from Play Therapy with a professional therapist, not everyone can afford to take their child for therapy, or may not have access to transport to take them -do not let this stop you from using play therapy at home as well.


Please note that the Little Fighters Cancer Trust shares information regarding various types of cancer treatments on this blog merely for informational use. LFCT does not endorse or promote any specific cancer treatments – we believe that the public should be informed but that the option is theirs to take as to what treatments are to be used.

Always consult your medical practitioner prior to taking any other medication, natural or otherwise.