Understanding Play Therapy and the Brain

In the evolving landscape of mental health treatment, neuroscience research helps us understand the powers of play therapy. Play therapy, a modality traditionally used with children, is one such approach that has benefited from our understanding of neuroscience–the neurobiology of relationships in particular. We already know that the therapeutic relationship accounts for a significant portion (30%) of therapeutic change (Asay & Lamber, 1999). Asay and Lambert demonstrated that the relationship accounts for more of the change than technique and model factors (15%).

The Basics of Play Therapy

Play therapy is a therapeutic approach that utilizes the natural language of children–playto facilitate therapy. Garry L. Landreth said, ““Toys are children’s words and play is their language,” (Landreth, 2002, p. 132). Play therapy allows individuals, particularly children, to express themselves when they might not otherwise have the vocabulary required for traditional talk therapy. Play therapy helps them process their emotions, thoughts, and experiences through various forms of play, such as games, toys, art, and imaginative role-play. As children engage in these activities, the play therapist observes, assesses, and guides the process to help clients better understand and cope with their feelings, and conflicts.

The Neuroscience Behind Play

The brain is a highly complex organ, and understanding its response to different stimuli can help us articulate the power of play therapy. Here’s how play therapy interacts with the neurological aspects of our minds:

  1. Neuroplasticity: The brain is adaptable and can rewire itself in response to experiences and learning. Play therapy provides a safe and structured environment for clients to explore and process emotions, contributing to the development of healthy neural pathways. It also offers a safe space for children to take risks in trying new behaviors and more vulnerable expressions of emotions.
  2. Emotional Regulation: Play therapy allows clients to express challenging emotions in a controlled setting. This helps children practice labeling feelings, which alone can help promote emotional regulation. Play therapy also invites the body into the “conversation” and can help children connect what they are doing with how they are feeling in the inside, thus increasing their sense of neuroception which is essential to emotional regulation.
  3. Neurochemistry: Engaging in play releases endorphins and reduces the production of stress-related hormones. This shift in neurochemistry fosters a positive emotional state and reduces anxiety.
  4. Integration: Play therapy offers stimulation of both brain hemispheres, thus inviting whole-brain processing and integration. This is important, especially for children processing trauma.

Benefits of Play Therapy Informed by Neuroscience

  1. Healing Trauma: Play therapy can help individuals, particularly children, process and heal from traumatic experiences by accessing and rewiring the emotional centers of the brain.
  2. Building Resilience: The neurobiological changes facilitated by play therapy contribute to greater resilience in dealing with life’s challenges and adversities.
  3. Improved Emotional Well-Being: The neural changes achieved through play therapy, especially within the therapeutic relationship, result in a more balanced and healthy emotional state. More importantly, play therapy can help give children an experience of having the capacity to physically hold their sometimes huge negative feelings, so they are better able to respond to their feelings rather than just react.
  4. Social Connections/Belonging: Enhanced communication skills and emotional regulation lead to better relationships and social interactions.
  5. Tailored Approach: Play therapy is adaptable to the specific needs and preferences of the client, making it a versatile and effective therapeutic method for children with atypical brains.

Play Therapy Workshops

To learn more about the intersection of play therapy and neurobiology, consider joining us for the following play therapy workshops:


The intersection of play therapy and neuroscience is a dynamic field that continues to yield valuable insights into the human mind. As we unlock the mysteries of the brain’s response to play, we are better equipped to help individuals of all ages process emotions, heal from trauma, and build resilience. This evolving integration of neuroscience with play therapy holds great promise for the future of mental health treatment, offering innovative ways to promote emotional well-being and enhance the quality of life for many.


Asay, T. P., & Lambert, M. J. (1999). The empirical case for the common factors in therapy: Quantitative findings.

Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (3rd ed.). New York: Taylor & Francis Books.

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