Tip Tuesday: Myth: “Play Therapy Isn’t Structured Enough for Speech Therapy”

Myth-Play thearpy is not structured enough for speech therapy


Today I’d like to address the myth I hear very often from other SLPs about play therapy.  “Play therapy is not structured enough to reach my speech therapy goals.”

I believed the myth too once upon a time:

Ok let me first say I too was that therapist that believed this 12 years ago as a brand new SLP.  After years of graduate school in which it was ingrained “data, data, data” and using every second of every session to target my speech and language goals only, I was a firm believer that I didn’t have the precious time to give to this loosey-goosey play therapy!  I mean, if I only see this child for 30 or 60 minutes, once or twice a week, how in the world can I spend time on play when I NEED to focus on language? THEN, I spent several years getting schooled by some of the most amazing early childhood special education teachers about typical child development and I’m so glad I did!

Benefits of Play Therapy:

So let’s talk about play therapy! I have written about the advantages of play several times in my blog and yet I STILL hear the same criticisms.  So let’s just get it out there.  Play therapy has been observed to have positive effects on ALL AREAS of CHILD DEVELOPMENT including but not limited to:

  • Cognitive development
  • Reasoning
  • Abstract Thinking Skills
  • Social Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Leadership skills
  • “Theory of Mind”
  • Safety
  • Self-esteem and confidence

You can read more about the positive effects of play here, how to choose appropriate materials for play therapy to reach your speech and language goals here, and how I keep track of progress using pretend play here!

Play vs. Play Therapy: Is there a difference?

I think possibly the biggest problem people have with using play therapy is that they confuse it with play.

So, what’s the difference between Play and Play therapy?

Simply put, play is child-directed without any adult intervention, interruption or goals.  However play therapy which is ALSO child-directed, does have as minimal as possible adult interruption/intervention to meet specific goals the adult has in mind. 

Simple play in and of itself does not demonstrate improvements in the above areas specified, however play THERAPY does have positive implications for all of those skills!

So play therapy is not the loosey-goosey thing I once thought it was!  It is NOT unstructured. In fact it takes a bit more planning initially than simply putting a “drill and kill” activity together for therapy.

It takes time to:

  • Determine the goal(s) you will target each session.
  • Pick and choose appropriate therapy materials that assist in targeting those goals.
  • Plan the various types of techniques you as the clinician will use to target these goals (e.g. modeling, imitation, echos, expansions, environmental sabotage (also labeled as “playful obstruction” for Floortime/DIR specialists), etc.).
  • Create a way in which you will record data during the session.
  • Train parents on the successful techniques used to target goals so as parents can use these techniques throughout the week when NOT in therapy.  This will MAXIMIZE the use of your professional time while facilitating generalization to other environments!

If your preparation is completed appropriately (even if you have to change activities due to child’s interest), you WILL be able to effectively target and take data on your goals during the session.

So can we please agree to get rid of the myth that “play therapy is unstructured” and that “play therapy is not something that can effectively be used in speech therapy”?

I hope after reading this blog post you will agree to at the very lease TRY play therapy a few times to see how well your young clients respond to communication at their level via highly motivating child-directed activities.

Do you use play therapy and see the advantages of play therapy for your speech clients?  If so, please share below!

Enjoy and happy playing!!!