Overview of Play Therapy

The evidence to support the effectiveness of play therapy is characterized by its conspicuous absence. For example, play therapy does not appear to enhance academic or intellectual achievement (Clement & Milne, 1967; Clement, Fazzone, & Goldstein, 1970)., Treatment effects for play therapy are conspicuously absent when dealing with specific behavioral disorders (Kelly, 1976; Milos & Reiss, 1982)., Moreover, play therapy does not improve the interpersonal adjustment of children who participate in it (McBrien & Nelson, 1972; Yates, 1976).

Even more sobering are the data demonstrating that play therapy does not effectively aid children known to have been abused.  The study supporting this conclusion reported:

“No consistent support was found for the hypothesis that time-limited play therapy would improve the adjustment of maltreated preschoolers who already were attending a therapeutic preschool. This lack of support was evident at both posttest and follow-up” (Reams & Friedrich, 1994, p. 897).

As long ago as in 1975, a review of treatment approaches for children emphasized that the era of blind faith in the activities of play therapy had ended (Davids, 1975).  In other words, play therapy amounts to what – at best – is an experimental treatment not known to be effective. The parents of children participating in traditional approaches to child therapy – such as play therapy – view their children as responding positively to treatment. These parental impressions, however, are not supported by objective data. In other words, the outcomes these parents attributed to their children’s therapy were influenced more by their excessively optimistic expectations than anything else (Weiss, Catron, Harris, & Phung, 1999).

Play Therapy and Memory Contamination

Unfortunately, play therapy can distort and confuse the recall of children by creating source-monitoring problems associated with memory (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993). In these cases of distorted memory, the therapist becomes the source of what the child remembers rather than the event in question. For example, one study investigated memories for performed actions compared to imagined actions (e.g. “did you really touch your nose, or did you just imagine yourself touching your nose?”). Compared with adults, 6-year-old children were far more likely to confuse memories of imagining doing and memories of actually doing (Foley & Johnson, 1985).

Similarly, 8-year-old children also had difficulty discriminating actions they imagined another person doing from actions that they saw that person do (Lindsay, Johnson, & Kwon, 1991). Therefore, the “pretending” activities of play therapy significantly contaminate a child’s memory as a result of source monitoring problems. Consequently, a play therapist can profoundly distort the memory of a child by suggesting interpretations of what the child supposedly encountered or experienced. In response to the therapist’s influence, children accept these interpretations as legitimate. They then resort to their imaginations – though convinced they are searching their memories – inventing anecdotes of past events which appear to validate the therapist’s interpretations (Campbell, 1992).

Play Therapy and Related Books for Children

Play therapists frequently rely on books such as Something Happened to Me that depict various sexual abuse scenarios. Consequently, such books create serious source monitoring problems for children undermining the reliability of what they think they remember (Lindsay, Johnson, & Kwon, 1991). In fact, the use of such books have led to the reversal of criminal convictions (State v. Huss, 1993). Concluding that a child’s sex abuse allegations against her father were “improperly influenced” by a “highly suggestive book on sexual abuse,” the Supreme Court of Minnesota overturned the father’s conviction for criminal sexual assault (State v. Huss, 1993, p. 292).

Play Therapy and Stereotyping

In their therapy sessions with children, play therapists frequently stereotype the alleged perpetrator as a generally undesirable figure.  Simultaneously, these therapists also often encourage children to engage symbolic acts of punitiveness directed at the alleged perpetrator. The relevant research demonstrates that in response to stereotypes, all people – children included – selectively attend to evidence that can be construed as confirming the stereotype (Bodenhausen, 1988; Rothbart et al., 1978). Simultaneously, they overlook any other evidence inconsistent with the stereotype. Selectively attending to evidence considered consistent with the stereotype further leaves children convinced that they have been sexually abused. Therefore, this kind of stereotyping also creates source monitoring failures (Leichtman & Ceci, 1995).