Synergetic Play Therapy & EMDR for Children 

What is Play Therapy? Play Therapy is a form of Expressive Therapy that allows children and youth to explore their feelings, thoughts and behaviours in a safe and trusting play environment. It is through play that children express themselves and start their healing process. The child's play is a mirror of their life experiences and they often reveal a range of emotions and inner thoughts that are currently influencing their behaviour and affecting their development.


Importance of Play Therapy:

  • Play is a natural and important part of healthy child development
  • Through play, a child’s underlying thoughts and feelings are revealed
  • Play helps therapists assess children’s personality development, self-image, and how they view their problems, concerns, and relational circumstances
  • Play grants children the opportunity to solve problems, release tension, self-regulate, discover alternative adaptive behaviours, heal their emotional injuries, and increase their understanding of themselves.
  • Children achieve feelings of mastery, identity and control through play.
  • Children who suffer painful and traumatic experiences may use play to help integrate these stressful experiences and to compensate in fantasy for real losses and difficulties.  
​​(Adapted from Gil, E. (1991) The Healing Power of Play: Working with Abused Children. The Guilford Press; and Gil, E. (1994) Play in Family Therapy. The Guilford Press)

Play Therapy helps children:

  • Adjust to family changes

  • Make friendships

  • Learn how to self-regulate

  • Be themselves

  • Improve academic functioning

  • Learn healthy ways to cope with problems

  • Fit in with peer group

  • Meet developmental markers

  • Sleep better

  • Improve self-esteem and self-confidence

  • Resolve trauma

  • Decrease compulsive behaviours

  • Heal grief and loss

  • Become a better problem-solver

  • Attach more to primary caregivers

  • Achieve a sense of mastery

  • Achieve a sense of identity

  • Make better decisions

  • Gain insight and self-awareness

  • Learn social skills


Common Questions


How Does Play Therapy Work? (Information from Play Therapy International Website 2016) Play Therapy provides a safe and inviting environment for children to express their feelings and find ways to create play that resembles the stressful experiences they are struggling with internally with an accepting and supportive adult therapist. Play Therapy differs from regular play in that the therapist is trained to reflect the child's inner world, model self-regulation and help children feel empowered so they can address and resolve their issues in an effective way.


Play allows children a safe psychological distance from their challenges and allows them to express their true thoughts, feelings about their experiences in ways that are best suited for their developmental level. Play may also be used to promote cognitive and emotional development providing insight about inner conflicts or problematic thinking for children.


During Play Therapy, a wide variety of toys and artistic materials are available to help the child feel comfortable to use play as a means for communication between the child and therapist. Children are given the opportunity to express themselves through art, sand play, dramatic play, play with books and storytelling, musical play, puppets and fantasy play. Children will choose toys and activities to represent their feelings and recreate their inner struggles. Because Play Therapy is child-directed, children can create therapeutic play at their developmental level and choose an appropriate pace to explore their struggles.




Research shows that when children are struggling, having a strong and supportive significant relationship with a healthy adult can greatly improve a child's self-esteem and resiliency. While children are greatly impacted and affected by family, teachers and friends, a Play Therapist has an important role in a child's healing and provides an objective view separate from family members. The positive and respectful relationship that develops between therapist and child provides a restorative emotional experience and serves to release the natural healing resources that lie within the child. This safe and understanding relationship allows children a sense of security when they are recreating emotionally stressful experiences.


By confronting their problems in this protected environment, children learn healthy expression of their emotions and needs. Children's play then evolves to where they gain empowerment and comfort, and they can re-establish a sense of themselves and well-being. Play Therapy allows children to change the way they think about and feel towards their issues, as well as assisting them in finding new coping strategies and creative solutions that work. Lasting resolutions are discovered, rehearsed and adapted into the child's life.











What's the Difference Between Regular Play and Play Therapy? The difference between regular child's play and Play Therapy is that the Play Therapy is purposeful in the way that it is used as a clinical intervention to either increase desired behaviours, or decrease problematic symptoms in the child's life to achieve optimal developmental functioning.

It is a therapeutic intervention that uses toys to represent the child's words and their play as the communication. It is a language that brings their inner thoughts and emotions from the inside to the outside. Much in the same way adults do talk therapy, the children are similarly "talking through play". The therapist's job is to provide a safe, accepting, non-judgmental place for the child to express themselves freely as the therapist observes, reflects to the child what they see so the child can gain insight and self-awareness. The therapist teaches skills to the child in a play-based way which is the child's preference and best mode of understanding and learning.

Tara Practices Synergetic Play Therapy ( 

This is the nuts and bolts of SPT below. It's a bit of a read.

The therapist must work at the edge of the window of tolerance and the regulatory boundary of the dysregulated states in themselves and in the child in order to expand those boundaries and re-pattern the disorganization in the lower brain centers of the child.  A core principle of SPT is the therapist’s ability to be authentic and congruent in his or her expressions, coupled with the ability to model regulation through the crescendos and decrescendos of the therapist’s internal state that are in resonance with similar crescendos and decrescendos in the clients arousal system (Schore, 2006).  This allows the therapist to stay on the edge of the window of tolerance, and serves as a catalyst for the re-patterning of the disorganization in the lower brain centers of the client. 

"When the relationship is experienced as safe enough, the dissociated experiences will begin to come into conscious awareness.  As we resonate together, the activation will amplify and, if our window of tolerance is broad enough to contain this energy and information, our patient will also experience a widening of his or her window.  In the research of Carl Marci and colleagues (Marci & Reiss, 2005), these moments of autonomic synchrony were subjectively experienced as empathetically rich interpersonal joining.  This research showed that within the session, our nervous systems will flow into, out of, and back into synchrony many times.  This rhythm is parallel to the dance of mother and infant as they move from attunement to rupture and back to repair over and over, laying the foundation for security, optimism, and resilience" (Badenoch, 2006).

With repeated observation of the therapist’s willingness to stay authentic and move towards the challenging emotions and physical sensations aroused through the play, the child's mirror neuron system is activated and the child learns that it is ok to also move towards their own challenging internal states.  Research shows that as clients begin to move towards their challenging internal states, new neural connections are created until a critical state is reached that results in a new neural organization (Edelman, 2004; Tyson, 2002)

In SPT the child's symptoms are understood as symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system.  These dysregulated states arise as a result of 1)the perceived challenges and thoughts he or she has regarding the events in his or her life and 2)he or she has lost attachment with him or herself and is attempting to be someone they are not (acting from "shoulds"), instead of being who they truly are.  

Through the play itself, the Synergetic Play Therapist supports the child in changing his perceptions of the perceived challenging events and thoughts in his life, as well as getting in touch with his or her authentic self.  The result of SPT is that the child heals from the inside out and from the lowest part of the brain up.


How Do Parents Get Involved?  Parents/caregivers play an important role in the counselling process, as they are an integral part of the child's world. It is important for parents/caregivers to support their child in their process of becoming a stronger and more confident person. The therapist can offer assistance to the parents/caregivers through parenting support sessions, or by recommending effective resources, and making suitable referrals to other workshops and helpful programs for example. It is important for parents/caregivers to understand that their child's symptoms may get worse before they get better, this is normal and means the child is actively working on their issues and that they have started the healing process. Your child will need your support, patience and unconditional love during this potentially challenging time.


How Do We Get Started with Play Therapy?  Prior to beginning Play Therapy, the therapist will meet with the parents/caregivers for an intake session to learn more about the child and the family. During this time, the Play Therapy process is discussed, and the parents and therapist begin a relationship working together to best support the child. Following this initial session, the child will begin therapy with each session lasting for 60 minutes. It is also possible to have counselling sessions and relationship-building sessions with the parents/caregivers and child together. Progress updates and meetings with parents/caregivers will be made in person every 8 sessions. It is recommended that the child have a minimum of 12 sessions to effectively work on their issues and find long-lasting resolutions.


How Do I Prepare My Child for the First Session?  Before bringing your child for Play Therapy, it is important to tell them that they are going to see a counsellor who helps kids work through their problems or the tough times they are going through. You can name the current problems they are having. Be straight forward and clear about where they are going and why. Make sure they know at least a few days before so they can mentally prepare. If they feel tricked they will not trust the process before therapy even starts.


Explain how we will be in a play room and do different activities. In the playroom they can draw, paint, play with toys, play games, use the sandtray, play with the dollhouse and do a whole bunch of fun things. There are some rules in the playroom, but for the most part the child gets to lead. In every session the child and I choose therapeutic activities to do together. Although children may be hesitant to come to counselling, usually by the end of the first session they know mainly what to expect and will look forward to coming.


Who Practices Play Therapy?  A Play Therapist is a trained mental health practitioner with at least a Master's Degree in psychology or counselling. A Play Therapist is registered to practice their specific degree and has advanced, specialized training and specific experience and supervision in Play Therapy working with children, adolescents and families (Excerpt from The Association for Play Therapy).  Tara is a Certified Synergetic Play Therapist.


Sand Tray Therapy  Sand trays are a staple in Play Therapy and I am particularly drawn to the sand tray. I have two trays in my office that I built myself with love and care. The use of a sand tray, miniatures and other objects in therapy is an effective way of helping children who are experiencing a wide range of social, emotional, behavioural, and learning problems. Through sandplay, children can create and develop their own expression of their experiences. With the support of the therapist, sandplay can provide a creative opportunity to resolve conflicts, express feelings, develop problem-solving skills, and learn a variety of ways of relating to others. In my experience, the power of the sand tray as a therapeutic tool has proven to be one of the most effective methods to enable change and healing in Play Therapy I have ever witnessed.

EMDR with Children

I also integrate EMDR in to therapy as I mentioned earlier, with some children, depending on their needs. EMDR helps children overcome the negative impacts of trauma. Trauma is very subjective and depends on the child's point of view in regards to what is troubling them. EMDR with children is a modified child-friendly version of how a therapist would practice with adults. It uses the integration of toys, bi-lateral stimulation, art and other age-appropriate techniques.


Some examples of potential trauma experiences below:


Natural disasters: war, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes,

tsunami, avalanche etc


Relational trauma: bullying, physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual abuse and/or

neglect and abandonment, racism, sexism, homophobia, witnessing domestic

violence, persistent abuse of power by adults

Death & Loss: death of a loved one or pet, loss of important relationship,

witnessing death

Miscellaneous traumas:  a single scary incident, accident, personal failures,

social problems, animal nips, and nightmares etc

Medical/Dental: waking up during surgery with out parents, ongoing medical

problems, frightening experience in general

Divorce: perceived loss of family unit, caught in the middle, experiencing hostility, moving from one place to another, getting to know new family, new roles etc

Transitions: moving into a new grade, moving from childhood to adolescence, moving homes, living in new neighbourhood, getting to know a new family, new immigrants or refugees (culture shock, fleeing war or unpleasant circumstance in home country)

Trauma Symptoms

Children who have been traumatized primarily live in an activated state of either hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal meaning fight, flight, freeze or fall-asleep.  This can look different ways for different children, some symptoms include: persistent fears, anxiety, compulsive behavior, depression, sleep problems, aggression, impulsiveness, tired, confused, trouble concentrating, toileting issues, withdrawal from normal play, social isolation, cutting, using drugs or alcohol, risk-taking behaviours, suicidal ideation, withdraw from relationships, have phobias, rage, sexually intrusive behaviour, defiance to authority figures and mistrust in adults.

Click here to find out more about EMDR

Play Therapy is an developmental match for therapeutic interventions with children