Is Play therapy or Art therapy for you?

Is Play therapy or Art therapy for you?

You may wonder what is “art therapy”  or “expressive arts” and what does a the therapist do with their clients? Do adults use play therapy or is it just for children? Can art therapy or sand tray therapy help you feel less anxious or treat depression? While play therapy is indeed most often used with younger clients, adults can benefit too. For the sake of this concise article let’s refer to all of these modalities with the term “expressive arts.” I use a variety of expressive art modalities in my work with adults and couples. These include sand tray, role playing, movement and body based awareness, image making (collage, drawing, painting) and healing laughter.

Play is an essential function of our childhood development – how we learn who we are and how we belong. Children play as a way of life. Give a kid some finger paint in any part of the world and they will create masterpieces. At least that’s what it feels like to them. Children don’t worry about their technique or doing it “wrong”. Watch a child while playing or art making – they have left this world and stepped into another. With a trained therapist, children can utilize this beautiful capacity to heal from trauma, learn to cope with illness, move through the divorce process, manage ADHD symptoms and more. The good news is: adults can do the same thing!

Think of the last time you spent an hour or more using your hands while drawing, crafting, knitting, doodling, or building something for fun. Adults call these things hobbies, and often describe their experience as relaxing – just doing nothing. The brain has slowed down, your breathing is relaxed, your thoughts are wandering or perhaps – if you are lucky – have quieted down to a soft murmur. A play therapist, (or an expressive art, somatic, music, or drama therapist) invites you into these modalities help to facilitate emotional, physical, cognitive, energetic and spiritual change.

Sand Tray therapy was first used by child psychiatrist Margaret Lowenfeld in the 1940’s. Sand Tray was based on her work with Carl Jung and first called “World Play”. I have a sand tray in my office and I invite both adults and children to use it. Choosing from hundreds of small objects on a shelf, you arrange them in your “world” of the sand tray using the power of imagination. This requires some trust and letting go.  “Thinking” about how to make an awesome design in the sand will not get you anywhere.  There is an “in-between-space” where your inner and outer life can be revealed. The sand tray is an empty space where the conscious and unconscious can come together and unfold. Sometimes, as a prompt, I may ask something like “What does the inside of your mind look like?” or “What does your heart need?” Sand tray can be used by families and couples as well.

While most therapist are skilled using Cognitive Behavioral therapy –  CBT – only some offer expressive arts modalities. Combined, one can reach deeper into the unconscious  to access old beliefs and patterns that can be let go.  P.S. It is really fun too.


Kristy Hellum is a Marriage and Family therapist Santa Rosa, California. She provides individual therapy, couples therapy, and therapy for teens. Her office is near downtown Santa Rosa.