What Play Therapy Can Reveal About Children’s Grief

Death is never easy to understand or process at any age. This fact is especially true for children. Nevertheless, sometimes a child’s mind operates on a different level. Deep insight can be revealed about children’s grief when play therapy is introduced into the equation.

What is Play Therapy and Why Does it Work?

Dating back to the time of Plato, play therapy has been used as a communication tool in order for people to work through emotions and traumatic experiences. But not all play can be viewed as play therapy. According to the Association for Play Therapy, a counselor or therapist needs to guide children to help them address and resolve their issues and problems for play to be therapeutic.

Play therapy works because it is founded on the principle that children learn the most when they communicate with others. Guided by trained therapists in a safe environment, play therapy allows children to express deep thoughts and feelings in a manner that feels comfortable.

Play therapy helps children:

  • Learn to experience and express emotion
  • Develop empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others
  • Learn new social skills
  • Grow more responsible for behaviors
  • Develop respect and acceptance of self and others

play therapyPerfect Example of Play Therapy Revelation

What could compulsive brushing of teeth reveal about a child? Could there be a connection to death and grief? For an 8-year-old boy, there was a strong connection that became evident when play therapy was introduced.

“Tyler” brushed his teeth compulsively, which baffled his school teachers and the counselors he saw at the Good Shepherd Hospice Bethany Center. There was nothing wrong with him physically, but Tyler did so much damage to his teeth and gums that his dentist made him a special gentle toothbrush to decrease the destruction.

Although Tyler participated in counseling sessions and attended Camp Brave Heart, it took some time for him to come out of his shell. “We knew that the tooth brushing was somehow related to his father’s death, but we didn’t know how,” said Allyson Moskowitz, Director of Social Services, Bereavement and Volunteers at Chapters Health System.

Tyler discovered special support at the Bethany Center’s individual and group counseling.  Especially groundbreaking was the opportunity for Tyler to express himself through play therapy. One day during play therapy, Tyler felt safe enough to tell everyone the last thing his father said when he left for his night job and kissed him goodbye: “Be a good boy, brush your teeth and I’ll see you in the morning.”

Tyler did not brush his teeth that night and his father didn’t come home. “Children are so literal. When something bad happens, they search and search for meaning,” commented Moskowitz.

According to Dr. Jean Piaget, Swiss clinical psychologist pioneer, during the first 10 years of life, children are not capable of understanding complex issues, feelings and motives because they lack the ability to think abstractly. Therefore, in his mind, Tyler made the connection between his father not coming home and not brushing his teeth. And so the young boy brushed his teeth compulsively to prevent anyone else he loved from dying and never coming home again.

“For children, their work is play,” added Moskowitz. “It’s how children express themselves and learn. When kids are grieving, many questions surface. Play therapy gives them lots of ways to work through their grief.”

Play Therapy Activities

Just like children come in all shapes and sizes, the same can be said about play therapy activities. Here are some sample activities:

Arts and Crafts

Memory Lantern: Made from Mason jars, these lanterns are decorated with memories and pictures.

Safe Place Pillow Case: A plain white pillow case is decorated with pictures and words for children to use when they sleep.

Shattered Pot: As the starting point, a whole clay pot is shattered carefully. Each piece is labeled with an emotion, decorated and glued back together.


M&M Feelings Game: Different colored M&M candies are used to express feelings during the course of the game.

Word Game: Tiled letters are used to spell out feelings.

Feelings Jenga: The game is played normally, but when a piece is pulled out from the tower, it has an emotion listed on it. The child pulling out the block shares a story about a time when he or she experienced that emotion.

At Chapters Health System, every day is devoted to educating our patients and keeping them in the place they call home. We are dedicated to ensuring that patients, young and old alike, and their families are able to make educated decisions about important healthcare matters. For more information, please call our helpful Chapters Health team at 1.866.204.8611 or send an email to info@chaptershealth.org

Note: The name of the child in this post was changed to protect the family’s privacy.

About Phoebe Ochman

Phoebe Ochman, Director of Corporate Communications for Chapters Health System, manages all content and communications for the not-for-profit organization.

10 Book Titles to Talk About Death with Children

There are many books that explain death and dying in terms that are age appropriate for kids. The following books are just a few that can be useful resources when discussing death and dying with children, primarily for those under the age of 10:

  1. The Invisible String (child 3+)
  2. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages (child 4+)
  3. Always and Forever (child 4+)
  4. A Terrible Thing Happened (child 4+)
  5. Ghost Wings (child 5+)
  6. Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children (child 5+)
  7. The Saddest Time (children 6-9)
  8. Badger’s Parting Gifts (children 4-8)
  9. A Taste of Blackberries (children 8-12)
  10. Bridge to Terabithia (children 8-12)

One reply on “What Play Therapy Can Reveal About Children’s Grief”

  1. very educative. i wish i can get more information on how to develop play materials for sick children. I work in a children hospital.

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