101Careers in CounselingIn this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!

Counseling children and play therapy naturally go together as play is a child’s natural language. Many counselors choose to work with young children as opposed to older adolescents or adults because they enjoy helping children learn to live healthier, more joyful lives. Another factor in play therapy is that it is very creative and engaging in ways that counseling with adults may not be. Play therapy will be explored below.

Issues to Understand

Counselors providing play therapy to children will usually be working with children under the age of 12, presenting with a plethora of issues such as sexual, physical, or emotional abuse; attachment disorder; acting-out behavior; depression; hyperactivity; school problems; break up of the child’s family; and victims of bullying behavior, to cite some reasons. Young children placed in play therapy may not initially understand what therapy is about or their reasons for being there, and the counselor must be careful to explain play therapy in terms the child can understand. Counselors must also illustrate that play therapy is not “play time.” Though the child and counselor will use a number of toys, the toys are intended for therapeutic use. Therapeutic toys are available through many companies marketing their products to the counseling profession. Common “toys” are dolls, sandtrays, crayons and drawing papers, nontoxic clay, watercolors, and dinosaurs. The counselor providing play therapy will attempt to elicit through interactive play the issues the child has been dealing with. In drawing, the counselor may look on from a close distance and state things such as, “I see you have drawn a house with several people together and one person off to the side. I wonder what is going on with the person off to the side?” or “I wonder how the person off to the side is feeling at being alone?” Counselors must be careful not to lead children in play therapy, but rather to ask the child for clarification.

Best Aspects of the Job

Play therapy is very creative and provides a natural mechanism for counselors to engage children in the therapeutic milieu. Play therapy also offers the opportunity to meet the child where he or she is developmentally, in a language (play) the child can relate to. Play therapy is also likely to be less intimidating to children than a couch, chair, and question-and-answer “talk” therapy.

Challenging Aspects of the Job

Many children in play therapy have suffered serious neglect or abuse, and working full-time with such children can be emotionally challenging. Counselors providing play therapy may also struggle to get parents (or the parent or guardian) interested in the child’s treatment. Some parents, school officials, and community members may not understand that play therapy is serious work, and may see only colorful toys, paintings, and sandboxes. This occasional devaluation of the play therapists’ work by outsiders can be frustrating. Like anyone counseling children, play therapists must work to keep themselves healthy due to the emotional demands placed on them.

Occupational Outlook and Salary

Most counselors providing play therapy will work in outpatient settings, though some will work in inpatient psychiatric settings, and some play therapy counselors will work in schools, particularly elementary and middle schools and alternative schools. Salaries will vary considerably, with elementary and middle-school counselors earning the highest pay with a median salary of $57,800. Play therapy counselors in residential treatment earn a median salary of $29,950, which is considerably less. Mental health counselors working in more traditional outpatient clinics earn a median salary of $36,810. It must be mentioned that play therapy will likely be only one service the school counselor provides (e.g., academic counseling, group counseling, serving as consultant to teachers).

The occupational outlook for school counselors is 14% job growth, while job growth for mental health counselors is considerably better at 24%. (Mental health counselors are likely the largest counseling occupation working in residential psychiatric treatment centers.)