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Natural environment training vs play therapy

In applied behavior analysis, Natural Environment Training (NET) continues to be confused with the term “play therapy”. We explain the difference.

Play therapy has become a popular term for people interested in therapy techniques for children with behavioral disorders and learning disabilities. However, often times they are confusing the term “play therapy” for a common applied behavior analysis technique called Natural Environment Training (NET).

As a broad term, play therapy does not quite cover the specifics of everything a behavior analyst might be doing. Natural Environment Training, on the other hand, is heavily focused on data and outcomes, highlighting the field of applied behavior analysis’ adherence to scientific practice and evidence-based practice.

Continue reading to learn more about the difference between play therapy and natural environment training.


What is play therapy?

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) defines play therapy as “the systemic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained Play Therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”

Play therapy is not a term used in the field of applied behavior analysis. However, there are some similarities regarding the disorders it is used to treat.

Play therapy is often used for children and adolescents diagnosed with autism, but can also be used for clients with behavioral problems including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD)

It is often focused on enhancing communication skills through the natural integration of specific challenges related to these skills during a play session. For example, a play therapist (or parent) may block a child’s toy, prompting the child to communicate in some way with the therapist (or parent) in order to access the toy.

The APT has specific guidelines for people seeking to become a credentialed play therapist. A credentialed play therapist may pursue a career as one of the following:

  • Registered Play Therapist (RPT)
  • Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor (RPT-S)
  • School Based-Registered Play Therapist (SB-RPT)

In contrast to the field of applied behavior analysis, play therapy is solely focused on working with children and only focused on this one therapeutic approach (play).

Additionally, it is commonly confused with Natural Environment Training (NET), an applied behavior analysis method that can also use play as an approach to achieve desired outcomes with clients.


What is Natural Environment Training (NET)?

Often, what people refer to as play therapy is actually, technically, categorized as Natural Environment Training (NET). This is a common technique in the field of applied behavior analysis, which focuses on reinforcing positive behavior in as natural an environment as possible so that the new behavior has the greatest chance of repeating itself in real-world situations and continue over time.

NET does this by requiring a behavior analyst to objectively predefine a set of goals and targets for a client (often a child). Next, they use the client’s natural environment to facilitate learning moments such as the ability to correctly identify certain colors, shapes, or letters. Here is an example of how the goal and target may be defined:


  • Goal: Presented a toy, the learner will correctly identify the color of the toy vocally 90 percent of the time.


  • Targets: The various colors of the toys that the child will be presented and must correctly identify (i.e. red firetruck). These are varied throughout sessions.


NET is often used in teaching language, such as manding and tacting (two of Skinner’s verbal operants). Manding is requesting items or activities, such as teaching a child to request a snack. Tacting is could be labeling an object or property of the object. NET also requires that the behavior analyst meticulously track the progress (or regression) in order to identify what is working and what may need to be adjusted. This can take weeks or months but is key to providing the behavior analyst with important data points to assess. Sessions are loosely structured around natural occurring situations to increase the learner’s motivation.

In contrast with play therapy, the “natural environment” for NET can vary depending on the specific goals defined. For example, principles of NET could be applied to positively reinforce a goal of getting a child to try new foods at the dinner table. In this case, the kitchen table would become the natural environment the training is conducted in. However, play is the technique commonly used to help a client reach their goals, thus the confusion in terminology.

NET is just one technique utilizing the principles of behavior analysis to achieve desired outcomes.


Are you interested in learning more about applied behavior analysis or pursuing your degree? Check out our program page for more information. Or you can fill out the information below to request more information.


Blake C. Pinto

Blake C. Pinto, a military veteran, joined TCS Education System’s marketing department as the Advertising Copywriter in July 2017. He has previously worked for HLR Media and LC Digital Marketing in Southern California.


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