First of all, I want to take this opportunity to welcome new readers of my blog. I hope you all find my musings and opinions informative and useful. As Mummypages' Play Therapy and Child Psychology Expert, it is important for me to set the record straight on what play therapy is and why parents should only seek such therapy from a reputable professional with the appropriate qualifications and experience. Before you dismiss it as some sort of ‘hippy notion’, be assured that statistically-sound empirical research provides support for the effectiveness of this approach (Lin & Bratton, 2015).
When we think of therapy, we immediately think of an adult sitting down discussing their insecurities and fears to a suited man, usually with a beard, who takes notes and provides feedback. There are a myriad of reasons why this approach does not work with young children, which are too plentiful and obvious to mention. However, one of the most important points is that young children do not have the ability to understand their own minds or the language to express their negative emotions to adults. As such, therapy with children is often undertaken through the medium of play, which has been recognized as a means of therapy since Plato (429-347 B.C.) who stipulated, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation” (Axline, 1950). It was Carl Rogers who developed non-directive therapy or ‘client-centered therapy’ (Rogers, 1951), which describes how the child leads their own journey through play and is never prompted by the practitioner. Virgina Axline (1950) then added to this knowledge by constructing eight principals, which every play therapist abides by.
1. Establish good rapport
This describes how the child begins their journey through therapy and involves the therapist coming down to the child and meeting them at their level. This means that the therapist mirrors the energy level and tone of the child, as well as remaining non-intrusive and approachable.
2. Accept the child exactly as she or he is
Good therapeutic play practitioners are adept at accepting the child in a non-judgmental style that communicates patience, understanding and capability to the child. It is important that the child understands they are welcome to attend with all of their emotional baggage.
3. Establish a feeling of permissiveness in the relationship such that the child feels free to express her or his feelings fully
While in the therapeutic session, children are encouraged to play with whatever toys or in whatever fashion they want to. Everything is made readily available and there are no boundaries around paint, water or sand. The messier, the better! It is through this non-directive method of communication that children derive a sense of control and expression.
4. Identify the emotions the child is revealing, and reflect these same emotions back so that the child gains awareness of his/her own behaviour
One of the most important aspects to understand about play therapy is that the child is an active agent in the process. As a result, it is vital that the practitioner relays their understanding of the child’s emotion so they can begin to work on what has been uncovered.
5. Maintain a deep respect for the child's ability to solve his or her own problems if given an opportunity; the duty to make choices and to instigate change is the child’s
Rather than give children the solution to their issues, it is far more effective for practitioners to create the scenario whereby children are empowered to work through their own issues. This gifts the child the ability to solve similar issues in the future, rather than simply offering a quick fix.
6. Do not attempt to direct the child's actions or conversation in any manner
The ‘non-directive’ nature of play therapy is revolutionary in its approach as it allows for the child to follow an almost infinite amount of paths through expression. Toys and crafts are readily available but are not presented in any biased way, while all play and talk is guided solely by the child. This allows the child to have complete control over their therapy.
7. Do not hurry the therapy, which is regarded as gradual
It can often take a few sessions for children to become comfortable with a new situation and person, which is completely understandable. Often, children with the most difficult issues can take longer to trus,t and this is why therapeutic advances are never rushed. The child is fully respected.
8. Establish only those limitations that are necessary to anchor the therapy in the ‘real world’ and to make the child aware of his/her responsibility in the relationship
Although the therapy is child-directed, it is important for him/her to stay connected to the world of reality in some way. As such, children cannot become immersed in fantasy, which may not be reflective of their world. These limitations may not need to be established for every child.
Play therapy or ‘therapeutic play’ is one of the many services we offer in-house at my Sugru centres in Athlone and Athenry and to a number of schools in the Midlands and West. I coined the name “Sugru Child Development and Contextualized Play Therapy Services” for the centre as a way of communicating that all therapy work conducted by my team of accredited and highly trained professionals is done in the context of the family. This is extremely important as no one child or parent exists outside of the influence of their family, the one consistent point of care and nurture.
Axline, V. (1950). Entering the child's world via play experiences. Progressive Education, 27, 68-75.
Lin, Y. & Bratton, S. C. (2015). A Meta-Analytic Review of Child-Centered Play Therapy Approaches. Journal of Counseling & Development, 93(1), 45-58.
Rogers, C. (1951). Client-Centered Therapy. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.