You’ve probably heard of Play Therapy by now, it’s becoming more widely known as a way to support children and young people who are struggling with emotional or behavioural difficulties. But what does a Play Therapist actually do?

As well as providing a range of toys and creative mediums for the child to engage with, Play Therapists adhere to 8 principles to ensure that they are meeting the child’s needs in therapy.

Virginia Axline is the pioneer of non-directive Play Therapy. These principles are the foundation of Play Therapy.

The Play Therapist… 

  1. Develops a warm and friendly relationship with the child. 
    • The child must feel comfortable in the relationship with their therapist to explore difficult feelings
  2. Accepts the child as she or he is.
    • Play Therapists do not judge the child’s play or behaviour. Every feeling, no matter how difficult, is accepted within the limits of the session.
  3. Establishes a feeling of permission in the relationship so that the child feels free to express his or her feelings completely.
    • When children feel free to express themselves, they can explore feelings that might normally not be accepted by other adults.
    • Often children get dismissed for exploring difficult feelings because it’s hard for the adults to bear. This can lead to feelings being numbed or children disassociating from them. In Play Therapy, every form of expression is allowed.
  4. Is alert to recognise the feelings the child is expressing and reflects these feelings back in such a manner that the child gains insight into their behaviour.
    • Play Therapists are deeply attuned to the child’s feelings and behaviour, reflecting these back helps to develop a child’s understanding of themselves as an individual
  5. Maintains a deep respect for the child’s ability to solve their own problems and gives the child the opportunity to do so.
    • The responsibility to make choices and to institute change is the child’s. The therapist sits alongside the child in the process to support this positive change and learning process.
  6. Does not attempt to direct the child’s actions or conversations in any manner. The child leads the way, the therapist follows. 
    • When we ask a child questions we are making the agenda about ourselves. In Play Therapy, we keep the agenda of the child at all times. This means that they get to choose exactly what they talk about and play with.
  7. Does not hurry the therapy along. It is a gradual process and must be recognised as such by the therapist.
    • We cannot predict how long the therapy process will take for an individual child, Play Therapists respect and keep the space for the child for as long as they need the sessions to continue. Time is the best healer for emotional wounds.
  8. Only establishes those limitations necessary to anchor the therapy to the world of reality and to make the child aware of their responsibility in the relationship.  
    • Play Therapists maintain the rules and boundaries of the therapy session to help children feel safe to explore difficult feelings in whichever way they choose – through imaginative play, role play, art, puppets, sand, music or however the child chooses.

It takes a long time to train as a Play Therapist, usually over 2 years and by delivering up to 200 hours of supervised clinical practice. Play and Creative Arts Therapists are experts in their field and undergo extensive training to become qualified as such. Training as a Play and Creative Arts Therapist is a challenging and rewarding experience, and probably one of the best decisions I ever made!

About the Author

Sophia Giblin is a Play Therapist, Play Therapy supervisor and founder of Clear Sky Children’s Charity, a UK organisation which employs a number of Play and Creative Arts Therapists to support children in schools. She is currently undertaking her MA in Practice Based Play Therapy and has a special interest in how the parent-child relationship can promote optimum wellbeing for children.

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