Non-Directive Play Therapy

Play Therapy

Virginia Axline (who wrote Dibs: in Search of Self) was one of the first to use play therapy as a means of helping children and adolescents come to terms with issues that were troubling them. 

Play Therapy facilitates the development of self-control, self-responsibility, and appropriate self-esteem. 

Modern non-directive play therapy (NDPT) is based on Carl Rogers’ person-centred therapy and theories of child development, including attachment theory. 

In this mode of play therapy, the child is offered a safe and consistent environment together with a safe and consistent relationship with the play therapist. All feelings are accepted and are explored symbolically and/or explicitly, depending on how the child or young person is able to use play therapy. Not all behaviour is acceptable, so the therapist sets firm and consistent therapy

Within sessions the child chooses how to spend the time. The play therapist offers the core conditions of unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence. She does not make direct interpretations to the child but remains within the play metaphor, unless the child makes a link to "the real world". But to herself, both during and beween sessions, the therapist forms interpretive hypotheses about the meaning of the child's activities. These enable her to focus of the child's issues and work with the child toward resolution.

When a child or young person (between the ages of 3 and 16) comes into play therapy, a great deal of work goes into the preparation stage: the therapist needs to gather detailed referral information about the child and family. 

If play therapy is judged suitable, the play therapist meets with the parent(s)/carer(s) to explain their role in the intervention, to answer questions about play therapy and to discuss practical details. 

The play therapist asks them to tell her about the child.  It is important to establish a working alliance at this stage, so that the parents/carers and therapist are cooperating in order to help the child.  Parents/carers are encouraged to think of the intervention as an opportunity for change and growth, not only for the child but for all the members of the family: “Think of your child as needing space to grow into, maybe struggling a bit,  and how you can be flexible and ready to change things too?.  Parent guidance sessions are offered to some families in order to support the work. 

To say “struggle? implies hard work, and children in play therapy do work hard, yet at the same time, they choose how to spend their hourly sessions. The child is given a taste of this at her first meeting with the therapist, usually in her home with a parent/carer present.  After that she normally comes to the playroom once a week, while a parent/carer remains in a waiting area. 

The child is free to talk, remain silent, play alone or involve the therapist. The play therapist is warm, accepting, genuine, open, and responsive to the child’s emotions. 

All feelings are accepted but not all behaviour. The play therapist sets limits to keep the child and herself physically and emotionally safe. Because of the prior knowledge of the child’s probable issues, the play therapist is alert to possible links between the child’s play and emotional conflicts. 

A sword fight, for instance, may be about competing with friends for Thomas, about anger toward a family member for William, or about defeating the monster for Carol.  The child is unlikely to say so, and the play therapist does not make an interpretation to the child either.  So, “Looks like you’re angry with mum? would not be appropriate, unless the child said so during the play, but, “Feeling angry, wanting to hit back? might be, if that were the child’s feeling at the time. 

Of course, not all play is about aggression.  Laughter, relaxation and creativity are almost always present.  It is always a privilege to be alongside children while they play out their innermost difficulties, things that could not be put into words even perhaps by adults, and to support them in the process of finding some resolution.  It is thrilling when, “Even his handwriting has improved,? or, “She is back to her usual happy self, and we can talk more too, “ or as one dad said, “I don’t know about Mark having changed but I think I have more!?

Connections Counselling Ltd   (Registered in England: No.4361171) 
8 Grafton Road, King's Lynn, Norfolk, PE30 3HA, UK 
Tel/Fax +44 (0)7050 694775/6  
© Nina Rye 2001-2006




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