What is Play Therapy?
Play Therapy is an effective therapy that helps children modify their behaviours, clarify their self-concept and build healthy relationships. In Play Therapy, children enter into a dynamic relationship with the therapist that enables them to express, explore and make sense of their difficult and painful experiences. Play Therapy helps children find healthier ways of communicating, develop fulfilling relationships, increase resiliency and facilitate emotional literacy.
Children use play as a form of communication. So often children referred to Play Therapy do not have the words to describe their thoughts, feelings and perceptions of their internal and external world.
What do Play Therapists do?
Play therapists work with children aged between three and eleven years of age, and occasionally adolescents, suffering from a range of psychological difficulties and complex life experiences. Psychological difficulties include depression, anxiety, aggression, learning difficulties and ADHD. Difficult life experiences include abuse, grief, family breakdown, domestic violence and trauma. A professionally trained play therapist helps a child to increase insight, to decrease internal conflict and to increase resiliency, coping and emotional literacy. Play therapists work closely with the child’s parents/carers throughout the play therapy intervention and occasionally undertake parent-child relationship interventions.
A Brief History of Play Therapy
The use of play in therapy was first elucidated by the pioneers of Child Psychotherapy. Anna Freud (1928, 1964, 1965), Margaret Lowenfeld (1935, 1970) and Melanie Klein (1961, 1987) posited the theoretical premise for the use of play, for example, Klein (1961, 1987) stipulated that a child’s spontaneous play was a substitute for the free association used within adult psychoanalysis.
Theories and practice surrounding play differ within each Child Psychotherapy tradition. However, each tradition is connected by the central proposition that play transmits and communicates the child’s experiences, desires, thoughts and emotions.
Play Therapy has emerged from elements of Child Psychotherapy, the specific theoretical foundations emerged from the Humanistic Psychology tradition.
In the 1940s, Carl Rogers (1951, 1955) established a new model of psychotherapy – client centred therapy (later termed person centred therapy). This new tradition was born as a protest against the diagnostic, prescriptive perspectives of that time. Emphasis was placed upon a relationship between therapist and client based upon genuineness, acceptance and trust.
Largely influenced by this person centred approach, Axline (1969, 1971) developed a new therapeutic approach for working with children – non directive Play Therapy. Utilising the person centred theoretical foundations, Axline devised a clear and succinct Play Therapy theory and method.
For over 50 years, Play Therapy has been practised and researched within America. In Britain, Play Therapy started to emerge as a new and differing tradition in the 1980’s. In 1992, the British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT) was started by a group of professionals studying at the Institute of Dramatherapy. Since then BAPT has developed the British Play Therapy movement and currently validates Masters level training courses in the UK. The training courses are founded upon a non-directive Play Therapy approach (informed by Axline’s theory and methods).
Play Therapy is increasingly recognised as an effective psychological intervention for children. Although very widely used in America since the Second World War (Play Therapy is the most commonly used psychological intervention for children, with many thousands of US Clinical Psychologists utilising its wide application), it is relatively new to Britain.
Play Therapy is currently defined by BAPT as:
‘…the dynamic process between child and Play Therapist in which the child explores at his or her own pace and with his or her own agenda those issues, past and current, conscious and unconscious, that are affecting the child’s life in the present. The child’s inner resources are enabled by the therapeutic alliance to bring about growth and change. Play Therapy is child-centred, in which play is the primary medium and speech is the secondary medium.’
Play Therapy Standards
Regulating practice and conduct is a key element to the work of the British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT).
Registered Play Therapists agree to abide by the Ethical Basis for Good Practice in Play Therapy as a condition of their registration. The Ethical Basis for Good Practice in Play Therapy is the benchmark of good practice for all BAPT registered Play Therapists. Clinical supervision from an experienced Play Therapist is a BAPT requirement for good practice. Play Therapists who breach the codes of practice could be removed from the register through the complaints procedure.
Play Therapy Career Case Studies
Julie – A Play Therapist in the NHS
Simon – A Play Therapist in Social Services
Sonnhild – A Play Therapist in Education
Kath – An Independent Play Therapist
Mary – a Play Therapist in an Assessment and Treatment Facility
Theoretical Foundations in Play Therapy
Play Therapy shares Person Centred Therapy’s emphasis upon the client as trustworthy. Play Therapy is based upon three critical theoretical principles:
Actualisation – Humans are motivated by an innate tendency to develop constructive and healthy capacities. This tendency is to actualise each person’s inner potentials, including aspects of creativity, curiosity and the desire to become more effective and autonomous.
The Need for Positive Regard – All people require warmth, respect and acceptance from others, especially from ‘significant others’. As children grow and develop, this need for positive regard transforms into a secondary, learned need for positive self regard.
Play as Communication – Children use play as their primary medium of communication. Play is a format for transmitting children’s emotions, thoughts, values and perceptions. It is a medium that is primarily creative.
Psychological health is defined as a child’s ability to achieve a level of psychological freedom that allows a full potential use of their talents, abilities and a movement towards a more complete knowledge of themselves and their experiences. Psychological health is maintained by the self concept remaining congruent with the child’s experiences. The child’s developing self concept may be enabled by unconditional positive regard from significant others. This in turn develops a positive self concept that is a pre-requisite to psychological health.