What is Play Therapy?
Play Therapy is a specialised form of counselling or psychotherapy that is designed specifically for children. Play is the natural form of communication for children. Children and young people, due to their stage of development or past experiences often struggle to express themselves fully through speech and, even if they could, the prospect of a ‘talking therapy’ can be frightening or confusing.
Within Play Therapy, the toys, musical instruments and creative media act as the child’s ‘words’ thus enabling the child to communicate their thoughts and feelings about their lived experiences in a manner that provides them with a sense of safety and control: through the metaphor of play, the child is distanced from the reality of their world and does not feel threatened or interrogated. Your child’s Play Therapist will be trained to work at your child’s pace and respond to your child’s play in a manner that builds your child’s self-esteem and self-agency.
Through Play Therapy, children can:
make sense of what they have experienced;
experiment with problem solving;
gain a sense of control and mastery over events that have left them feeling scared and confused;
learn to identify and regulate their emotions; and
develop relationship skills, such as trust, empathy and cooperation.
“Play Therapy is 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-centered, in which play is the primary medium and speech is the secondary medium.” (BAPT, 2018)
Play Therapy is based on Carl Roger’s principles of person-centered counselling, developed in the 1950’s, in North America. His therapeutic approach was later developed for child therapy by Virginia Axline: it is focused around eight key principles:
The Play Therapist must develop a warm, friendly relationship with the child, in which good rapport is established as soon as possible.
The Play Therapist accepts the child exactly as they are.
The Play Therapist establishes a feeling of permissiveness in the relationship so that the child feels free to express their feelings completely.
The Play Therapist is alert to recognise the feelings the child is expressing and reflects those feelings back to them in such a manner that they gain insight into their behaviour.
The Play Therapist maintains a deep respect for the child's ability to solve their own problems if given an opportunity to do so. The responsibility to make choices and to institute change is the child's.
The Play Therapist does not attempt to direct the child’s actions or conversations in any manner. The child leads the way: the Play Therapist follows.
The Play Therapist does not attempt to hurry the therapy along. It is a gradual process and is recognised as such by the Play Therapist.
The Play Therapist establishes only those limitations that are necessary to anchor the therapy to the world of reality and to make the child aware of their responsibility in the relationship.
Who Can Benefit from Play Therapy?
Most children between 4 – 11 years can benefit from Play Therapy. Play Therapy may also be appropriate for children slightly younger or older than this age range, depending on the individual’s development and needs.
Play Therapists are asked to support children experiencing a whole range of difficulties, including: anxiety; low self-esteem; friendship difficulties or bullying; nightmares; emotional and behavioural regulation difficulties; illness; family breakdown; bereavement and loss; developmental trauma; abuse and attachment difficulties.
Each child is unique and responds differently to the challenges they face in life. Particularly now, when we are being exposed to news about the war in Ukraine, and having experienced all the fear and changes associated with the Covid lockdown restrictions, our world may seem a confusing and unsafe place for many children. Sometimes these, and other challenges, might lead to a child having negative feelings (e.g. sadness or anxiety) or a change in their behaviour (e.g. inattentive, difficulties with friendship). You may have concerns regarding a change in the child’s eating, sleeping or toileting habits.
Play Therapy offers emotional support for children, helping them to understand more about their thoughts and feelings.
The outcome of a Play Therapy intervention might be quite general (e.g. a reduction in anxiety or increased self-esteem) or more specific (e.g. a reduction in aggressive behaviour or improvements in relationships).
When Might Play Therapy not be Appropriate?
Play Therapy offers children the chance to explore, make sense of and come to terms with negative emotions and memories of painful life events.
During this process, as with any therapeutic change, it is likely that your child might feel vulnerable and a little preoccupied with their thoughts: it is possible that your child might demonstrate some regression to an earlier developmental stage, or find it more difficult to regulate their emotions at this time. Therefore, Play Therapy might not be appropriate if the child’s support system (parents, carers, etc.) were not resourced to meet any short-term changes in the child’s behaviours sensitively. Similarly, it might not be appropriate to begin a Play Therapy intervention if the child’s home or school environment was about to, or was in the process of, transition.
Very occasionally, a Play Therapist might advise you that the child’s current stage of cognitive development, their medical condition or their history of abuse may mean that Play Therapy might not be the optimum therapeutic support for this child at this time. In this situation, your Play Therapist should be able to signpost you of other forms of support that would be better matched to your child’s needs.
How do I Select the Right Play Therapist for my Child?
To find a Play Therapist, it is really important to do your research: ensure that your Play Therapist has the right qualifications and experience to work with your child’s needs!
There are many organisations offering training in Play Therapy but they are not all of the same quality. Too add to the confusion, ‘Play Therapist’ is not a protected title, so anyone could claim they are a Play Therapist, with or without training.
Both The British Association of Play Therapists, or BAPT, (formed 1992), and Play Therapy UK, or PTUK, (formed 2000), are the two main organisations that offer in-depth professional training. They offer Masters level training to ensure that Play Therapists are at the forefront of research and excellent practice in the UK. Both organisations have clear guidelines around expectations for ethical practice: both offer an online register of approved Play Therapists who have both completed their initial training and provided evidence annually of ongoing continued professional development. Both organisations offer you the reassurance that you have somewhere to go in the unlikely event that you had any concerns or grievance with your Play Therapist.
In addition to an appropriate Play Therapy qualification, registration with a reputable Play Therapy / Therapeutic professional organisation, eg British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy, (BACP), or UK Council for Psychotherapy, (UKCP), alongside BAPT and PTUK, and relevant previous professional experience, it is important to ensure that your Play Therapist has:
a current Disclosure and Barring Service Certificate (this ensures that your therapist does not have any previous criminal convictions that would make him/her unsafe to work with children);
Professional Civil Liability Insurance; and
an Information Commissioner’s Office Certificate (this ensures that any data your therapist holds is stored safely and meets with General Data Protection Regulations).
You can check search for qualified Play Therapists through the registers held by each professional organisation:
British Association of Paly Therapists (BAPT)
Play Therapy UK (PTUK)
British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)
UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
You should feel confident to ask any Play Therapist to see their professional qualifications and relevant certificates.
Your Play Therapist should offer a free, no obligation phone call to have a conversation about the child’s particular needs and whether Play Therapy might be the right intervention for the child at this time.
Your Play Therapist should explain:
how often they would plan to hold Play Therapy sessions (these are usually weekly);
how long Play Therapy sessions last (these are usually 45-50 minutes);
how and when they will communicate the child’s therapeutic progress to parents, carers and other referrers;
give guidance on how best to support the child outside the Play Therapy sessions – usually at home and at school;
what data they will need to hold regarding the child, how this will be stored securely and when this might be shared in the event of a safeguarding concern;
how you may contact your Play Therapist if you have any concerns between Play Therapy sessions; and
the importance of a planned ending in Play Therapy.
The Play Therapist might not be able to let you know exactly how many sessions your child would be likely to need before the sessions start but they will be able to give you clarity on how often progress will be reviewed with you.
Some Play Therapists have their own specially dedicated Play Rooms (these are often within the Play Therapist’s home), whereas others may travel to the child (and offer sessions in school or a family hub): occasionally, some therapists might offer therapeutic sessions within the home environment. It is worth discussing this at the start of your exploration as there are pros, cons and possibly expenses associated with the different options.
Most Play Therapists would want to meet with your child before any therapeutic intervention was agreed to. This gives the child the chance to meet their Play Therapist and make sure that they are in agreement with the Play Therapy intervention being suggested: it also gives your Play Therapist the opportunity to observe the child play (which will help them in assessing your child’s social, emotional and cognitive development).