An Overview of Nondirective Play Therapy

Girl pretending to be a chefNondirective play therapy is a counseling method used to help children communicate their inner experiences through the use of toys and play. Nondirective play therapy, also called child-centered play therapy, is a nonpathologizing technique based on the belief that children have the internal drive to achieve wellness.

Play Therapy Process

Nondirective play therapists are trained to trust that children are capable of directing their own process rather than the therapist imposing their own ideas of what the child needs to do in therapy to work through any challenges they may be facing. This requires the therapist to enter the emotional world of the child rather then expecting the child to understand the therapist’s world, which is beyond their capabilities. Play therapy is based on the theory that play is a child’s language, the toys in the playroom considered the words a child uses to express their inner experiences and how they perceive and experience the world. The toys in the playroom are then used by the child to speak to the therapist and communicate their inner thoughts and feelings. Within a play session, and over the course of sessions, themes emerge in the child’s play, giving the therapist insight into the child’s experiences, thoughts, feelings, and interpretations of their world.

Nondirective play therapy is based on respect for the child and confidence in his or her ability to direct his or her own process. It requires that the therapist maintain unconditional acceptance and positive regard for the child. Because children do not typically have the cognitive and language skills to communicate their emotional experiences, by observing a child’s play sequences and play themes, the therapist can gain great insight into the child’s inner world. By creating a safe, free, and protected space, the child is provided the opportunity to work through deeper emotional fears, wounds, and experiences. Children are given permission to express themselves in whatever way they are comfortable and are not required to speak, which often feels intimidating and scary to a child.

“The play therapy process can be viewed as a relationship between the therapist and the child in which the child utilizes play to explore his or her personal world and also to make contact with the therapist in a way that is safe for the child. Play therapy provides an opportunity for children to live out, during play, experiences and associated feelings. This process allows the therapist to experience, in a personal and interactive way, the inner dimensions of the child’s world. This therapeutic relationship is what provides dynamic growth and healing for the child.” (Landreth & Bratton, 2001).

Insight Through Play

It is not uncommon for children to express their inner thoughts and feelings in a maladaptive way at home or school because of their inability to articulate their experiences. They communicate emotional distress through behavior. By reflecting a child’s process and feelings expressed in play and play themes, the therapist begins to give the child a vocabulary of feelings. More importantly, by reflecting the child’s play and emotions, the therapist makes children feel understood and validated. The children experience a connection with the therapist that is often different from any other relationship they have. It is through this relationship and the therapist’s ability to communicate with the child that a child feels safe, understood, and validated, and begins to gain confidence.

Children often misinterpret their world and experiences, which can lead to fears, anxieties, and misbehaviors. A common example of this is when parents separate or divorce and a child interprets this as something he or she has caused. As a result of this belief, a child may exhibit anxiety, depression, insecurity, or defiance. A trained play therapist is able to interpret the child’s play and the themes that emerge so that a reworking of these experiences can occur. As a child gains a sense of safety and realizes that the therapist will not react or respond in ways others might have, they begin to go deeper in their process. They will begin to play out deeper issues and verbalize their thoughts and feelings to the therapist. Often this working through occurs through the metaphor of the toys, and the therapist can engage in a dialogue through the metaphor, helping the child understand and rework the problem. When children are provided a safe and protected environment they will communicate their inner experiences, worries, conflicts, and needs.

“By acting out through play a frightening or traumatic experience or situation symbolically, and perhaps changing or reversing the outcome in the play activity, children move toward an inner resolution, and then they are better able to cope with or adjust to problems.” (Landreth & Bratton, 2001)

For example, Mary, a six year-old girl whose parents have just divorced has been experiencing extreme anxiety. As the therapist works with her, the themes that begin to emerge are caretaking. Mary engages in a play sequence with a horse family. She begins to play out the baby horse, protecting and comforting the mommy horse. By engaging in conversation with the baby horse, the therapist can let her know that it is not her job to protect and take care of the mommy horse. That mommy horses know how to do that for themselves. They can then discuss how the baby horse might feel if it knows it doesn’t have to take care of the mommy horse anymore and what it might do instead.

This is an example of how toys provide safe objects for a child to play out their internal experiences in a symbolic manner. The toys provide enough distance and safety from their own feelings and reactions that they can express them through the use of the toys and their play. The therapist can enter into the metaphor of the child’s play to gain additional insight and help them rework scenarios that are parallel to challenges they may be experiencing in their life.

Limits and Boundaries in Play Therapy

A list of rules is reviewed at the initiation of therapy. If a child breaks a rule—throwing sand, trying to break a toy—then a limit is set: “I know it’s fun to throw sand, but the sand is not for throwing. You can play with it in the sand trays and toss it from hand to hand, or you can throw a ball.”

Children require limits and boundaries in any relationship to feel safe and accepted. The relationship between a child and play therapist is no different. The therapeutic relationship established in play therapy is one of trust and acceptance, in which the child is valued, but it is not without boundaries.

During a child’s play time, they are allowed to be messy and are encouraged to explore; doing something in a specific or directed way is not required. The therapist in no way controls what the child does or how they do it. Limits are set if they are doing harm to themselves, the toys, or the therapist. Limits are set if and when they are needed in order to help the child learn responsibility of self and self-control. Limits are set in a way that validates the child’s feelings and desires, communicates the limit, and gives alternatives: “I know you would like to take that rock home with you. But it has to stay in the play room so it will be here for you next time. You can take the picture you made with you.” This then allows the child to learn the concept of self-control and making choices, rather than an adult attempting to control the child’s behavior.

Implications of Play Therapy

Play therapy has been widely researched as an effective and developmentally appropriate method for working with children dealing with the following types of concerns, among others: depression, grief and loss, social adjustment problems, speech difficulties, trauma, hospitalization, reading difficulties, selective mutism, enuresis and encopresis problems, fear and anxiety, abuse and neglect, aggression/acting out behaviors, attachment difficulties, autism, chronic illness and disability, and parental separation or divorce.

Scheduling a consistent appointment time each week is helpful in providing consistency and predictability for the child who enters play therapy. This also provides continuity and more efficient treatment. Eventually, the play therapist will begin to spread out sessions, making them less frequent, when a child begins to exhibit signs of improvement.

© Copyright 2009 by Leslie Petruk. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gorby

    Gorby

    November 11th, 2009 at 3:16 AM

    Nothing can be a better technique for children than the one that involves toys… this way the child is not negative about the technique and would most probably enjoy himself through the technique.

  • Sharon

    Sharon

    November 11th, 2009 at 7:58 AM

    Play therapy is such a valuable tool for children and therapists to use when working together to resolve a crisis. I am so thankful that there are those who continue to benefit from this and who have made it their life’s work to help children in need in this way.

  • snape

    snape

    November 11th, 2009 at 3:36 PM

    Its the first time I’m hearing of this therapy, but it sure sounds like a much better way to diagnose and treat children rather than using the usual medical procedures, which might not be suited for children.

  • Heather

    Heather

    October 28th, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    I am an LAPC and am currently in supervision for full licensure as LPC and a Certified Play Therapist. This is a wonderful modality for working with children and adults! It is ideal for those who have a difficult time identifying their feelings, thoughts, experiences due to guilt/shame, lack of experience doing so, introversion, trauma, sensory / processing challenges, etc.,, etc…

  • Leslie

    Leslie

    October 29th, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    Heather,

    Thank you for your comments. I totally agree — I use play therapy and sand tray therapy with both children and adults. Teenagers particularly like it! It’s a very powerful way of entering a child’s world (or connecting with the child parts of an adult) rather then expecting them to enter our world of verbal/talk therapy which is not developmentally appropriate.

    Warmly,

    Leslie

  • Terri

    Terri

    December 8th, 2013 at 9:32 AM

    Thanks for the excellent article re Play Therapy, but as a Registered Play Therapist -Supervisor, I encourage you to seek registration. Having the credentials adds power to your voice! So many therapists use “play therapy techniques” but it rings a bit shallow when there is no follow through in seeking verification for area of expertise! Thanks again, though, for bringing Play Therapy forth as the best method of treatment for children and an enhancement to therapy for teens,adults and families!

  • Leslie

    Leslie

    January 29th, 2014 at 8:09 PM

    Terri – I actually have met all of the requirements for my RPT but haven’t completed the paperwork – having children and growing my counseling practice seemed to get in the way. I’ve been specifically trained (under Dr. Linda Homeyer) in play therapy and have been doing play therapy for 18 years. I am a member of The Association for Play Therapy as well.

  • Pamela

    Pamela

    March 9th, 2015 at 9:29 AM

    Hello. My daughter has currently been going through play therapy for approximately 10 sessions. She is a very outspoken, almost eight-year-old girl. She continually says that the counselor and her don’t really talk. The other child’s set of parents constantly threatens this child to not talk about them to the counselor. With a normally very verbal child, how do you know if this particular counseling is helping the child or simply working up a bill? This little girl desperately needs help!

  • mpalinziza imelda

    mpalinziza imelda

    July 20th, 2015 at 9:10 AM

    Play therapy has helped me in the class am teaching.

  • Kate

    Kate

    February 15th, 2018 at 2:18 AM

    Really enjoyed the article, I am currently in the process of writing my dissertation and found this very useful and helpful. What book was used for the article please?

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