Ann Jernberg was a 20th century psychologist who developed a type of child therapy called Theraplay.

Professional Life

Ann M. Jernberg was born in Kiel, Germany, in 1928, and moved to the United States with her family in 1933. She earned her PhD in psychology from the University of Chicago and returned to the university in 1955 where she worked as a staff psychologist in the Department of Psychology for five years. Jernberg was the senior staff psychologist at the Michael Reese Hospital, and she also worked for the LaPorte Community Mental Health Center as chief psychologist in Indiana.

Jernberg later became the chief psychologist for the newly formed Chicago Head Start Program in 1967 and held that position until she retired in 1982. Through her years of working with children, she developed a unique form of therapy called Theraplay. This technique was targeted to families with preschool children experiencing emotional and psychological difficulties. Jernberg was founder of the Theraplay Institute located in Chicago, established in 1972, and the author of the book Theraplay: A New Program for the Treatment of Problem Children and their Families, published in 1979. The Theraplay Institute continues as a source of treatment and training for thousands of people, and satellite locations have opened in Canada, Australia, Germany, and Argentina.

Jernberg raised two daughters with her late husband, Peter Jernberg, in Indiana. Jernberg later married Theodore Hurst and moved back to Chicago. She died in 1993.

Contribution to Psychology

As chief psychologist for the Chicago Head Start program, Jernberg was given the task of identifying children in need of mental health services and referring them to other facilities for treatment. Due to the lack of mental health services available to children at the time, Jernberg realized the necessity for a therapeutic method that could be implemented at the Head Start Centers in order to meet the needs of the large volume of children in the area.

With this in mind, Jernberg developed Theraplay, which began initially as an outreach program. The method is specifically designed for troubled children who have disrupted attachments or a history of traumatic experiences. Jernberg and her staff recruited outgoing, friendly people to learn the technique and deliver an attachment-based play therapy directly to children at the schools. Eventually, the Theraplay Institute was created, with an emphasis on training and administering the Theraplay method. Theraplay is recognized as an innovative and effective form of therapy and is used worldwide to treat children suffering from mental health issues, including orphans in war torn regions, victims of national disasters, and AIDS victims, among others.

Theraplay attempts to model healthy attachments and interactions between parents and their children. The therapist helps the parent to develop a warm, nurturing relationship with the child, focusing on affirming the child and his or her strengths. The model strongly emphasizes engagement and playfulness and works to help children overcome trauma by encouraging play and healthy relationships.


  1. Kates, Michael. (1993, July 28). Ann M. Jernberg, Former Head Start Psychologist. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from
  2. Robison, M., Lindaman, S. L., Clemmons, M. P., Doyle-buckwalter, K., & Ryan, M. (2009). "I deserve a family": The evolution of an adolescent's behavior and beliefs about himself and others when treated with theraplay in residential care. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 26(4), 291-306. doi: