Virginia Axline was a 20th century psychologist who pioneered the use of play therapy, which remains a popular method for treating children.

Professional Life

In 1964, Axline published a revolutionary and inspiring true story called Dibs in Search of Self. The book chronicled her therapeutic relationship with a five year-old boy who appeared withdrawn and uncommunicative. Though his parents suspected autism or severe mental retardation to be the cause of his behavior, Dibs emerged to find himself through play therapy over the course of several months. When he developed the necessary skills to show his true self to the world, Axline realized that he was a genius with an IQ of 168. The methods that Axline used to interact with Dibs are identified and explained in this revolutionary, first-hand account. The book has become a part of curriculum at many universities and graduate schools and is still hailed as one of the most influential books in the field of play therapy. Axline authored several other books during her illustrious career.

Axline began to explore play therapy in the early 1940s and eventually developed her own technique of non-directive play therapy. Her core principles and theories were created from the person-centered approach developed by Carl Rogers.

Contribution to Psychology

Virginia M. Axline is best known for her influence on play therapy. Play therapy is based on nonverbal communication through play. It strives to facilitate healing, as well as psychological and behavioral changes in clients who are most often children. The goal is to afford the child the opportunity for self-development, growth, and social integration. Often times, play therapy is a vehicle for diagnosis. A therapist can gain a deep understanding of a child’s underlying issues by observing the child’s play and assessing the interaction between child and therapist. Both structured and unstructured play is encouraged in order to provide the child with the opportunity for proper behavioral and cognitive development.

A common technique used in play therapy is desensitization. This method is aimed at helping a child reprogram disruptive behaviors and is applied not only to children, but also to other people who are otherwise verbally or cognitively challenged.

Axline worked extensively to develop her non-directive approach to play therapy, in which she identified eight distinct, core principles:

  1. The therapeutic relationship must be engaging and inviting, providing warmth and rapport at the earliest possible moment.
  2. The child must be unconditionally accepted by the therapist.
  3. The therapeutic environment must be nonjudgmental in order for the child to feel uninhibited in the expression of emotions, feelings, and behaviors.
  4. The therapist must be attentive and cognizant of the child’s behaviors in order to provide reflective behaviors back to the child so that he or she may develop self-awareness.
  5. The therapist relies on the child’s ability to find solutions, when available, to his or her own problems and understands that the child is solely responsible for the transformational choices he or she makes or does not make.
  6. The therapist acts as the shadow, allowing the child to lead the therapeutic journey through dialogue and actions.
  7. The therapist recognizes that the procedure is one that is steady and should progress at its own pace, not a pace set by the therapist.
  8. The only limitations and boundaries that are set are ones that ensure the therapeutic process stay genuine and that the child remains in the realm of reality, aware of his or her purpose and role in the therapy.

Controversies and Criticism of Play Therapy

The approach of play therapy is still debated. Many experts believe that it is not possible to deliver any therapy through non-directive means. Therapy, in general, is designed to be directive for the purpose of methodology, boundaries, and safety. But in play therapy, the therapist should strive to be non-directive relative to interpretation, exploration, and solution. In addition, children, like adults, are receptive to various approaches to treatment and there is not one singular technique that will help all children.