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Play Therapy

Play therapy is used to diagnose and treat psychological problems in children, allowing them to make sense of and articulate emotions and events that they may have trouble expressing.

Various play and Creative Arts techniques are often utilised to assist practitioners in understanding certain behavioural tendencies. The approach offers an alternative medium from which the young can find a way of expressing their feelings.


The importance of play in children’s development has been well documented. It can actually be traced back to the works of Greek Philosopher Plato who suggested that one ‘could discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.’

19th century educational reformist, Friedrich Froebel also recognised its importance, especially when combined with learning. Many of his theories are expounded in The Education of Man (1903).

Its use as a therapeutic tool was first acknowledged by Sigmund Freud following his work with a five-year old boy named Little Hans. Freud demonstrated that play could be used to illustrate a child’s conscious and unconscious wishes and fears – this was the first recorded example of therapeutic play.

Freud’s student, Melanie Klein, a leading proponent of child psychology, was one of the main founders of the modern approach. Beginning with the psychoanalysis of her own children, Klein developed and refined play therapy techniques as a means of uncovering children’s unconscious motivations.

She found that through the use of play, children were able to project their feelings and anxieties. This non-verbal behaviour was therefore seen as a window into the child’s unconscious.

During the 1960s Virginia Axline developed the approach further by adapting Carl Roger’s person-centred theories for work with children. The result was Non-Directive Play Therapy which encourages children to direct their own emotional processes with the use of toys. This approach has had a large impact on the practice of Child Therapy over the last thirty years.


It’s generally used for children from the ages of 3 and 11. Short-term intervention is often effective and can last for up to 10 sessions. However, more sessions may be required according to the nature of the problem and how long it has persisted.

Before-hand, the practitioner will consult the parent(s) about their concerns and try to learn about family issues or problems that have occurred or are ongoing. In most cases therapy sessions are non-directive, enabling the child to express their feelings in a self-guided process.

During sessions practitioners will assess how the child interacts with objects during play. Patterns will also be observed as well as the willingness of the child to interact with the therapist. Much emphasis is placed on providing a favourable environment that helps put the child at ease.

Play therapists often have a large collection of items from which a child may choose. These may include dressing up props, arts/crafts materials, dolls, soft toys and puppets. All of these are intended to help the child with non-verbal expression.

How can Play Therapy help?

The approach has been used to help children deal with problems such as divorce and bereavement. It is also suitable for adolescents and adults in certain instances, especially those who have difficulty in making sense of, or expressing their emotions. Additionally, play therapy has proved effective for sufferers of verbal impairment.

Useful Play Therapy Resources