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  • Writer's pictureFiona Holiday

Play Therapy 101 (Part One)


I'm often asked what play therapy is, and my answer varies from a few to a few thousand words. To begin to answer this, I think it helps to know the principles which underpin the practice of therapeutic play.

Every discipline is built on the foundations of a few great thinkers and practitioners - think the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, Steiner, Montessori, Vygostsky (to name a very few) for educators. In the non-directive, holistic and integrated approach I follow, Virginia Mae Axline is my touchstone.

You may be familiar with her most famous work, "Dibs In Search of Self" written in 1964 and highly influential across education and psychotherapy. It is an account of a "brilliant, lonely child trapped in a prison of fear and rage, a prison from which only he could release himself. And through psychotherapy and love, he did". (taken from the blurb on the back of the 1972 Pelican edition).

Axline drew up Eight Basic Principles of Play Therapy which guide my practice. These eight principles are, in fact, not bad principles to guide most work with children. Let's start with the first four. She tells us that the therapist:

1.Must develop a warm and friendly relationship with the child.

Let's not be afraid of the idea of warmth and love when working with children - after all, how can you feel safe when you have no idea how the person you are with feels about you? And until we feel safe, we're not going to risk anything...

2.Accepts the child as he or she is.

So often we have the experience of feeling that how we are is not how we are supposed to be. Our behaviours, feelings, appearance, existence can be challenged. So when a child walks through the door of my therapy room however they are is ok. If they are silent, I do not expect them to speak. If they are talkative and animated, that is ok too. We all need to know that is our very being that is important, and all the expressions of ourselves do not affect how valuable we are. It reminds me of Carl Roger's phrase "unconditional positive regard".

3.Establishes a feeling of permission in the relationship so that the child feels free to explore his or her feelings completely.

Social interactions can be a minefield and we quickly learn where and when we can express our feelings - social display rules start to kick in just when children are starting school. The play therapy space is one where all feelings are accepted. I've done a lot of work on MY feelings about feelings so that I can hold space without judgment or expectation. And for the unconscious stuff I may project? That's why there is clinical supervision to catch those blind spots...

4.Is alert to recognise the feelings the child is expressing and reflects these feelings back in such a manner that the child gains insight into his/her behaviour.

We are the mirrors for a child. Heinz Kohut wrote that this is one of the three needs to be fulfilled for a child is to develop the self fully. Tuning in and noticing what is happening for the child is an integral part of play therapy. The decision to be made in each moment is what to reflect and in what manner? Physically, through the body - including posture, facial expression, movement or verbally - through a simple repetition of what is uttered or a more complex noticing of a pattern of behaviour? And how to do this without any sense of shaming the child? Well-timed, sensitive reflection can be extremely powerful in the therapy room.

Being a play therapist allows me to be alongside children in a unique way, where there are no distractions, no expectations and an intention to allow them to express themselves however they wish. In the session, they can make meaning of the world and find a way to free themselves.

If you know children who may benefit from support, would like to find out more or are interested in sourcing training on child development, trauma and healing, then drop me an email and we can have a conversation.

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