The 8 Basic Principles of Non Directive Play Therapy

It is fantastic that there is a national emphasis on ensuring good mental health for everyone and that there are a range of therapy options increasingly becoming available. Whether you are pregnant, post natal, child, teenager, adult, senior citizen etc. there is support out there. However, navigating the therapy field can be difficult. How do you decide which will be most useful to you? There are so many different choices of therapy, it is important to do your research.

I believe in and have trained to become a play therapist, who predominately uses a ‘non directive’ approach. I am often asked what are the principles behind this type of work as many people recognise that play is important for children, but are not actually sure what it is I do. One of the early pioneers for this type of work was a lady called Virginia Axline, who founded 8 basic principles which although simple, allow for children to take control and self-heal through the therapeutic process. In sharing these principles with you, I hope it gives you a better understanding of the work I do and why I feel passionately that this type of work can help even the most emotionally damaged children. (Principles taken from Virginia Axline, 1974, Play Therapy book)

  • The therapist must develop a warm, friendly relationship with the child, in which a good rapport is establishes as soon as possible.

Much of the work I do is relationship based. If I cannot establish this relationship with a child, they cannot learn to trust me and be free to be themselves. There is no praise or blame within a session and it is important for the child to realise that their time with me is all about them.

  • The therapist accepts the child exactly as he/she is.

There are no expectations placed upon the child to act in a certain way. Some children come to sessions full of energy, others come and want to sit quietly. I have to adapt to the child, rather than the child adapt to me.

  • The therapist establishes a feeling of permissiveness in the relationship so that the child feels free to express his feelings completely.

The playroom has rules like no other space that a child has in their life. The room becomes a place where they can come and ‘dump their stuff’ if they need to, in the emotional sense. These expressions may come in the form of messiness or play animals attacking each other. It may be that a role play takes place where I have to be placed in the deepest dungeon and given no food or water and locked away for many years. On the other hand, the child may want to sit in silence, facing away from me simply lying under a blanket listening to a CD. There are no rights or wrongs in the playroom, as long as everyone and everything is safe.

  • The therapist is alert to recognise the feelings the child is expressing and reflects those feelings back to him in such a manner that he gains insight into his behaviour.

I help the child to identify their feelings in response to what is happening in the play, rather than what may actually be going on for them in their life. When a child is playing they can symbolically show how they may be feeling and this allows a child to feel safe. They may not be ready yet to actually express how they themselves are feeling but it is for me to identify the emotions in their play.

  • The therapist maintains a deep respect for the child’s ability to solve his/her own problems if given an opportunity to do so. The responsibility to make choices and to institute change is the child’s.

As adults we get many choices in life. Parents, teachers or persons in authority make a lot of decisions for children and sometimes it is easy to forget that children too have the ability to make choices that can help them develop emotionally and socially in their life. I think what we as adults do, is try to limit the amount of mistakes our children make. We make the decision based on our experience. What we forget though, is that we have to give children the chance to have experiences to make their own decisions – be them right or wrong so they can learn from them.

  • The therapist does not attempt to direct the child’s actions or conversation in any manner. The child leads the way; the therapist follows.

Once again in the majority of a child’s learning experiences they are directed towards the activities they do. At school learning objectives are set, so although a child is learning through play, they are being directed towards what they have to learn. Many therapies that use play already have decided which activities the child must do to help them heal and move forward. Each week my room is set up with the same items in it, but what actually gets played out gets decided by the child. They decide upon the theme of play that they need that week. One week they may decide upon using the healing qualities of clay, but the following week want to use the sand tray.

  • The therapist does not attempt to hurry the therapy along. It is a gradual process and is recognised as such by the therapist.

Non directive play therapy is not a quick fix. Time needs to be taken to ensure a child is fully ready to end their sessions and respect needs to be given to the child to decide to open up when the time is right for them. Life is always busy, and we forget to sometimes give ourselves time to process. That is what non directive play therapy is about every week. A time to be and work at your own pace, rather than at someone else’s. It is not always an easy session as a range of emotions may need to be released, but it allows for a child to fully think about themselves without any distractions.

  • The therapist establishes only those limitations that are necessary to anchor the therapy to the world of reality and to make the child aware of his responsibility in the relationship.

With non-directive play therapy being a special time for children it is important for the child to know that they are still safe and secure. The session is lost if the child feels they can hurt the therapist or damage the room. The boundaries are few, but very important. Once those boundaries have been accepted by the child they take responsibility for staying within them and also if he/she chooses not to. Reflecting issues with boundaries are just as important as the play within the sessions.

With these basic principles in place, a play therapist then draws on other psychological theories to inform his/her work. It is an integrated, holistic method of therapy, because it is not based on just one psychological theory. The work that John Bowlby originally founded on attachment and has been built upon over the years is also key to how play therapists work. Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, Carl Rogers, Carl Jung and Anna Freud are to name just a few more influential psychologists within play therapy.

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