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The Power of Nondirective Play Therapy

The world of therapy for children is a rapidly advancing and continuously improving field with innovative models for working with and addressing the needs of children. As a parent you may be wondering about the field of play therapy and curious about how and why this approach is so quickly becoming the mainstay method for working with children. As a play therapist I am excited to introduce these ideas to you and help you understand how nondirective play therapy might be a great option for the support your are looking for in addressing your child’s fear and anxiety, anger, sadness, or behavioral challenges.

What is Play Therapy?

Play is extremely important in a child’s development and understanding of the world they live in. Play is said to be the universal language of children. Toys are a child’s words and play is the language. Children are not equipped with the vocabulary to vocalize and describe their inner and outer experiences. They use play to portrait their experiences, emotions, and feelings in a way they can understand and communicate.

Gary Landreth, author of Play Therapy: The Art of Relationship articulated that children are not miniature adults and need to be approached and understood from a developmental perspective. He believes that, in order for adults and therapists to understand the world of children, we must let go of our world of reality and verbal expression, and instead move towards the conceptual-expressive world of children.

Landreth also touched on the importance of fostering an environment that is consistent with allowing children to express their emotions and experiences, and for therapists to understand the inner world of the child to promote growth and maturity within the child: the inherent push toward discovery, development, and growth. Play therapists strive to allow the child to be, to lead the sessions, and look through the child’s eyes for their understanding of the world and their experiences.

The Foundations of Nondirective Play Therapy

There are several building blocks to nondirective play therapy. Primarily, it is essential that a strong, trusting and nurturing relationship is built between the child and the therapist to guarantee success of play therapy. Through warmth and understanding, a strong relationship can be built and the child can feel safe in the play therapy environment.

Once a relationship has solidified between the child and the therapist, the child takes the lead of the sessions. The child gets a sense of what it’s like to be in control and is given a chance to begin a journey of self-discovery. Through self-discovery, children come to find an individual voice within the space. With that voice, they learn to become more accepting and embracing of themselves, inside and out of the play therapy room.

Nondirective play therapy is vastly different than what is expected in other therapies. Many therapists might find it troubling and challenging to allow a child to be in the lead of each session. Others might focus solely on the problem, which will result in losing sight of the child. It is important to remember that the goal of nondirective play therapy is to allow the child to self-discover and become more accepting of who they are, by expressing their experiences using toys, games, art materials, and other ways children play.

Nondirective play therapy has been present in the mental health professional world for years now, dating back to the 1950s. In the 1950s, Virginia Axline wrote a book on a little boy named Dibs, who was severely emotionally disturbed and how successful the use of nondirective play therapy was with him. He went from being nonverbal, lashing out at others, and having little autonomy, to a smart, bright, and confident young boy.

A Hopeful Experience

In my experience with nondirective play therapy, I have seen reserved and fearful children become bright and bubbly kids; insecure and sad children become confident and happy kids; and anxiety-ridden and nervous children become relaxed and carefree kids. As a therapist working with children in a play therapy setting, the success of each and every child I work with is credited to the relationship we build, by allowing the child to lead and control the sessions, and my understanding of the child’s experiences through the use of play therapy materials. If you have questions about nondirective play therapy or whether it is a good fit for your child, please reach out to myself or another therapist that is trained in play therapy techniques.

Click here to read more about Play Therapy services at Cherry Hill Counseling.

Resources: Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship by Gary Landreth & Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia Axline.

“It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” –Frederick Douglass


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Maria Statkus Ritchey, MA, LCPC, CCATP-CA

Maria is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. Maria is enthusiastic about working with different populations, including children, adolescents, young adults, and families. Maria has experience utilizing non-directive play therapy and her approach is client-centered based, while integrating client strengths within the process.

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