Pros & Cons of Child-Directed Play Therapy | Social Work & Mental Health

Play therapy is a widely used therapeutic intervention that has proved effective in treating children with mental health concerns including behavioral intervention, trauma, autism, communication, and much more. Today, we’re going to discuss how child-directed play therapy can be utilized in practice, and what the best and worst parts of this technique are.

In play therapy, there are two methods: child-directed and therapist-directed. In child-directed play therapy, this means that there is no direction or prompt given by the therapist, and the child has free reign to play with any toys, games, and activities in the office. With therapist-directed play therapy, the child still uses toys and games in the session, but they serve a specific therapeutic purpose to assess, explore, or reach some goal (i.e. “Can you draw me a picture of your family” in order to understand how the child views their family and dynamics). Today, our focus in solely on child-directed play.

In session, when the child arrives, the therapist’s purpose is to serve as a support that provides no prompts. As the child reaches for toys or plays, the therapist speaks within that moment, and typically speaks on concrete observations in order to promote the child’s explanation of the play, description of the scene at hand. It’s important with this technique that the therapist doesn’t initiate the play or changes the child behaviors, but simply explores the child’s decisions and behavior as it happens through open ended questions.

These rules and others can be found in Virginia Axline’s Principles of Play Therapy, described below.

  1. Develop a warm and friendly relationship with the child.
  2. Accept the child as they are.
  3. Establish permission in the relationship so the child feels free to express their feelings completely.
  4. Be alert and recognize the feelings the child is expressing. Reflect these feelings back for the child to gain insight into their behavior.
  5. Maintains a deep respect for the child’s ability to problem solve and give the opportunity to do so, as it the ability to make choices and changes.
  6. Do not direct the child’s actions or conversations in any way. The child is the leader.
  7. Do not rush the therapy, as the gradual process must be acknowledged.
  8. Only make limitations necessary to anchor the therapy to reality and to make the child aware of their responsibility in the session.

Pros of Child-Directed Play Therapy

  • Open play allows the child to engage in activities they find enjoyable and interesting, and can lead to higher engagement in therapy sessions and increased rapport with the therapist.
  • The child is able to speak on issues that are personal to them, when they are comfortable doing so. They don’t have to feel uncomfortable or shy, as the content of the session is entirely up to them.
  • Children are knowledgeable thinkers, more so than what we give them credit for. Just because it’s child-directed, doesn’t mean it’s not effective and therapeutic.
  • For children that have chaotic lives or high anxiety and stress levels, child-directed play offers them the space to be in charge and have the power and control that is lacking in the rest of their lives.
  • Children communicate in many ways, and in child-directed play, we see a true and genuine picture of how a particular child engages with their toys, communicates, and behaves. This can offer the most accurate insight into a child’s behavior, experiences, and feelings.
  • The child is empowered and can increased their self esteem and decision making skills.
  • This technique allows a child to foster communication skills and social skills in more realistic scenarios, and furthers a child’s self motivation.
  • Child-directed therapy meets the child where they are. If they don’t want to play, that’s okay. It truly listens to what the child desires and needs.

Cons of Child-Directed Play Therapy

  • When you’re on a time crunch or the child has a limited number of therapy sessions, child-directed play may not appropriate. I always believe it’s beneficial for the first few sessions, but if you need to begin work immediately to resolve an issues efficiently, this may not be it.
  • Similarly, the change in the child’s behavior or thoughts may take more time.
  • Children that require more structure and routine may not benefit from this. You can offer time limits on child-directed play, but that in itself is a form of therapist-direction.

As you can see, there appears to be significantly more pros than cons. Child-directed play therapy is proven to be effective and evidenced-based, as seen in multiple recent, peer-reviewed studies. (You can find some here). No matter what a child is treated for, play therapy at both ends can be effective in fostering a healthy and trusting therapeutic relationship, and allowing for long-term progress and goal reaching.

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