8 Principles of Child Play Therapy

In her seminal book Play Therapy, Virginia M. Axline laid out 8 essential tenets to ensure a safe and generative therapeutic process for child clients.

Establish a friendly relationship with the child. Many of the children we work with have been impacted by traumatic experiences. Within limits, it is okay to model joy. Simple tips would be to get down on their level. Adults to a small child can be intimidating giants. Getting down to their level helps. You may also want to engage children in play as soon as they meet you! For young children, using puppets, stuffies, and/or blowing bubbles as soon as they walk in the door (or onto the screen) is a great way to signal to the child that it is okay to play.

Accept the child as they are. Let the child know that all of them are accepted and belong in the therapy room. Of course, if there are behaviors that are unsafe, it is okay to set limits. Otherwise, verbally telling the child and showing them in play that they are fully accepted is an important part of child/play therapy.

Create a permissive space where they child knows they can express themselves completely. Creating an allowing space is important. Children often inherently know how to naturally express and process emotions. (Arguably, all humans do.) However, they may not have a place where they feel that they can. The rules inside of the therapy room are very different from the rules outside of the room. Creating a permissive space where children can express themselves, while maintaining containment and predictability is an art and one that is important to master to optimize the healing experience of our clients.

Reflect Feelings. Recognizing and reflecting feelings back to our child clients is essential in play therapy. It helps the child build awareness of their emotional states, a critical part of the process. Further, reflecting emotions helps activate mirror neurons in the brain. Mirror neurons support healthy development and facilitate the child’s ability to experience empathy for others.   

Deeply Respect the Child’s Ability to Problem Solve. This action is vital for the child to develop both a trusting relationship with the therapist and a sense of agency that can be applied to real world situations.

Make space for the child to make choices. When given the right conditions, the psyche will heal itself. With that being said, allowing the child to lead, make their own choices, encourages that process and helps nurture the child’s developing sense of agency.  

Do not rush the therapy. We live in such a rushed world! Creating a space where this ongoing pressure to produce is absent makes way for the therapeutic process to take hold of the moment. Follow The Nap Ministry for some burgeoning ideas on rest.

Set limits only for child’s benefit. Setting limits is another art form for the child therapist to master. One may ask themselves, am I setting limits on a particular activity because I don’t want to clean up or is really for the purpose of anchoring the therapy to the world of reality? In other words, setting limits is appropriate to keep the child safe. Otherwise, many children need to make a mess. If they are doing so (in the sandtray for example) then that is a sign that the therapy is working.  

Using these 8 principles to help set the space for child clients will allow for each child’s unique process to unfold. As therapists, our experiences are cumulative. We should always be in a state of learning and in many ways, children are great teachers for us and other adults.

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