Client Centred Play Therapy

While interest in play as a therapeutic intervention has been around since the 1920’s, professional interest has grown steadily over the past decade. This has been driven in part by the recognition of the number of children and adolescents who require effective help, counsellors becoming increasingly aware of the seriousness of emotional difficulties often experienced by children and their likely need for treatment and the growing understanding of the usefulness of play in the child’s life.

Play therapy can be defined as a means through which a therapeutic relationship between the therapist and child is created whereby play becomes the principal medium of communication, shared understanding, insight and change (Wilson 2000).

Play is considered a necessity for normal childhood growth and development (Botkin, 2000). It is through play, that children learn the art of living. There is also a congruent honesty and vividness of expression in the way children interact and communicate while in a play situation (Axline, 1974).

Playfulness in children is considered to be a stable aspect of personality related to such things as creativity, imaginativeness, positive effect, emotional expressiveness and physical activity; which are all resources for creative solutions to problems (Botkin, 2000).

In the context of the important role that play has in the normal growth and development of the child play therapy has been specifically developed to take advantage of this in order to help children between the ages of 3 to 12 years of age to communicate and interact effectively with the therapist in order to address their problems or challenges (Geldard & Geldard, 2008).

Through the medium of play, child and therapist work together in a counselling space called a playroom, which is equipped with toys that aim to encourage clear and vivid expression of feelings while supporting the development of healthier behaviours in a safe, non-threatening environment (Herbert & Ballard, 2007; Levy, 2008; Rasmussen & Cunnigham, 1995).

Theories and practice surrounding play therapy differ within each child psychotherapy tradition. However, each tradition is connected by the central proposition that play transmits and communicates the child’s unconscious experiences, desires, thoughts and emotions whereby it can help the child contextualise meaning and communicate concepts beyond the scope of their limited vocabulary and current understanding of the world and the situation they may be facing.

Virginia Axline (1969, 1971) developed a play therapy for children based on key principles of the person-centred approach. Her approach became known as non-directive play therapy. The person centred approach, originated by Carl Rogers, places a primary focus on the relationship between therapist and client that is based on genuineness, acceptance and trust.

Axline devised a clear and concise Play Therapy theory and method around the same ideas and in doing so, identified 8 core principles of play therapy from this perspective of approach. These core principles are outlined below (Geldard & Geldard, 2008).

Axline’s Eight Principles of Play Therapy

  1. The therapist must develop a warm and friendly relationship with the child in which good rapport is established.
  2. The therapist accepts the child as he/ she is.
  3. The therapist establishes a relationship in which the child is free to express their feelings completely.
  4. The therapist is alert to recognise the feelings the child is experiencing and reflects those feelings back to the child in a manner that allows the child to gain insight into his/her behaviour.
  5. The therapist maintains a deep respect for the child’s ability to solve their own problems. The child has the responsibility to make choices and implement change.
  6. The child leads the way. The therapist does not direct the child’s action or conversation in any manner.
  7. The therapist does not attempt to hurry the therapy along. The therapist recognises that play therapy is a gradual process.
  8. The therapist establishes only those limitations that are necessary to make the child aware of their responsibilities.

(Adapted from Ramirez, Flores-Torres, Kranz & Lund, 2005)

The primary goal of non-directive client centred play therapy is to encourage self directed growth and change in the child. This process occurs through the exploration of the child’s feelings through play to encourage the child’s increased sense of self worth (Moustakas, 1959).

Self directed growth is facilitated by the therapist showing the child they are understood while conveying to the child their potential for self growth. Guerney (1983) noted that client centred play therapy cultivates maturity in children by allowing them opportunity for self exploration. Within the permissive and accepting atmosphere of the play room, it is believed the child will come to recognise their own power for self directed growth.

The goal of the therapist therefore, is to establish a safe environment where through play, the child can freely express their emotions, facilitate decision making, gain a feeling of control, and verbalise their experience (Landreth, 1993).

This approach suggests that the therapist’s role is to create the right conditions to promote such desired therapeutic outcomes. There are 3 core conditions considered essential for the therapist to emulate, in order to catalyse the desired outcomes of this therapeutic approach with the child. These are listed below:

Genuineness and authenticity:  the capacity to be real and be themselves as distinct from adopting a role or a defensive posture.

Non-possessive warmth: an attitude of caring and being engaged with friendly concern without becoming overly involved emotionally or offering help for self-serving reasons.

Accurate empathy: the ability to feel and articulate those feelings in a way that helps the child feel understood, and which also helps the child gain understanding of their own feelings.

The therapist also must accept the child unconditionally without any judgements, prejudice or stereotypes that may be derived from the child’s behaviour or history of treatment. In non-directive client centred play therapy, responsibility and direction are left to the child, unlike directive play therapy, in which the therapist may assume responsibility for guidance and interpretation of therapeutic dialogue and direction.

Therapeutic sessions are characterised by a warm, supportive, friendly, and accepting atmosphere that helps build rapport. The therapist aims to encourage the playroom to be seen by the child as their own special place, where they can play with things just about any way he or she would like.


  1. Botkin, D. R. (2000). Family play therapy: a creative approach to including young children in family therapy. Journal of Systematic Therapies, 19, 31-42.
  2. Geldard, K. & Geldard, D. (2008). Couselling Children. A Practical Guide (3rd ed.). London: Sage Publications
  3. Gurney, L.F. (1983). Client centred non directive play therapy. In C.E. Schaefer and K.J.O’Connor (Eds.), Handbook of Play Therapy. (pp.21-64) New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  4. Hebert, B.B. & Ballard, M.B. (2007). Children and Trauma: A post Katrina and Rita response. ASCA
  5. Landreth, G.L. (1991). Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship.
  6. Ramirez, S.Z., Flores-Torres, L.L., Kranz, P.L., & Lund, N.L. (2005). Using Axline’s eight principles of play therapy with Mexican –American children. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 32, 329-337.
  7. Rasmussen, L.A. & Cunningham, C. (1995). Focused play therapy and non directive play therapy: can they be integrated. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 4, 1-20.