Directive vs Non-Directive Play Therapy

There are two major approaches to play therapy that most orientations can be categorised in to. These are either directive approaches where the therapist assumes responsibility for guidance and interpretation of the play interactions or non-directive approaches where the therapist will tend to leave the responsibility and direction of the therapeutic process to the child (Rasmussen & Cunnigham, 1995).

The main difference between directive and non-directive approaches is in the role that the therapist takes on in the process.

Psychoanalytic Play Therapy

Psychoanalytic play therapy is a directive approach where play is used to establish contact with the client, as a medium of observation, and sometimes, as something that promotes interpretive communication. Psychoanalytic therapy was originally founded and developed by Sigmund Freud in 1909 and it holds the views that “play” is a means by which the therapist and the child work toward resolution of the conflict and their common therapeutic goal (Ramirez, Flores-Torres, Kranz & Lund, 2005).

Anna Freud (1928, 1964, 1965), Margaret Lowenfeld (1935, 1970) and Melanie Klein (1961, 1987) also posited the theoretical premise for the use of play as a therapeutic tool and stipulated that the child’s spontaneous play can be used as a substitute for the free association typically used within adult psychoanalysis (Geldard & Geldard, 2008).

Psychoanalytic play therapy goes beyond the immediate pain or difficulty that the child may experience through aiming to clear the way so that healthy psychosocial development can resume from where it had been halted by external trauma or invalid internal conflict. It is considered effective in helping children who have real and significant limitations come to terms with who they are by helping them develop more secure, adaptive, compensating, and self-accepting ways.

Psychoanalytic therapy involves the therapist in a role of participant and observer. The therapist allows the child to play and may at times participate with the child in play, but will also aim to shift the play on to more verbal interaction between them when necessary.

The psychoanalytic play therapist takes on the responsibility to gain an understanding and then communicate the meaning of the child’s play in order to increase the child’s self awareness of any pertinent conflict within themselves. Such insight is then believed to give rise to an adaptive resolution for the child as a natural response to altered meaning communicated by the therapist.

The therapist will often direct the conversation about key issues by asking open ended questions to the child. This allows the child to speak metaphorically rather than literally. This is important as the child may not be ready to articulate those thoughts into words or, due to their age, vocabulary may be quite limited making it difficult to articulate verbally many of the issues and difficulties being faced.

Jungian Play Therapy

Another approach to play therapy developed by Carl Jung in 1912 espoused the therapist as taking on an active role of facilitator with the child but not as a leader. Jung believed that the child’s psyche would know where it needed to go, and therefore, it was the therapist’s job to follow it there rather than direct it.

Jungian play therapy depends a great deal on the therapist to build trust with the child and sensitively discuss with the child about their play. It can be said that Jungian play therapy adopts a more non-directive approach.

Directive vs Non-Directive Approaches

One key concern over non-directive techniques is in the context of how young children will not necessarily have the cognitive skills and emotional capacity to repair and master traumatic experiences on their own (Rasmussen & Cunningham, 1995).

For example, abused children are unlikely to deal with issues underlying their sexually inappropriate behaviours unless the therapist raises these issues directly (Rasmussen & Cunningham, 1995).

As such, a more directive approach in these instances may be considered more appropriate. It has also been suggested that when the therapist places the responsibility for change completely on the child, they may give the child an additional burden which could encourage resistance in the child with the process.

As a consequence of these and other issues, there is an ongoing debate in the play therapy field over which approach is “better”, non-directive or directive. The most common consensus is that there is not one right way to proceed in therapeutic work with children. In this sense, many approaches with varying degrees of directive and non-directive emphasis can work well in the right context.

For example, a therapist may choose to be quite directive with methods used in a session, and non directive with regard to the interpretation of the material which arises during a session, and then quite directive again in the issues of safety and best interests of the child.

Interestingly many therapists who call themselves non-directive or client-centred are often only non-directive in terms of what they do in a session. In this sense, while allowing the child to play how they want and with the toys they want, the therapist will   become more directive in their interpretation and analysis of the child’s inner world and in the way they may choose to reflect such things back to the child (Rasmussen & Cunnigham, 1995).


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