Theoretical Orientation and Play Therapy: Examining Therapist Role, Session Structure, and Therapeutic Objectives

By Menassa, Bret M. | Journal of Professional Counseling, Practice, Theory, & Research, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Theoretical Orientation and Play Therapy: Examining Therapist Role, Session Structure, and Therapeutic Objectives


Menassa, Bret M., Journal of Professional Counseling, Practice, Theory, & Research


Within the context of play therapy, the author will compare and contrast three important therapeutic dimensions - therapist role, session structure, and therapeutic objective - between three distinct theoretical orientations: 1) child-centered play therapy; 2) Release/Structured play therapy; and 3) Adlerian play therapy. The author will discuss the similarities, differences, and therapeutic implications of each, with the belief that such examination will help counselors remain theoretically grounded in their use of play therapy and perhaps even challenge them to reexamine their beliefs about people and the most effective means of helping.

Working with children in play therapy can be deeply rewarding. Many play therapists will attest to the satisfaction they have gained from helping a troubled young person navigate the increasingly complex waters of childhood. There are, however, a number of theoretical approaches to play therapy, and most approaches differ from one another in several important therapeutic dimensions, including the role of the therapist, degree of session structure, and therapeutic objective.

A detailed examination of these therapeutic dimensions and how they differ in both quality and importance between theoretical orientations is lacking in existing literature. Therefore, in this article the author will present an analysis of the similarities, differences, and therapeutic implications of each therapeutic dimension within the contexts of child-centered play therapy, Release/Structured play therapy, and Adlerian play therapy. It is hoped that an exploration of this type will help counselors remain theoretically grounded in their use of play therapy and perhaps even challenge them to reexamine their fundamental beliefs about people, the nature of maladjustment, and the most effective means of helping.

Role of the play therapist

Play is the child's intrinsic form of communication; it is the means through which the child expresses and can resolve emotions and challenges in a developmentally appropriate way (Axline, 1947/1969). The toys the child chooses can be thought of as his or her words; how the child plays with them can be considered the conversation (Landreth, 2002). Perhaps, then, the most fundamental dimension of the play therapy experience is the role of the therapist. What, precisely, is the counselor to do? How is he or she to behave? When is he or she to interact? Not surprisingly, the answers to these basic questions can be distinctly different depending upon the counselor's theoretical orientation.

Child-centered play therapy. The central tenant of child-centered play therapy, first introduced by Virginia Axline and modeled upon Rogers' personcentered approach (Axline, 1947/1969), is that "individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and for altering their self-concepts, basic attitudes, and self-directed behavior; these resources can be tapped if a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided" (Rogers, cited in Landreth, 2002, p. 70). Therefore, the role of the child-centered play therapist is to build a therapeutic relationship with, and to maintain an atmosphere of complete acceptance and non-possessive caring for, the child (Landreth, 2002). Within this environment, the child is free to fully express him- or herself without judgment or direction (Axline, 1947/1969). Liberated from the constraints of appraisal or injunction, the child will naturally resume the selfdirected and innate striving toward selfactualization and congruence without any further influence from the therapist (Landreth, 2002). The child-centered play therapist trusts that, through the spontaneity of free play, distressing feelings or situations will be unconsciously manifested without therapist manipulation (Moustakas, 1997). Furthermore, the therapist trusts in the child's own ability to resolve these troubling emotions and to positively integrate experiences and selfconcept at his or her own pace without interpretations or interventions from the therapist (Axline, 1947/1969; Moustakas, 1997; Landreth, 2002). …

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