Getting to know - Non-directive therapeutic play - Who are you?

A great island we created after almost 2 years of training in therapeutic play 
( Block 2 Training Diploma in Play Therapy KL by APAC October 2017)

Orientation to play practice using non-directive play therapy through role-plays as therapist, client, and observer.

A reflective commentary on Virginia Axline’s Principles based on sand tray exercise on 25/10/2015

Azizah Othman

Word counts:

Play therapy is one approach to enhance children’s psychological development. The foundation of play work is based on eight principles drawn by Virginia Axline as described by Barnes (2013). We used sand tray exercises to observe and experience these principles in actions. At some points, the scenario presented below might be seen as superficial because we were limited by several factors including being at an early stage of training, restricted time and space, and the needs to meet the perceived demands and expectations from the instructor. This essay outlines brief descriptions of the activities and my reflective comments and learning on those principles as I played my roles as therapist, observer, and client.

(a)    Being a therapist
First, I started as therapist. As I followed my client around, choosing her toys, I hoped to indicate that I was keen to having her in the session. She just nodded when I informed basic rules in play therapy. It appeared that smooth (i) establishment and acceptance of limits are possible, at least with this particular client. Throughout the play, the client spoke no word neither she looked at me. I struggled to show (ii) warm and friendly attitude, in a silent, one-to–one moment like that. It is tricky to indicate warmth and friendly attitude when eye contact and verbal communication are not present. I resorted to keep looking at her with much interest, hoping that would deliver the same messages. Upon group reflection, she admitted feeling comfortable having me besides her as therapist.

There was one quick moment when the client dismantled and brushed away her creation. I was surprise and shouted ‘NO’ inside my heart, trying to stop her. I felt sad that special creation was destroyed. I recognized feeling pretty dishearten and disappointed. I thought she might feel the same and I felt like rescuing her. I knew then and now that I might need to process those feelings myself. During that moment, I made myself aware fairly quickly that the session was completely hers’. Therapist must (iii) develop permissive environment so that the client can freely express her emotions. Soon as I got things on hold back again, I calmed myself and remained neutral. I engaged with client and her play. Not long after that, contrary to my initial expectation about the effect of the destruction, my client was still playing happily. I was very pleased to not stop or rescue her earlier.

(b)   Being an observer
Secondly, I became an observer. I was really keen to see how other ‘therapist’ plays their roles and how the client responded. I was pretty amazed to observe the therapist looking at the client – almost all the time, without failed. She did not even make a slight move throughout the session neither she said anything to the client. Indeed, she was sitting still and doing the same task for almost 30 minutes. When we reflected in group, the therapist admitted feeling uncomfortable sitting in that position and wished the client to change her position a bit so that she could do the same. However, since no one moved, they remained in that position until the end of the session. I thought changing positions should not be a big problem, and therapist too, in addition to the client, has right to feel comfortable in the session.

I observed the client was engaged in her play. She had exciting toys and played interesting story on the sand tray. I thought if I were the therapist, I might be engrossed in her story – one thing I should be aware of too. I suppose therapist should not let themselves been absorbed in the client’s story. The main focus of the therapy - the child, could be jeopardized. Whilst the story might be important, the child as a person is more important. The client I observed had long story to tell that the time given seemed insufficient for her to end the story. The therapist made series of counting to prepare the client to end the play. This technique corresponds to the (iv) principle of not hurry the therapy along when the child in play by giving them earlier notices that at some points before they need to stop.

(c)    Being a client
Finally, I was my turn to become a client. It was my first time experience playing sand tray and I was excited. I remembered having my personal goal for that particular exercise. I wanted to work out problems and difficulties in my life – I told myself. Toys I chose to play with were something big, harmful, and dangerous, such as crocodile, black scorpion, and snakes. I added people, tree, and stones that represent natural surroundings. I listened to the starting rules presented by the therapist and had no problems co-operating. Having the therapist sat next to me, I played freely. I suppose with the way she presented herself, I felt (v) accepted and comfortable to just do whatever I wanted on the sand tray.

There was time during my play that I wanted to share my story with the therapist. I asked her if she wanted to know what the story was about. Rather than simply responding yes, she asked me back whether I wanted her to know. I thought that respond was interesting. The (vi) therapist gave the client options to choose and make decision. This is one example how a child can learn new skills and grow from play therapy experience.

On another occasion, I made it explicit through non-verbal gestures that I wanted her to join me moving the soldiers out from inside the sand. (vii) Being alert to my needs, she responded and did the same very carefully. The principle of (viii) child leads, therapist follows was applied here too. I thought at that particular time, I would prefer if the therapist uses verbal language, i.e. talk to me during play, instead of just responding to my gestures. However, I am now realized that therapist should not try to direct conversations. Thus, as a client, it was my responsibility to express my need explicitly so that therapist would respond appropriately.

In short, I am amazed how this approach is very child-focused and non-directive in nature. I am aware that I have to slowly unlearn my previous learning on psychotherapy to comply with Axline’s principles. I believe there will be vast experiential learning I acquire when I start my training with real children.  

Barnes, M.A. (2013). The healing path with children – An exploration for parents and professionals. 3rd eds. England: The Play Therapy Press Limited.

Disclaimer: This essay is part of my assignment submitted to APAC as required in Certificate of Therapeutic Play Skills by Play Therapy International.