Non-Directive Play Therapy

Non-directive play therapy is a form of therapy designed for children between the ages of about 3 and 12.

Non-directive play therapy is founded on the idea that play is the “language” of young children. That is, it can be a way for them to process and express thoughts and feelings that they can’t put into words. “Non-directive” means that the child takes the lead in sessions and can play freely, without the therapist directing activities.

Play therapy might look like simple play on the surface, but it can actually be a powerful way for children to deal with mental health issues with a therapist’s support.

What can Non-Directive Play Therapy help with?

Non-directive play therapy can be helpful for children dealing with a wide range of mental health concerns, including:

Does Non-Directive Play Therapy work?

Yes, there is significant evidence that non-directive play therapy is helpful for children experiencing a variety of challenges. It is one of the most common forms of therapy for young children.

For example, one review of almost 100 different studies found that play therapy often leads to improved outcomes for children dealing with conditions including anxiety, behavior problems, and family issues. That same review found that these positive effects were just as strong regardless of children’s age or gender. What’s more, it found that non-directive play therapy tended to have better outcomes than directive play therapy (in which the therapist directs the session).

How does Non-Directive Play Therapy work?

Non-directive play therapy is based on several key ideas:

  1. Play is children’s language: Even when children can’t use words to say what they’re thinking or feeling, they can express themselves through play. Play therapists see play and creative activity as core tools that children use to communicate, learn, and understand their world.
  2. Children know what they need: With non-directive play therapy, the idea is that the child is more capable of leading the session than the therapist is. The therapist is there to observe and interact with the child, but the child is the one who chooses activities and drives conversation.
  3. A combination of safety and freedom is necessary for healing: There aren’t many rules in non-directive play therapy, but at the same time, the therapy sessions are safe, enclosed, and protected. Through the therapist’s warm, respectful presence and the safety of the playroom itself, children get the secure environment they need to express themselves freely.

How frequently are Non-Directive Play Therapy sessions held?

Non-directive play therapy sessions often happen once a week, though they may be more frequent depending on the child’s needs.

Additionally, some versions of non-directive play therapy include additional sessions in which parents or other family members participate alongside the child and the therapist.

How long does Non-Directive Play Therapy treatment last?

There is no set course for non-directive play therapy. But because its success depends on building a trusting relationship between the therapist and the child, it often lasts for at least ten sessions.

In some cases, especially if a child has experienced significant trauma, treatment could continue for much longer.

How are Non-Directive Play Therapy sessions structured?

Non-directive play therapy does not follow a particular structure, in part because the child leads the sessions. That said, treatment often follows these general stages:

  1. Initial assessment: Treatment starts with the therapist gathering information about the child and their presenting problem. This usually happens through discussion with parents or family, and it may involve reports from the child’s school as well.
  2. Building rapport: When the therapist first meets the child, the focus is simply on building trust and comfort. Early sessions generally aim to help the child understand that the therapist is a supportive figure and that sessions are safe spaces.
  3. Free exploration: Throughout all sessions of non-directive play therapy, the child is free to play in whatever way they see fit. Often, the therapist plays with the child, following the child’s lead.
  4. Observation and discussion: As the therapist gets familiar with the child, they often begin to notice patterns in the child’s play. For example, a child might always want to play school, or they might want to organize the toys rather than playing imaginatively. The therapist will gently ask the child questions and discuss what happens during play as a way to help the child process emotions and gain insight into their choices.

In between sessions, the therapist will usually confer with parents or caregivers about the child’s progress and how the child’s play might relate to life at home. The therapist might also ask family members to join in some sessions, and/or discuss strategies for supporting the child’s progress at home.

What happens in a typical Non-Directive Play Therapy session?

Just about anything that a child can imagine might happen in a non-directive play therapy sessions. Some common activities that children engage in during sessions include:

  • Make-believe: With or without the therapist, the child might engage in imaginative play or reenacting scenes from their lives.
  • Playing with figurines, dolls, and stuffed animals: Children use toys to enact stories, which very often reflect their thoughts or emotions. For example, a child mourning a recent loss might hide one of the toys and act out how the others toys handle that loss.
  • Painting, drawing, or sculpting: Creative activities like these are commonly used to help children process difficult emotions.
  • Playing games: More formal activities like board games or card games can help children learn social norms and practice following rules. These activities can also give the therapist valuable insights into the child’s patterns of interacting with others.
  • Using sand, water, and other sensory toys: Free-form play with tools like these can help children learn relaxation techniques and give them a sense of mastery of their surroundings.

Though sessions are child-led, the therapist’s role is also very important. Here are a few ways that therapists often support children in non-directive play therapy sessions:

  • Asking questions: One of the therapist’s primary tools is asking questions. For example, a therapist might ask a child about the relationships within a family of dolls, as an indirect way of understanding the child’s perspective on their own family.
  • Modeling behavior: Though the therapist doesn’t tell the child what to do, the therapist can suggest new ways of playing and interacting that give the child positive examples to follow.
  • Setting boundaries: There aren’t many rules in non-directive play therapy. However, the therapist can set standards for the play space (no throwing paint, for example) and then gently enforce them as a way of helping children learn healthy boundaries.
  • Supplying vocabulary: A child might not have the verbal language to express their feelings, but the therapist often does. For example, if a child shows a stuffed animal having a tantrum, the therapist might say: “It looks like Mr. Bunny is feeling frustrated.”
  • Offering interpretations: The therapist doesn’t make direct inferences about the child from their play, because children’s play is often symbolic and abstract. That is, just because a child makes their toys fight doesn’t mean that the child is experiencing violence at home. However, the therapist can discuss the possible implications of the child’s play with parents and family, with the goal of better understanding the child’s perspective and needs.

What should I look for in a therapist for Non-Directive Play Therapy?

Therapists for non-directive play therapy may be social workers, licensed marriage and family therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, or another kind of mental health professional. No matter what kind of therapist you choose for your child, make sure that they meet the following criteria:

  • An advanced degree in a mental health field;
  • Licensure to practice in the state where you live;
  • Experience working with the specific mental health condition or challenge your child is facing;
  • Extensive experience and training in non-directive play therapy specifically.

Finally, a good fit is important for any therapeutic relationship, but it’s especially essential when choosing a therapist for your child. It’s crucial that your child feels safe and comfortable with the therapist, so don’t try and force sessions with someone whom your child is unhappy with. Of course, kids often take a bit of time to warm up to new people, but if your child is still uncomfortable with the therapist after a couple of sessions, it may be best to work with someone else.

And remember, it’s important that you (and your partner and/or family) feel comfortable with the therapist, too! If you can, take the time to find someone who feels like a good fit for the whole family.

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.