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Exploring Play Therapy; Tips for parents and caregivers.

A play therapist's tips for connecting through play!

So, what is play therapy?

People often make the assumption that play therapy is something fun and simple, and of course the sessions often are a place for lots of fun. However, the work that takes place can be both powerful and challenging for the therapist and the child.

Children come in to see a play therapist for a wide range of reasons. This could include disruptions in the parent/caregiver-child relationship, a bereavement or loss, bullying, regulation difficulties, illness or abuse. They often have confusing feelings and don’t have the words to explain. Play therapy sessions offer a space for children to work through these feelings, with the hope that they feel better able to understand and accept themselves and connect with others around them.

Consistency and Predictability

Play therapy sessions take place on the same day and time each week. There are a range of carefully chosen toys and materials, which the child uses to communicate inner thoughts and feelings. The room is set up each time with the same toys and materials in the same place. This is done to provide consistency and predictability, supporting the development of the therapeutic relationship and creating a safe, containing space where the child can explore both their inner world and the world around them.

Child-Centred Play Therapy

With its theory based in Carl Rogers (1951) Person-Centred approach and Virginia Axline’s (1947) 8 Principles, a child-centred therapist is led by the child, trusting the child’s ability to direct their own process at their own pace. The child uses the toys and materials, engaging the therapist in the play, or with the therapist being alongside them. The therapist waits to be invited into the play and observes the emerging themes of the sessions. The child is free to express both negative and positive emotions, with the therapist accepting the child as they are. Limits are set in sessions when needed in order to support the child with self-control, and understanding of their choices and responsibilities.


Attunement is vital in the development of secure relationships. Attunement within the therapeutic relationship gives opportunity for the child to rebuild trust and connection. The attuned therapist responds to the emotional states, body language and behaviour and social cues within the play session, paying attention to their own bodily responses and emotional states. The aim of the therapist is to be fully present with the child in the room and to be alongside the child in their emotional state; this requires work of the therapist both before and during sessions in order to remain regulated and to acknowledge and repair when there have been disruptions.

Importance of Play

The importance of play has often been overlooked, something children 'just naturally do', however, it is an integral part of development from babyhood onwards. There has been considerable research into the caregiver-infant relationship, yet less so in exploring the role of play in the development of that relationship, as well as the social, cognitive and language development of the child. We are seeing more research emerging about the impact of play on brain growth and development; it is an area of continued exploration.

Parents with their own life experiences may find play as a way of connecting with their child challenging, or feel they do not know how to play with their child. This can bring about feelings of inadequacy and shame and this makes it difficult to reach out to others for advice or support.

It may be beneficial to join a group such as baby massage for infants, or a playgroup for children, or a playdate with a trusted other, and to observe, without judgement, the interactions taking place. Qualified Play Therapists are able to support parents, either through one-to-one sessions, or interventions such as CPRT (Child-Parent Relationship Therapy) or Filial Therapy.

Play between a parent, or caregiver, and their child is where the attachment relationship forms, where the brain grows and develops, and a place where healing can take place.

Child-led playtime: tips for parents and caregivers

Try to provide one-to-one time with your child, even if there is only space for 10-15 minutes of focused time. If you have more than one child, aim for each child to get some individual time each week. Be consistent in offering this dedicated time and make it a time where you are feeling regulated, with the least amount of stress and distraction.

Be led by your child: Follow the lead of your child and, with curiosity, see where the play takes you and what your child shows you of their world. Read their cues, reflecting emotions and feelings.

Try to limit questions during this dedicated play time, and avoid correcting your child in play – if your child picks up a toy elephant and calls it a monster, or builds something a different way to the instructions accept this, as it may be felt by your child as criticism if you correct them and may impact your child’s creativity.

Allow for play that may appear 'younger' for your child - they may need to connect with, or revisit, a younger part of themselves – this can be especially true with the arrival of a new baby or at other transition periods.

Be patient with your child – if this way of engaging with your child is new to them, or if they have had a negative experience in the past, it may take some time for them to trust this way of being alongside you.

Look after feelings that arise in you and reach out to others if needed. The feeling of connecting with your child during play is special. However, just like any relationship, it can feel disconnected at times. Play provides opportunity to repair and re-connect.

Enjoy this shared time together!

Elaine is a BAPT registered Play Therapist. You can find out more about her work at


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