Play therapy is a Masters level postgraduate profession and a form of child psychotherapy that provides a way for children to express their thoughts and feelings through the medium of play. Play Therapists help children explore their feelings and process their experiences through play and using a wide range of creative tools.

Play and Creative Arts Therapy can help a child who:

  • Is not realizing their full potential - academically, or socially
  • Has nightmares or has disturbed sleep
  • Is at risk of being/is excluded from school
  • Has suffered trauma
  • Has suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • Is adopted or fostered (or in the process)
  • Suffers because of separated/divorced parents
  • Suffers from anxiety, stress or phobias
  • Has suffered a loss or bereavement of any kind
  • Is withdrawn or continually unhappy
  • Is ill, disabled, or autistic
  • Finds it difficult to make friends
  • Quarrels frequently with peers or siblings
  • Bullies others or is bullied themselves
  • Displays inappropriate behaviour
  • Doesn’t play


What are the behaviours that Play Therapy can address?

  • Self Harming
  • Anger/aggressive behaviour
  • Poor learning
  • Lack of concentration
  • Eating disorders
  • Bed wetting
  • Hyperactivity                                                            
  • Bullying
  • Withdrawn behaviour
  • ADHD/Autistic behaviours
  • Anxiety
  • Refusal to go out or to go to school
  • OCD Behaviour
  • Clingy/will not leave carer/parent
  • Controlling behaviour


What is Play Therapy

Play Therapy normally takes place once weekly, and is offered as a 45 minute session on the same day and at the same time every week.

Children may be referred by teachers, social workers or come because their parents know they need a little extra help with communicating. During this time, children are supported to play freely with sand, art, clay, puppets, music, in a non-directive way, so they can communicate their inner world through metaphor, stories, and play.

The therapy is non-judgmental and accepting of the child and of what is brought to the session, allowing the child to safely explore traumas or emotions that they may otherwise not be able to be put into words. Children are allowed to explore many parts of themselves through the creative arts as a medium of expression. Older children can also express in the same way, but may feel the drawing and sand trays are more suitable than actual play. Older children are often able to verbalize thoughts and feelings and therefore sessions are adapted to suit each child's developmental stage.

How can Play Therapy help my child?

Play is vital to every child’s social, emotional, cognitive, physical, creative and language development. It helps make learning concrete for all children and young people including those for whom verbal communication may be difficult.

Play Therapy helps children in a variety of ways. Children receive emotional support and can learn to understand more about their own feelings and thoughts. Sometimes they may re-enact or play out traumatic or difficult life experiences in order to make sense of their past and cope better with their future. Children may also learn to manage relationships and conflicts in more appropriate ways.

The outcomes of Play Therapy may be general e.g. a reduction in anxiety and raised self-esteem, or more specific such as a change in behaviour and improved relations with family and friends.

What does a Play Therapist do?

Play Therapists receive extensive training in subjects such as child development and attachment (the bonding process). They are also trained to use play, a child’s natural form of expression, as a means for understanding and communicating with children about feelings, thoughts and behaviour.

A Play Therapist will begin by carefully listening to your concerns about your child and family. They will review their history and find out about the stresses the family have been through so that they can help your child make sense of it.

They may ask to seek information from school and other significant adults in their lives. An assessment is made of your child’s strengths as well as their difficulties.

Why is the therapeutic relationship so important?

The therapeutic relationship that develops between your child and their Play Therapist is very important. Your child must feel comfortable, safe and understood. This type of trusting environment makes it easier for the child to express their thoughts and feelings and to use the therapy in a useful way. It is also crucial that your child knows that you are supporting the process.

Will it be confidential?

Information that you share about your child and family will usually be kept confidential. A Play Therapist may share information with other colleagues and professionals for the benefit of your child with your permission. A Play Therapist must share information with other professionals if they are concerned that a child is being harmed, hurting others or themselves. They will usually talk to you about this first.

Your child’s Play Therapist will meet with you at regular intervals to discuss progress in therapy sessions and any changes and developments you have witnessed or experienced at home. However, the Play Therapist will not disclose specific details of what your child has played. This is important in order to maintain your child’s trust and feelings of safety with the therapist.

What can I do to help?

You are very important in supporting your child through the process.

Be consistent and encouraging to your child about attending sessions regularly.

Resist the urge to ask your child what they did, as this will put pressure on them to comment on something they may have difficulty understanding themselves.

Please don’t ask your child to ‘be good’ or check they have been. Therapy is not about being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and your child must feel free to express ‘bad’ feelings in an uncensored way.

Don’t insist that your child tell certain things: it is their time and they must feel free to express themselves at their own pace. Instead tell your concerns to the Play Therapist on a separate occasion.

Play can be messy and it is helpful if your child can wear old clothes to minimise their anxiety about this.

During any therapeutic intervention behaviour may appear to get worse before it gets better – please tell your child’s Play Therapist if you have any concerns. Please also feel free to ask your child’s Play Therapist any questions throughout the process.


Some studies indicate that 20% of children have some form of psychological problem (Venables (1983); Rutter, Cox et al (1975); Jeffers & Fitzgerald (1991); Porteous (1991) etc.) and that 70% of these are helped through the use of psychological based therapies such as play and creative arts. The 1999 British government survey estimated that 10% of children have a mental health problem. It is also essential to realise that mental health, like physical health, is as much about prevention as cure. (PTUK)

Our greatest natural resource is the minds of our children.   But 20% of children in the UK have an emotional, behavioural or mental health problem.

Axline's Basic Principles of Non-Directive Play Therapy  

Much of current play therapy practice is based upon Virginia Axline’s work*.  

The therapist:    

  • Must develop a warm and friendly relationship with the child.    
  • Accepts the child as she or he is.    
  • Establishes a feeling of permission in the relationship so that the child feels free to express his or her feelings completely.  
  • Is alert to recognise the feelings the child is expressing and reflects these feelings back in such a manner that the child gains insight into his/her behaviour.    
  • Maintains a deep respect for the child’s ability to solve his/her problems and gives the child the opportunity to do so. The responsibility to make choices and to institute change is the child’s.    
  • Does not attempt to direct the child’s actions or conversations in any manner. The child leads the way, the therapist follows.    
  • Does not hurry the therapy along. It is a gradual process and must be recognised as such by the therapist.    
  • Only establishes those limitations necessary to anchor the therapy to the world of reality and to make the child aware of his/her responsibility in the relationship.  

These principles emphasise the importance of a practitioner being able to use a comprehensive 'Play Therapy Tool-Kit' which will enable the therapist to follow the child's lead.

*Axline was influenced by the person centred approach of Carl Rogers. She is recognised as the originator of non-directive Play Therapy. Her well known book 'Dibs: In Search of Self' written in 1964 which describes how she worked with Dibs and how he was able to heal himself over a period of time is an excellent introduction to the subject. Axline in turn influenced Violet Oaklander who added a gestalt therapy approach to play therapy and extended the 'tool-kit' concept as described in her book 'Windows to Our Children'.

About the Play Therapist

My Name is Claudia McGowan and I am a Creative Arts/Play Therapist. When the need arises, following a multi-professional assessment, I am sometimes asked to support pupils and their families.

I have been working with children and adolescents and their families for more than 10 years, first in a young refugees project and then for 7 years in CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).   I am also a qualified mindfulness coach and offer mindfulness groups to children and adolescents as well as providing individual work. My work is systemic and I work closely with parents, teachers, outside agencies, such as social services, or fostering/adoption agencies, acknowledging the need for all those around the child to be able to effectively support him or her,  and to feel supported during the therapeutic process in better understanding the child.

Relevant Qualifications and Trainings

·MA Practiced Based Play and Creative Arts Therapy, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds.

·Post Graduate Diploma in Play and Creative Arts Therapy, Canterbury Christ Church

University, Canterbury

·Post Graduate Certificate in Play and Creative Arts Therapy, Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury

·BA Fine Art and History of Art, Goldsmiths University, London

Further Training

·Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Arbours Association, London.

·Art Therapy Foundation Diploma, The British Association of Art Therapists

·Mindfulness Coach, Children and Young People, Relax Kids, London

·Voice Collective Group Facilitator Training (for children and young people who hear voices), Camden Minds, London.

I am a full member of PTUK (Play Therapy UK) and BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) and adhere to their Ethical Framework and Professional Conduct Procedure. I attend regular clinical supervision with a PTUK-approved supervisor and with a BACP approved supervisor.

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