Most therapists want to honor the requests, wishes, and desires (within reason) of children in the Play Therapy room.
Yes we can play Uno! No you can catapult yourself off my couch like a rocket ship to the chair across the room.
Putting the child in the center of the therapy process allows children to have autonomy, independence and buy-in to their therapy experience. It also allows you as a therapist to build rapport and relationship with your client - which is the number one factor for client change!
All of this sounds great right? BUT where does the line come in between Child Centered Play Therapy and child led therapy?
This is such a common question and issue that pops up in the consultation and supervision part of my practice. Usually it is during a case consultation or video review when someone has identified their theory for a case as Child Centered Play Therapy but then in the process discusses significant questions they are asking the child OR talking about some sort of directive activity or suggestion for play they are giving the child.
First things first - before trying any new theory or technique it is so important to get adequate training. For Child Centered Play Therapy I definitely recommend the following texts of Play Therapy and The Art of The Relationship OR Child Centered Play Therapy as well as taking a foundational course.
Now, on to the differences!
Child Centered Play Therapy is a theoretical model complete with it’s own theory of personality, therapeutic phases, and therapeutic conditions that are unique to Child Centered Play Therapy. This means there is a set of specific things a therapist will say and not say, do and not do, and a specific way of being in the Playroom - all to facilitate therapeutic change. There are also specific toys a Child Centered Play Therapy room will have and not have that is true to the Child Centered Play Therapy model.
Some things that are not included in the Child Centered Play Therapy model? Asking the child questions - with a few exceptions and use of the “whisper technique”. Also, structured activities, interventions, or games.
So when I have someone who is sharing their orientation is Child Centered Play Therapy but in case conceptualization will talk about an activity and questions they persistently asked during session - this is where I get really clear on re-assessing theory and orientation.
Sometimes when clinicians hear the phrase “Child Centered Play Therapy” they can mistake it (and understandably so) for a type of therapy that places the child’s desires, wishes, and wants for their therapy session in the front and center of the therapy process. More like a collaborative therapy process.
And this concept - while it is absolutely necessary for rapport building and engagement with children, is not Child Centered Play Therapy.
We can place the child’s needs and desires at the front of the therapy process AND be another Play Therapy orientation such as Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy. If I am engaging in a CBPT therapy session I can absolutely ask questions and structure activities. I can also have the child engage collaboratively on a project, activity, or game!
BUT if we are using the phrase Child Centered Play Therapy that means we have specific training and are engaging in the model of Child Centered Play Therapy.
Hopefully this can highlight the difference between child led therapy and Child Centered Play Therapy and help us get clearer as a field about how we are showing up in Play Therapy and why we are doing the things we do in session!
Looking for more support in your Child Centered Play Therapy practice? Check out Child Centered Play Therapy: Troubleshooting the 13 Biggest Stuck Points!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC,