A history of Play Therapy

Play has widely been acknowledged as an effective form of therapy for over half a century. Child psychotherapy has been with us since the 1920s and its greatest pioneers, including Anna Freud, Margaret Lowenfeld and Melanie Klein all saw a child's spontaneous play as a substitute for free association techniques used to help adults.


Since then play has been universally acknowledged to communicate a child's unconscious experiences, desires, thoughts and emotions. Many of its theories are based, like adult psychology, in the Humanistic Psychology Tradition and Attachment Theory.

In the 1940s, Carl Rogers established a new model of psychotherapy which ultimately became known as person-centred therapy, which for the first time placed emphasis on the relationship between therapist and client, enabling therapists to help clients heal themselves. 

Influenced by this thinking, in the early 1960s American therapist Virginia Axline developed a revolutionary approach to working with children – non-directive Play Therapy. After working with a boy called Dibs, she

wrote a book, Dibs: In Search Of Self, detailing how her techniques helped the child to heal himself.




'Dibs' became such a ground-breaking work that even 50 years on, it remains the basis for most modern thinking on play therapy today. Axline's work, and therefore today's modern play therapy thinking, is based on eight basic principles. They are that 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.


Play Therapy began to emerge in Britain in the 1980s. Play Therapy UK was established in 2000 and it and its members are regulated by the Government's Professional Standards Authority.

Axline's 8 principles

Think differently. Act differently. Be differently.