Thursday, May 26, 2011

Non-Directive Play

(Non-Directive Play Therapy Room at UNT Center for Play Therapy)

Tuesday night was my first night at my new part time job- part time meaning 1 hour a week.  I wasn't sure how it was going to go but I really enjoyed it! I am leading a play therapy group serving abused children through Child Protective Services and thankfully I eased into it, having only one 4 year-old child instead of a large group of chaos.

As I've mentioned before, play therapy is typically a non-directive approach to therapy with young children.  This means that in an individual session or a group, the therapist lets the child lead the play session.  They get to decide on what to play with and how to play with it.

If they want the large green dinosaur to be a father, then so be it. If they are coloring and tell you that elephants are purple, then elephants are purple.  If they ask you to pretend to be the mommy doll, then the therapist asks the child for directives on all the play such as "what does the mommy doll say?", "what do you want the mommy to do?" Basically, the child leads the whole thing.


Here's a good comparison.  Say you had a crappy day at work, nothing went right and you were almost on the verge of tears.  So you come home and want to tell your spouse all about it or call your friend and tell them.  But when you start to tell them about your day, they stop you and tell you, "I only want to hear 1 minute of your story" or "can you just tell me about the part where you did xyz?" or how about, "WHY did you do that?!" Not fun huh?

Same goes for children in play. If we tell them what to do, then they are not expressing themselves fully and we inhibit them.  Play is how they express themselves so we allow them to explore and to basically, 'let it all out.'

The other night really made me more aware of regular play with my daughter at home.  My baby is not verbal yet plus she enjoys more directive, guided play at times as it is also educational.  But I let her lead a lot of her play in a more non-directive way. I let her decide on what to play with, also labeling things to improve her language and vocabulary.

But one day when she is verbal and knows the names of everything, I will definitely play with her more as non-directive, letting her label things and have fun with imaginary play!

It has also made me realize that before I became a play therapist, I was definitely more on the directive side. I would ask kids, "okay, now let's play with this doll," or "let's play with the farm animals now." I also didn't let the children do as much on their own.

Even though my baby is still needing a lot of assistance from me in her play, she is now able to do some things own her own. For instance, she can turn the pages of a book by herself, and I am not quick to do it for her. I let her try as hard as she can, because if I do everything for her, she won't learn as fast.  And letting children do things on their own increases their self esteem and they will feel so proud of themselves! :)


  1. I had no idea and had not even thought of directive or non directive play before but will try out the non directive way with my child now!

  2. It is amazing how much it works. There is something I love called Filial Therapy (10 week group class) where we teach parents how to use the non directive play approaches at home with their kids. It will change your relationship with your child like you have no idea. The feedback parents give is amazing. A lot of them will be crying at the end of the the 10 week sessions!

  3. As a play therapist I use directive and non directive play therapy together. I base it on the client's needs. Great article! Thanks for sharing.

    Michelle Stangline, Ed.D., LPC

  4. Thanks Michelle. I learned mostly non-directive play in my graduate studies, but have found in real life, that using both is usually best for children :)