In the 1940’s Carl Rogers established person centred therapy it later became known as client centred therapy. Rogers placed a great deal of emphasis on developing a trusting and accepting relationship between the therapist and the client. He advocated that the role of the therapist was to be that of a facilitator which was to provide secure surroundings in which to allow the client to express themselves freely rather than directing the client towards a set goal or recovery.
Virginia Axline was very much influenced by Rogerian theory. Utilising the tenets of Roger’s person centred approach she devised a play therapy method known as non-directive play therapy later to become known as child centred play therapy. She states that play therapy is based on the fact “that play is the child’s natural medium of self expression, it is an opportunity which is given to the child to play out his feelings and problems, just as in certain adults therapy an individual talks out his difficulties” (Axline 2002:8). From her work and research Axline developed eight principles of play therapy, which help to inform the practice of many play therapists today. The following will state and briefly discuss each one of Axline’s eight principles
The therapist must develop a warm, friendly relationship with the child, in which good rapport is established as soon as possible.
This principle seems relatively straightforward, as this is the type of relationship that most therapists try to achieve with their clients during therapeutic sessions. Axline states that while this warm rapport is very important it should not be achieved by compromising any of the other eight principles. In her book play, Axline gives an example of how this can happen. When a child tells a therapist that he can’t paint very well she responds by telling him that his painting is very good and he should be pleased as he did it all by himself and then reflects his feeling that he thinks he doesn’t paint well. Axline says that although the reflection of the client’s feeling is present by the time the therapist gets around to acknowledging it, it is too late and does not help the child.
The therapist must accept the child as is. This a fundamental principle because in order for a child to feel comfortable with themselves it is imperative they must feel accepted by the therapist. It is important for the therapist to accept his/her attitude. If the child wants to just sit in silence the therapist should acknowledge that and try not to force him/her to play or ask them probing questions. It is also the important that the therapist does not get impatient with the child nor should she praise or criticise the child. By praising the child they may feel the need to please the therapist. Criticism can be destructive and very demotivating for the child. Axline points out that it is essential for therapists to be very aware of their tone of voice and body language as they can significantly “add to or subtract from the degree of acceptance that is being put on the situation” (Axline 2002:86).
The therapist establishes a feeling of permission in the relationship so that the child feels free to express his or her feeling completely. In order to achieve the feeling of permissive in a play therapy session, the therapist has to be non judgemental. Permissiveness is interwoven with acceptance. Once the child establishes permission and feels accepted he will choose how to express himself and do so without shame or guilt.
The therapist 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. Axline advises that if a therapist is confronted with a direct question that requires a factual answer then the therapist should answer it. However she does say that it is important to differentiate between recognition of feeling and the interpretation of feeling. If a therapist comments on a child’s symbolic behaviour she is commenting on what she thinks the child has expressed in his actions. Axline advises avoidance but states that it is important to reflect on a child’s feeling in an objective manner with as little interpretation as is necessary.
The therapist maintains a deep respect for the child’s ability to solve his own problems if given an opportunity. The responsibility to make choices and institute change in the child. If a child feels respected they begin to take responsibility for themselves and as a result they are given an opportunity to change their behaviour. According to Axline it is quite possible that a child may not have been respected by an adult before and as a result they could inherently change their ways in a positive manner.
The therapist does not attempt to direct the child’s actions of conversations in any manner. The therapist follows the child’s play. The therapist should not try to influence the child’s play in anyway. She should never ask open ended or probing questions nor should she make suggestions or label anything the child creates or plays with. In addition the therapist should not under any circumstances express her opinions or feelings. The therapist is an unique person who “…is a sounding board against which he (the child)… can try out his personality…The child leads the therapist follows” (Axline 2002:114)
The therapist does not hurry the therapy along. It is a gradual process and must be recognised as such by the therapist. The therapist should always be patient with the child even if she deems the play to be uneventful. There should be no specific agenda during the play therapy sessions; the child should be allowed to express themselves at their own pace. This can be a more intense experience and much more revealing then if the therapist had forced the child to open up. 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.
There should be as few limitations as necessary. They must be mutual respect. A sense of security and it is important to adhere to the allotted time. Non-directive play therapy offers children a secure environment where they can express themselves freely at their own pace. Undoubtedly Axline’s principles help facilitate that sense of security and self direction