Play Therapist

The Job and What's Involved

Play therapists help children to cope with psychological difficulties and traumatic experiences by enabling them to explore their feelings through play.

Play therapy is based on the theory that playing is a child's natural way of learning, communicating and making sense of the world. It is felt to be more effective for children than the adult-orientated speech-based therapy.

Children may be referred to a play therapist because they are suffering from depression, anxiety or aggression or because they have learning difficulties or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

They may also be referred because of life experiences such as:

- Grief
- Family breakdown
- Domestic violence
- Illness
- Trauma

Play therapists work mostly with children between three and twelve years old or occasionally adolescents.

Therapy sessions provide a safe, confidential environment for children to explore issues that are affecting their lives, whether or not they are conscious of them. The aim is to help them to understand their emotions, feel better about themselves and cope better in the future.

Therapists begin by assessing the emotional needs of the child. The therapist does this in consultation with the child, the child's parents and professionals in schools, hospitals, clinics, social services and courts.

Play therapists use a variety of methods.

  • Sometimes the play activity is chosen to address specific issues in the child's life. For instance, the therapist might suggest the child plays with dolls that represent members of the child's family. These methods are referred to as 'directive' or 'focused' therapy.
  • An alternative approach allows the child to play as he or she chooses. The therapist watches and listens, picking up on feelings expressed by the child. This is known as 'non-directive' therapy.

Sessions usually involve the child working individually with the therapist. Therapists also work closely with fellow professionals concerned with the child's welfare. Some play therapists work with brothers and sisters and many involve parents or carers.

Therapists keep written, confidential records of their work. They are often required to provide formal or informal progress reports. They might sometimes be called to give evidence in court cases involving their clients.

Play therapists receive regular clinical supervision from a more experienced therapist. The purpose of clinical supervision is to monitor, support and increase the therapist's awareness of the play therapy process.

Therapy sessions are usually on weekdays and during normal office hours. Many play therapists work part time.

Sessions with a child usually take place once a week for around an hour. The number of sessions depends on each child's needs.

Sessions usually take place in a clinic, family centre, the child's school or sometimes their home. Some travel is often necessary, so a driving licence is useful.

The starting salary for a newly qualified therapist is around £28,000 a year. Experienced therapists can earn £32,000 or more.

Some therapists are paid a rate per session, which may range between £35 and £70 an hour

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Most play therapists are employed in social services, child mental health services, family centres and schools. Some work for independent and voluntary services, such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Barnardo's and Action for Children. It is common for play therapists to work for a number of organisations rather than full time for one organisation.

Some therapists work on a freelance basis. Many work part time in private practice and combine this with a related profession. Other qualified therapists continue to work in their first profession (as a social worker or teacher, for example) and make use of play therapy when a need arises in their everyday work.

The number of play therapists has grown in recent years and there are now several hundred.

Job vacancies are advertised on the British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT) and Play Therapy United Kingdom (PTUK) websites, and in The Guardian, The Times Educational Supplement, Community Care and Therapy Today.

Education and Training

The two main bodies that accredit play therapy training courses are BAPT and PTUK.

Entrants to BAPT-validated courses must have an honours degree or a professional qualification in a relevant subject, such as counselling, psychology, nursing, social work, teaching or occupational therapy. Applicants should also normally have completed a minimum of two years' work with children of varying ages in a voluntary or professional capacity.

Entrants to PTUK-validated courses must have a relevant degree, such as childhood studies, psychology or social sciences, or an equivalent qualification. All applicants must have had at least five years' experience of working with children.

Entry to degree courses is usually with at least two A levels and five GCSE's (A*-C) or equivalent qualifications. The Diploma in society, health and development may be acceptable for entry.

Specific requirements vary, so candidates are advised to check with individual colleges and universities.

To work with children, applicants need to undergo checks through the Criminal Records Bureau.

To qualify as a play therapist through BAPT-accredited training requires a postgraduate diploma or Masters degree in play therapy. Accredited courses are offered at Notre Dame Centre, Glasgow (three-year part-time postgraduate diploma, with the option to continue for a further year to Masters level) and at Roehampton University, London (18-month, full-time or three-year part-time Masters degree).

PTUK-accredited courses are run by The Academy of Play and Child Psychotherapy (APAC). They are offered at several venues throughout England and Scotland. There are four stages of training - Introductory, Certificate, Diploma and Masters which, in total, usually take five years to complete. Students can practise as play therapists on successful completion of the Diploma stage.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Courses combine theoretical and skills-based learning with supervised clinical practice.

While studying, students on BAPT-accredited courses undergo personal therapy themselves. This helps to ensure that they have an awareness of their own issues and can take steps to avoid those affecting their work with children. This is not a requirement of PTUK-accredited courses.

All therapists must undertake a minimum number of hours of supervised practice with a number of child clients before they are fully accredited and can apply for full membership of BAPT or PTUK.

To maintain BAPT or PTUK membership play therapists must undertake continuing professional development (CPD). This can include clinical supervision of their play therapy practice, attending conferences, courses and meetings, conducting research and reading. They may study for a PhD.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A play therapist should:

  • Have excellent communication skills.
  • Have empathy, tolerance and compassion.
  • Be able to build good relationships with children based on trust and respect.
  • Know a great deal about child development.
  • Understand the different ways children express how they feel.
  • Be able to remain composed when faced with difficult or distressing behaviour or information.
  • Appreciate the need for confidentiality.
  • Be well organised.
  • Be emotionally strong and self-aware.
  • Work well with other professionals.
  • Keep up to date with child protection and other relevant legal issues.

Your Long Term Prospects

As their experience and professional reputation grows, play therapists may be able to charge increased fees.

Some experienced play therapists become clinical supervisors and teach students on play therapy training courses.

Get Further Information

The Academy of Play and Child Psychotherapy (APAC),
The Coach House, Belmont Road,
Uckfield, East Sussex TN22 1BP
Tel: 01825 761143

The British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT),
1 Beacon Mews, South Road,
Weybridge KT13 9DZ
Tel: 01932 828638

Play Therapy United Kingdom (PTUK),
The Coach House, Belmont Road,
Uckfield, East Sussex TN22 1BP
Tel: 01825 761143

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