Experiential Play Therapy

Print Article


Article ID:
April 2004
Ken Schwartzenberger, LCSW, RPT-S

Carol Crowell Norton and Byron E. Norton are credited with the theoretical model of experiential play therapy. In their book, Reaching Children Through Play Therapy: An Experiential Approach, they introduce an interactive, developmentally based play therapy model that provides for the reframing of the internal workings of the healing process for children within the context of developmental theory.

Reaching children through play is entering a child's world, relating to the child's unique perspective, and forming safe and empowering relationships with honor and respect for the child. The honoring process entails being present, accepting, respecting and validating a child's emotions and behaviors, giving meaning and value to everything the child says and does in the play session (Norton & Norton, 1997).

Experiential play therapy, a synthesis and extension of the principles of the theoretical models of Relationship Play Therapy (Moustakas, 1959) and Child-Centered Play Therapy (Axline, 1969, Landreth, 1991), is reaching children through interactive play and relating to children with depth on an experiential level. Playing with the child defines and strengthens the therapeutic relationship. The living relationship between the child and the therapist is the key and essential dimension in the child's therapeutic process. It constitutes the heart of child therapy (Moustakas, 1959).

Experiential play therapy allows children a safe and empowering way to present their unique perspective of their experiences. Play provides a concrete way to work and rework this perspective and accompanying cognitions. Confronting their emotional pain, children repeatedly re-approach the memories of their experiences in the stages of development in which they occurred, in an effort to resolve trauma and master emotional responses in play sessions (Norton & Norton, 1997). The child regains a sense of empowerment, reframing the intense emotions associated with the traumatic experience and replacing it with a restored internal sense of well being (Norton & Norton, 1997).

Play therapy has deep meaning and value for the child and is more than using toys to encourage a child to answer questions and verbalize experiences and feelings. It is more than making linear, empathic verbalizations and shaping a child's behaviors. These language-based methods are adult therapy models reflected into a child's play and are out of context for children. Verbalizations by the child may be limited due to cognitive levels of development, developmental delays and the evocation of intense emotions associated with the memories of the traumatic events (O'Connor, 1991). Verbal processing by the therapist is more likely received by the child's left brain. Research shows that during traumatic and posttraumatic experiences the left brain hemisphere shuts down, blocking integrative pathways between the right and left brain (Teicher, 2000).

At the age of two years, children can engage in symbolic play, using symbols outside of themselves to represent themselves (Piaget, 1963, Garvey, 1977). Children have the ability to recreate an event in play using symbols that recapitulate the same emotions experienced in the actual event (Irwin, 1983). Children play out their developmental needs for nurturing and protection and share experiences in their relationships through associations and symbolic themes with toys and play materials. Play becomes a child's natural form of communication. Toys are their words and play is their language (Landreth, 1991).

A child's play is always talking. All play has developmental and metaphorical-symbolic meaning (Norton & Norton, 1997, Pearce, 1977, Kranowitz, 1998). The play and play themes of children are rich in metaphorical representation. Knowledge of metaphorical representations is essential in understanding the content and meaning of a child's play and bridges existing gaps in communication between the child and the therapist in the play therapy process. Translating complex child-created metaphorical stories within a child's play assists the therapist in more accurately diagnosing and effectively treating childhood disorders (Mills & Crowley, 1986).

Children can communicate about a traumatic event by recreating that experience in play, attaching metaphorical and symbolic meaning to toys (Norton & Norton, 1997). They use imaginative-fantasy play to safely disguise, through distance and displacement, traumatic events and the emotionally charged issues associated with traumatic experiences such as separation trauma, neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, medical trauma and exposure to domestic violence (Pearce, 1977, Schaefer, 1993).

Imaginatively playing through trauma experiences, children reenact these experiences in the developmental stage occurring at the onset of the trauma (Norton & Norton, 1997, Gil, 1991). Neurobiological research evidences that trauma is stored in the right hemisphere of the brain at an experiential level in specific stages of development (Teicher, 2000). Play therapy at an experiential level allows for access to trauma memory and the accompanying stage of child development.

Children approach therapy at an experiential level through play and play activities (Norton & Norton, 1997, Oaklander, 1978). Experiential play therapy is actively playing with children, sharing in the play experience and using therapeutic responses and reflections that match the experiential level and stage of development of the child (Norton & Norton, 1997). Entering children's play and interacting with them on an experiential level provides immediate access to the child's emotional pain and facilitates movement into earlier stages of development. Reflecting metaphorical play themes in the child's words and play actions helps the therapist more clearly understand the meanings and depictions in the play. Knowledge of the metaphorical representations assists the therapist in accurately reflecting the content and emotional tone of the play, relating to children with depth and meaning and facilitating movement in the treatment process.

In experiential play therapy the focus is on the child as a person in the present experience of the play instead of on the child's presenting problem behaviors. Accepting the child's expressions and behaviors in the relationship communicates genuine acceptance of the child (Landreth, 1991). Children find it difficult to separate themselves from their actions. Their identity and sense of self is defined by their actions. Therefore, children may not feel truly accepted when their behaviors are not accepted by others (Moustakas, 1959).

Experiential play therapy is connecting with children in safe and empowering play interactions, such as playing with a toy ball in the waiting area and following it all the way to the playroom. The therapist creatively reflects the play through the toys, safely interacting with the child by voicing the toys and making them come alive in an imaginative way. Making statements and limiting questions in the play empowers the child and invites additive responses from the child (Landreth, 1991).

The play therapist respects the child's lead in directing the child-therapist interactions and the content of the play themes and honors the child's pacing the rhythm and movement of the play in and out of developmental stages in emotional time. Giving meaning and value to the child and the child's play, the therapist is attentive to shifts in play themes and in attunement with the metaphorical meanings attached to the child's play with the toys.

The play therapist participates in play with children and select toys such as a doctor's kit, animals, dinosaurs and toy sharks, play houses and people, toy soldiers, knights and castles, tents and camping toys, flashlights and sleeping bags, play food and dishes, fright masks, hats and costumes, baby dolls and bottles, baby blankets and bean bags, soft ropes and handcuffs, toy knives and foam swords, an inflated bop bag, toy cars, planes and fire trucks, play tools, musical instruments, soft blocks, play cell phones and puppets, crayons, paints and markers, clay, sand, toy boats and water (Landreth, 1991).

Aware of spacing and personal boundaries during the play, the play therapist models safe and respectful physical interactions in activities such as counting fingers, tracing hands, face-painting, shaping clay, sand play and water play (Brody, 1993, Oaklander, 1978). Anticipating the child's movements and the direction of the developing themes in the child's play, the therapist responds with care and concern and remains present and connected with the child as emotional pain is played out in hurtful and sometimes aggressive pretend play (Moustakas, 1959). Expecting the child's testing for protection, the therapist responds with therapeutic limit setting and redirection (Landreth 1991). Keeping pace with the play and acting out the rapidly shifting roles assigned and directed by the child, the therapist carefully maintains the child's power levels and sense of control and never exceeds the power of the child in the play (Norton & Norton, 1997).

The play therapist is patient and understanding of the child's repeated attempts to stay longer with the therapist in the play room, calmly reflecting the child's needs and expressions while transitioning the child out of the fantasy play, perhaps voicing the toy ball as it rolls out the door.

Together in imaginative play the child and the therapist set off on a healing journey through discernable therapeutic stages (Norton & Norton, 1997, Purdy, 1997). Exploration and testing for protection in the relationship mark the initial stages, as the child confirms the safety of the play and develops trust with the therapist. The therapeutic relationship provides a nurturing and protective holding space and the child naturally moves into a dependency stage in the therapeutic process. There is continual motion of the play and the play themes, in and out of regressed stages in past development, as these stages open and close in fantasy play. The safety of the relationship allows children to enter the working stages of therapeutic growth and healing where they resolve past trauma, master emotions, reclaim their well being and strengthen the child-parent relationship, completing the termination stage in the healing journey (Norton & Norton, 1997).

Experiential play therapy is connecting in respectful relationships with the child's parents and caregivers. Guiding parents in nurturing and protective interactions, effective communication, conflict resolution, and discipline without punishment and modeling therapeutic limit setting and re-directive techniques with their children restores the balance of power and strengthens the child-parent relationship (Gordon, 1991, Landreth, 1991, Eyberg, 1982). Including parents and caregivers in play sessions and family play sessions in select stages of the play therapy (Schaefer & Carey, 1994, Whitaker, 1998) and providing them interactive guidance in developmental play and playful parenting, enhances attachment in the child-parent relationship and ensures nurturing and protective care for the child (Brody, 1993, Davies, 1999, Cohen, 2001, Guerney, et. al. 1999). The transition of the child's therapeutic care to the parents and caregivers completes the treatment process.

Play therapists integrating experiential methods of play therapy with various theoretical models of play therapy and family therapy can enhance the therapeutic process for the child.


Kranowitz, Carol Stock (1998) The out-of-sync child: Recognizing and coping with sensory integration dysfunction. NY: The Berkley Publishing Group
Landreth, Garry L (1991) Play therapy: The art of the relationship. Muncie, IN: Accelerated Development Inc. Pub
Mills, J.C., & Crowley, R.J. (1986) Therapeutic metaphors for children and the child within. NY: Magination Press
Moustakas, C.E. (1952) Psychotherapy with children: The living relationship. NY: Harper & Row Pub
Norton, C., & Norton, B. (1997) Reaching children through play therapy: An experiential approach. Denver, CO: Pub. Cooperative
Oaklander, V (1978) Windows to our children: A gestalt therapy approach to children and adolescents. Moab, Utah: Real People Press
O'Connor, K.J. (1991) The play therapy primer: An integration of theories and techniques.. NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Pearce, J.D. (1977) Magical child. NY: Plume/Penguin Books
Piaget, J. (1962) Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. NY: Norton Publishers
Purdy, C. (1997) Playing with janet. Red Bluff, CA: Kid Power
Schaefer, C.E. & Carey, L.J. (1994) Family play therapy. NJ: Aronson
Schaefer, C.E. (1993) The therapeutic powers of play. NJ: Aronson
Teicher, M. (2000) Wounds that time won't heal: the neurobiology of child abuse. : In Cerebrum Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4
Whitaker, C.A., & Bummery, W.M. (1988) Dancing with the family: A symbolic-experiential approach. NY: Brunner/Mazel, Inc