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In Play Therapy, Do You Engage or Observe?

BlocksIt’s kind of a funny question: of all the technical aspects of play therapy including the space you create, the interactions you use to draw out your clients, the ways you process these interactions, the boundaries you set, etc. the mechanical question of where you physically place yourself in the room can be an afterthought.

The thing is, there’s a fairly rich debate in the world of play therapy about where is the therapist in the picture. Some theorists think the therapist should sit and watch (Axline, Wilson, Ryan, Landreth, etc.). Some think the therapist should join in the play, be it sitting on the floor or standing/kneeling with the child at a sandtray (Wettig, Franke, Fjordbak, etc.). And some think the therapist should hang back until invited into the child’s space (West, etc.).

An article by Dr. Sally Robinson in the journal Pastoral Care in Education frames the issue. On one hand, “joining the child in the play space is interpreted as being an intrusion into the child’s personal space, and for children who have been abused and had their personal boundaries crossed without consent, respecting their space is part of providing the safe psychological and physical secure-base for therapy.” And on the other hand, Robinson quotes Landreth writing, “Sitting and watching without responding to the child can result in the child feeling watched and may increase the child’s anxiety.”

Should you intrude or should you lurk? Gosh, what a wonderful choice!

One option is to sit near the play, verbalizing the child’s actions (“you’re putting the child to bed,” writes Robinson). This may create connection without intrusion. Another option is the “non-verbal access strategy” of preschoolers themselves, who tend to circle groups of play, observe, and then unobtrusively join.

To Robinson, the goal is empathy and attunement, best created by playing with the child patient rather than simply observing, and rather even than offering a running narrative while observing. The challenge is joining play only when invited – which can be verbal or nonverbal.

And so the question of where to place yourself as a play therapist, like most other decisions in this nuanced technique, comes down to your understanding of your patient. Does your patient want you in his or her space of play? If so, then that’s exactly where you should be.

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Image: Flickr/HeyPaul cc license

In Play Therapy, Do You Engage or Observe?

Kristi Pikiewicz, Ph.D.

After a first career in teaching, Kristi Pikiewicz earned a PhD in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She now works half time as a psychologist at the Mackintosh School and half time in private practice in Boulder, CO. She lives with her husband, a pack of labradors, and young kids just outside Boulder.

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APA Reference
Pikiewicz, K. (2014). In Play Therapy, Do You Engage or Observe?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 26, 2019, from


Last updated: 16 Aug 2014
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 16 Aug 2014
Published on All rights reserved.