4.’Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship’ by Garry L. Landreth

Although I’m a book blogger and writer on my nights and weekends, by day I’m a child therapist. One of my goals for this year is to read more books on the art of therapy in order to better my skills with children. I received Garry Landreth’s book on play therapy as a Christmas gift, and it proved to be a very absorbing resource full of great information!

Working with a child in a therapeutic relationship is vastly different than working with an adult. Unlike grown-up clients, children are not able to express themselves through traditional talk therapy. Children speak in a language of play. Their tools for communication are toys, puppets, art supplies, and other kid-friendly materials. In order to be successful in working with children, a play therapist must be able to meet them on their level. In his landmark book Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship, Dr. Garry Landreth carefully instructs on the techniques, skills, and special issues that may occur in providing therapy to children.

Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Dr. Landreth has extensive knowledge in play therapy. He is the founder and director for the Center for Play Therapy, the largest play therapy training program in the world. Dr. Landreth is world renowned for advancing the child-centered approach to play therapy. He also has several decades of hands-on experience and is a registered supervisor for play therapists. Drawing on his years in the field, he has compiled a very accessible text that is not only user friendly but filled with a wealth of information.

Central to the fundamental principles of the child-centered play therapy approach is that children are able to develop and work through problems providing that the right conditions are met. So, by providing a safe place with the right materials, children are able to exercise their independence, problem, solving, and emotional growth. At the heart of these right conditions is the relationship with the therapist. As with all forms of therapy, the client-therapist relationship is the most important condition of all. For the play therapist, it is someone that accepts the child unconditionally. This approach to play therapy emerged from the client-centered approach to adult therapy that was developed by Carl Rogers. Landreth stresses throughout his book that the relationship between the therapist and child is the key ingredient for change.

Landreth begins his book with a personal account of his work with children and why he finds this profession so meaningful. He then goes into the meaning of play and gives a brief overview on the history and development of play therapy. I thought these chapters covered just the right amount of information. They were informative without getting weighed down under too many unnecessary details. Landreth has carefully constructed a very concise and well-worded book. Each chapter explains specifics for the play therapist, such as what materials to have, the role of the therapist, and the art of facilitative responses to children’s words and actions. Landreth provides excerpts taken from real sessions with children that helps illustrate his theories. Throughout these chapters, Landreth continues to emphasize the most important skill of maintaining the therapeutic relationship.

Other important issues Landreth discusses are the parent’s part of the process, beginning the therapeutic relationship, common problems that can occur in the play room, as well as ways to track progress and determine termination from therapy. This edition of the book includes several case studies in addition to transcripts from sessions. He also offers practical advice and strategies to employ in the play room. I’ve encountered many psychological textbooks that can bogged down in too many statistics rather than actual strategies that can be useful. Landreth’s writing is full of practical ideas that helped me discover some techniques that I plan to use with my own clients.

Therapists who do not subscribe to Carl Rogers and his person-centered approach may struggle with some of Landreth’s concepts in the child-centered model. Rather than attempt to fix or solve the problem, the role of the therapist is to allow the child to lead the direction of play. By allowing the child to lead, the child will work through the specific issues. Personally, I’ve never been completely sold on this method. Although I see the importance of unconditional acceptance and allowing the child to lead in the early stages of the therapeutic process, I do often adjust to provide direction to get to the core difficulties. As a therapist with over a decade of experience, I find it difficult to embrace an entirely pure play therapy model. I think direction can be used without stifling the relationship with the child. My one complaint about Landreth’s book is that he never really explores a compromise between the purely play model and the use of some direction. Also, I was disappointed that Landreth looked down on the concept of praising children in play. I’ve been trained in parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) which revolves around teaching parents the importance of praising positive behaviors. Landreth’s pure play therapy model discourages the use of verbal praising. Is the use of providing positive feedback to a child really that detrimental to the process?

Despite my problems with this particular model of therapy, I found Landreth’s book to be excellent in his well-written account of the client-centered model of play therapy. Throughout the book, Landreth’s passion for working with children is clear. His information is filled with the warmth and genuineness that he uses in his work with children. Whether you are a student of counseling or already working in the field, this is a recommended resource.

“How a therapist feels about a child is more important that what the therapist knows about the child.”

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