Click here to see a timeline that features the major figures in the history of the play therapy and offers a brief introduction to their theories.
When Freud discovered the “talking cure,” his patients were primarily adults, and he learned that he could best access their unconscious wishes, fears, and fantasies by directing them to say whatever came to mind–to free associate. The chain of associations would ultimately lead to important unconscious material, material that would reveal conflicts that were causing the patient’s difficult symptoms. Once the unconscious conflicts were brought into consciousness and worked through, the symptoms would abate.
While Freud’s work was mainly with adults, he believed that infancy and early childhood were critical in the development of personality and of personality conflicts and problems. He developed his theory of psychological development by following the free associations of his patients into their childhood memories. In a few exceptional cases, he analyzed a child, seeking in part to confirm theory he had developed out of his work with adults.
Followers of Freud, including his daughter Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, and D. W. Winnicott, who worked primarily with children, had to develop different ways to access a child’s unconscious fantasies, wishes and conflicts. Play became the tool they used in place of free association.
Today, as well, most child therapists are participant/observers in their child patients’ play. Play allows them access to the children’s motivations, feelings, and fantasies. Some therapists use forms of play with adults as well; for example, some play therapists offer children and adults alike the opportunity to build a scene in a sandtray. Material that is not communicable verbally can be expressed and revealed in the sand.