Case study

Play therapist — Rachel

After a successful career in teaching, Rachel decided to retrain as a play therapist. Find out more about the challenges and rewards of working with children who have a range of emotional issues

Why did you become a play therapist?

I decided to become a play therapist because I realised that there are always children who need something more from the school system, children who come to school with so many issues that there's no way they can sit on a carpet and listen to a teacher. They were the children that I became most interested in. I could see that as a teacher I could do little to help them, but as a play therapist I could reach them.

How did you get your job?

Jobs in play therapy aren't often advertised and networking is very important.

I started looking for work before I finished my MA in Play Therapy from the University of Roehampton and found my own work through word of mouth.

What's a typical day like?

I work within a number of schools on the same day every week, supporting children with their emotional needs and their teachers in their learning. I arrive at a school before the school day starts and check in with the teachers about the children. I have a room in each school and a set of toys which I set up.

Sessions with a child usually take up to an hour, and I work with them individually. Often I see parents and have meetings to discuss what is happening for the child at home.

What do you enjoy about being a play therapist?

No two days are the same and I can't predict what will happen during a session. I love working with children and I particularly love those times when the work has made a difference.

The work brings with it a sense of privilege as I have the opportunity to build an important relationship with the child and really get to know them.

What are the challenges?

Play is constantly undervalued in terms of its importance in child development. This is frustrating as the school system is very results driven from an increasingly early age. Children are expected to sit down and learn to read and write without the acknowledgement of the importance of play to a child's individual development.

It's also challenging working with children in a time where families spend less time together. Technology is used to babysit children and they're exposed to things intended for teens. I often end up working with children who need to simply play out their issues but have few opportunities to do so.

How relevant is your degree to your job?

My Masters degree was fundamental to my job as it gave me the tools to work with children with a range of issues. These include bereavement, domestic violence, adoption, trauma, neglect, divorce and foetal alcohol syndrome.

My dissertation was about monitoring what happens during a play therapy intervention - how do we know it is making a difference? This in itself has given me the tools to talk to professionals involved in the life of a child about how important it is to support children and their mental health.

How do you see your career moving forward?

I have a variety of paths open to me and there are opportunities to develop different aspects of the work, such as specialist training to work with families. Many therapists with such in-depth knowledge of children want to develop the family therapist dimension; others develop their work with adopted children or domestic violence and drug abuse. Some work with adults using play therapy.

What advice can you give to others?

I would get as much experience working with children as possible, especially within different settings, for example in schools, play centres, holiday camps and social services.

Knowing and understanding a variety of children is essential to the job as well as a more in-depth knowledge about the effects that background can have on a child's development and subsequent behaviour.

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