Play therapists use play as a communication tool to help children understand their world and deal with emotional distress and trauma
As a play therapist you'll help children and young adolescents work through difficult life issues and experiences, including:
- abuse and neglect
- depression and anxiety
- divorce and family separations
- learning difficulties
- psychological problems
- traumatic experiences and violence.
Through play therapy interventions, you'll help children become more emotionally resilient and able to understand and better cope with their experiences in a safe and non-threatening environment. You may also work with parents/carers and siblings.
Complex issues can't be treated in the same way as with adults. You'll need to understand the nature of how children express themselves and their understanding of the world using play.
As a play therapist, you'll need to:
- accept children through self-referral and referrals from other support professionals in organisations such as schools, hospitals, clinics and social services
- assess each child and their individual needs in consultation with other professionals, such as social services, health workers and teachers, and with parents and carers
- determine an appropriate course of therapeutic treatment
- provide regular therapeutic interventions in individual and group therapy sessions, normally on a weekly basis, to help children better cope with the issues they're facing
- build up a relationship of trust with children and their parents/carers
- create a safe and stable environment in which children can express themselves through play and form strategies to cope with their issues and experiences
- ensure children's safety when using the playroom and play equipment
- regularly evaluate and review play therapy sessions and progress
- seek support and advice from a clinical supervisor about any issues that arise and implement any actions
- keep accurate records about therapy interventions, issues and progress
- attend meetings with other professionals involved in the child’s care, and with parents and careers, and produce reports on activities and progress
- provide training, consultation and advice when required to other professionals
- provide clinical supervision to other less experienced play therapists
- keep up to date with the latest developments in play therapy and with your own professional development.
- Salaries for newly qualified play therapists typically start at around £31,000 to £32,000.
- With experience, you can earn between around £38,000 to £45,000, depending on how much, and the level of, experience you have. With further training and specialist areas of expertise, you could earn in excess of this amount.
- Many play therapists also work independently or take on private clients in addition to paid employment.
Sessional rates typically range from between £45 and £90 per hour for experienced play therapists.
Play therapists work in a range of settings, such as social services, education and healthcare, so salaries vary. If you're working for a local council, school or NHS, for example, you may follow a graded salary structure.
Salaries also vary depending on your experience, level of responsibility and location. Salaries for jobs in London, for example, are usually higher (as are living costs).
Income data from the British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT). Figures are intended as a guide only.
Play therapy sessions usually take place once a week and normally last 40 to 50 minutes per session.
You'll usually work Mondays to Fridays during normal office hours (9am to 5pm). If working privately with clients, your appointments may be held outside of these hours to fit in with their needs.
Part-time work is common, and you could work for several organisations at once. You may also take on freelance work or private clients in addition to your normal employment.
What to expect
- You'll work as part of a multidisciplinary team with other healthcare professionals, such as social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists and medical practitioners.
- Providing therapy to children can be challenging, especially with cases involving abuse and violence. You need to allow for dealing with the pressures of this type of work by looking after your own emotional wellbeing. For example, many play therapists have therapy themselves to maintain a balance between their working and personal lives.
- The profession is small, but growing in the UK and job vacancies are not always widely advertised. Networking is still one of the best ways to find out about opportunities, so make sure you maintain good relationships with your contacts and previous employers.
- You may have to travel between appointments or to various workplaces during the week.
You'll need an accredited postgraduate qualification from either the British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT) or Play Therapy UK (PTUK) to qualify as a play therapist. Both these organisations hold a voluntary register of qualified play therapists accredited by the Professional Standards Authority.
The BAPT accredits Masters courses in play therapy run by the:
Once qualified you can become a full member of BAPT and are eligible for entry on to the BAPT Register of Play Therapists. For more information, see BAPT Play Therapy Training.
The PTUK accredits postgraduate courses that are delivered by the Academy of Play and Child Psychotherapy (APAC) at a number of venues throughout the UK. Courses are validated by Leeds Beckett University. You'll need to complete the taught part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Therapeutic Play Skills, as well as 50 hours of supervised clinical work with children, before taking the Postgraduate Diploma in Play Therapy. Some graduates then move on to the MA in Practice Based Play Therapy, but this isn't essential for registration as a play therapist on the PTUK Register of Play and Creative Arts Therapists. See PTUK Training for more information.
To get a place on a course, you'll usually need a degree-level qualification in a subject such as teaching, social work, nursing, psychology, occupational therapy, childhood studies or a related area, as well as at least two years direct experience of working with children and young adolescents in a developmental role.
If your degree isn't in a relevant area, you may be able to get a place on a course if you have at least five years' full-time experience of working professionally with children and young people.
Entry requirements vary between courses, so check directly with course providers.
It's also possible to take a Level 7 play therapist apprenticeship, which combines paid work with part-time study.
All training includes clinical supervision with an experienced play therapist who will support your growth and development during the training modules.
Personal therapy is included as a requirement during training for BAPT-recognised courses, and it's recommended that you continue with this once you're qualified. The purpose of this therapy is to increase your self-awareness and emotional resilience, as working with children who are in emotional distress or have experienced trauma can be difficult to cope with.
As you'll be working with children, you'll need an enhanced criminal records check.
Due to the limited routes to qualification, there can be competition for places on programmes, and course providers will be looking at your suitability for the training and work. Play therapy is often a second career choice.
If you're considering training to become a play therapist, one-day introductory courses are offered by organisations such as APAC and the University of Roehampton.
You'll need to have:
- experience and understanding of child development
- excellent verbal and written communication skills
- interpersonal skills and the ability to build rapport quickly with both children and adults
- respect for children without judgement
- empathy and sincerity towards others
- emotional resilience and self-awareness
- the ability to remain calm and work effectively under pressure
- strong observation and listening skills
- creativity and imagination
- teamworking skills and the ability to work collaboratively with other professionals
- the ability to deal with confidential matters appropriately
- organisation and time management skills in order to manage a caseload of clients and resources
- a flexible and adaptable approach to work
- IT skills, including Microsoft Office and database case management systems
- attention to detail.
You'll need considerable previous experience, paid or voluntary, working with children and young people for entry on to most training courses. Relevant types of experience include:
- social work
- youth work
- paediatric nursing
- clinical or educational psychology
- mental health support
- occupational therapy.
Check with course providers to find out what type of experience they are looking for and how much.
It may not be possible to find work experience with a play therapist or an organisation offering play therapy services due to the regulations around confidentiality. If possible, however, try to speak to a play therapist about the role and their experiences to get an insight into the work.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
As a qualified play therapist you can work for a range of employers, including:
- child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS)
- children and family charities
- children's centres
- fostering and adoption services
- the NHS - in hospitals or hospices
- private children's residential homes
- social work services.
Self-employment is an option and you can work independently with clients in private practice or through specialist agencies providing play therapy services.
There are also opportunities to work as an academic on one of the training courses or in clinical supervision.
Look for job vacancies at:
Networking is an important part of finding work. Most employers require you to be registered with the BAPT or PTUK.
Once qualified, continuing professional development (CPD) and quality management play an important part of your role. Both the BAPT and PTUK require their members to update their education and training regularly and offer a range of training courses and conferences throughout the year. You'll also need to continue to undergo regular clinical supervision to ensure the quality and standards of your practice.
Short courses on specific topics such as working with families, gender and sexuality identity, or the latest therapeutic techniques enable you to develop your skills and keep up to date. It's possible to study up to PhD level. Take advantage of conferences and events to network with other play therapists.
Depending on your previous qualifications and experience, you may also be eligible to join other relevant professional bodies such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychology (BACP) or the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), which could lead to more job opportunities and further career development. Each organisation has its own entry requirements, so check your eligibility for membership.
Once qualified and working in the profession you could choose to specialise in an area of play therapy, such as supporting victims of sexual abuse, drug abuse or domestic violence. It's also possible to develop the family therapy dimension of your work, or to work with children with specific physiological challenges, such as deafness. Some even go on to work with adults using play therapy.
There are some opportunities to move into managerial roles. This could mean less time spent working directly with children, as you will have increased responsibility for the supervision of staff or a team of staff, the management of budgets and writing or presenting reports.
You could also consider training or academic teaching. The BAPT and PTUK encourage experienced play therapists to become clinical supervisors, supporting both those training to enter the field and those with less experience.
With experience you could consider freelance work or setting up a private practice.