You'll need a postgraduate qualification, experience of working with children and a commitment to continued professional development (CPD) to become a successful play therapist

As a play therapist you'll usually work with children aged three to 11, using play as a communication tool to understand their world and to help them deal with emotional distress and trauma. You'll help children and their families work through difficult life issues and experiences, including:

  • abuse and neglect
  • bereavement
  • divorce and family separations
  • learning difficulties
  • psychological problems
  • traumatic experiences and violence.

Complex issues cannot 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.

Responsibilities

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
  • determine a course of therapeutic treatment
  • provide therapeutic interventions in individual and group therapy sessions, normally on a weekly basis, to help children better cope with issues they face
  • 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
  • review therapeutic interventions on a regular basis
  • work with other healthcare professionals, such as social workers and medical practitioners
  • attend meetings, maintain client records and produce reports on activities and progress.

Salary

  • Starting salaries can range from £25,000 to £35,000.
  • With experience, you can earn between £38,000 and £40,000.
  • Managerial or directorship positions can attract salaries of up to £60,000 and possibly more.

Salaries vary according to your location, the organisation you work for and your level of experience.

Many play therapists also work independently or take on private clients in addition to paid employment. Fees for your services will typically range from between £35 and £70 per hour.

Income data from Play Therapy UK (PTUK). Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Play therapy sessions are usually held Monday to Friday during normal office hours (9am to 5pm) and take around 40 to 50 minutes per session. If working privately with clients, your appointments may be held outside of these hours to fit in with client 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

  • Providing therapy to children is difficult, 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 industry is small yet growing in the UK and many job vacancies are not widely advertised. Networking is still the best way to find opportunities - it's therefore important to maintain good relationships with your contacts and previous employers.
  • You may have to travel between appointments or to various workplaces during the week.

Qualifications

You will need to get a relevant postgraduate qualification to qualify as a play therapist and to register with the British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT) or PTUK. Both these organisations provide a register of qualified play therapists to employers and families and ensure practice standards are met across the industry.

The two qualification routes are:

  • Obtaining a Masters degree in play therapy practice, recognised by the BAPT from the University of Roehampton, University of South Wales or Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. For more information see BAPT Play Therapy Training.
  • Obtaining a Masters qualification offered by PTUK through Leeds Beckett University. The PTUK also provides a range of postgraduate certificate and diploma-level courses that can be taken towards the Masters degree. To find out more see PTUK Training Courses.

To get a place on a course you'll need a degree in a subject related to child development, such as psychology, teaching or social work, as well as at least two years direct experience of working with children in a developmental role. Play therapy is often a second career for many. Check entry requirements with course providers as these can vary slightly.

Search for postgraduate courses in play therapy.

All training includes clinical supervision with an experienced play therapist who will oversee your work and training.

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.

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.

If you're considering training to become a play therapist, one-day introductory courses are offered by organisations such as PTUK and the University of Roehampton.

Skills

You'll need to show:

  • experience and understanding of child development
  • a trustworthy and open nature
  • respect for children without judgement
  • empathy and sincerity towards others
  • emotional resilience and self-awareness
  • strong observation and listening skills
  • creativity and imagination
  • the ability to work well with other professionals
  • good communication skills with both children and the adults in their lives
  • the ability to deal with confidential matters appropriately
  • organisation skills when managing work for a range of employers and clients.

Work experience

You'll need considerable previous experience, paid or voluntary, working with children for entry on to most training courses, as well as a mature attitude.

Finding work experience with a play therapist or an organisation offering this service can be challenging due to the numerous regulations around working with children. However, you can gain experience in many other relevant areas such as schools, play groups, youth work, social services and mental health support.

As you'll be working with children, an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check is usually required.

Employers

As a qualified play therapist you can work for a range of employers, including:

  • children's centres
  • children and family charities
  • fostering and adoption services
  • the NHS
  • schools
  • social work services.

You can also work on a broad range of community programmes, which are often charity or local government initiatives.

Experienced play therapists can train to become a clinical supervisor and work in supporting those training to become qualified. You'll usually work for one of the training providers, although could be employed directly by students.

Self-employment is an option and you can work privately with clients.

Look for job vacancies at BAPT Jobs and PTUK - Job Vacancies.

Although play therapy is still a relatively new profession, opportunities for employment are increasing across the country. Job opportunities are rarely advertised on national job websites, so networking is an important part of finding work. Most employers require you to be registered with the BAPT or PTUK.

Professional development

Once qualified, 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.

The BAPT and PTUK offer support in developing your career in play therapy. The PTUK, for example, provides CV writing advice, portfolio and skills development for those working as self-employed therapists. BAPT publishes the Journal of Play Therapy, which encourages academic development and offers support groups to play therapists, providing opportunities to network and share best practice.

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.

Career prospects

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. Many therapists go on to develop the family therapy dimension of their work or work with children with specific physiological challenges, such as deafness. Some even go on to work with adults using play therapy.

There are also opportunities to move into managerial roles. This could mean less time spent working directly with children, as you will have increased responsibility. This could include 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 those training to enter the field.

With experience you could consider setting up a private practice.