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 (usually aged 3 to 11, but occasionally adolescents) and their families work through difficult life issues and experiences, including:

  • abuse and neglect
  • bereavement
  • depression and anxiety
  • 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

  • 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, and sometimes involving parents/carers or siblings, 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
  • review therapeutic interventions on a regular basis
  • work as part of a multidisciplinary team with other healthcare professionals, such as social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists and medical practitioners
  • attend meetings, maintain client records and produce reports on activities and progress.

Salary

  • Salaries for newly qualified play therapists typically start at around £32,000, rising to £45,000 for experienced therapists.
  • Managerial or directorship positions can attract salaries ranging from £48,000 to around £75,000, depending on the size of the play therapy service and the number of 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 and location. Salaries for jobs in London, for example, are usually higher (as are living costs).

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.

Income data from Play Therapy UK (PTUK) and the British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT). 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 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 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'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 register of qualified play therapists accredited by the Professional Standards Authority.

The BAPT accredits Masters courses in play therapy run by the:

  • University of Roehampton
  • University of South Wales
  • Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

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 Certificate in Therapeutic Play Skills followed by the 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 Courses for more information.

You'll usually need a degree-level qualification in teaching, social work, nursing, psychology, occupational therapy or a related area, as well as at least two years direct experience of working with children in a developmental role to get a place on a course. Entry requirements vary so check directly with course providers.

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.

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 PTUK and the University of Roehampton.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • experience and understanding of child development
  • communication and interpersonal skills to work with both children and the adults
  • 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
  • the ability to deal with confidential matters appropriately
  • a trustworthy and open nature
  • 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 criminal records 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 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:

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. 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.

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.

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