Play Therapy for Non-Verbal Children: A Parent’s Perspective

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-3-11-26-pmBy Alison Mackey, PhD

I recently attended Dr. Garry Landreth’s two-day seminar on play therapy hosted by the UAPT. I came to the conference, not as a professional but as a parent, to learn more about play therapy. For the last year, I have participated in weekly play therapy sessions with my 10-year old daughter that struggles with attachment, anxiety, and depression. I hoped by attending the seminar I would learn new insights to improve my abilities to engage with her in the play therapy room.

What struck me about seeing Garry in person was that he is unequivocally a true believer in the ability of ALL children to heal and change with the tools that they have within themselves. However, to do this, we must have total acceptance of the child. As he taught, “A child will not change until they are free NOT to change.”

I found myself, like many in the audience, trying to come up with exceptions to his philosophies—situations in which the adult must take the lead, the child does not have what they need to change or heal. I began to see that for Garry, play therapy was a world view that he lives and operates from in all of his interactions.

Attending the conference got me thinking—maybe play therapy could be used for my young son who is non-verbal. So, I went and tried it. This letter was given to Garry to relate to him my experiences from one 45 minute experience with my son.


Dear Garry,

My son Jack is 3.5 years old. He is profoundly loving, empathetic, and my teacher in this life. He is also missing part of his 5th chromosome. This typically means mental and physical handicaps as well as growth delay. Jack is learning to walk, making some signs, but is nonverbal. However, he is smart and can understand what people say to him at an age appropriate level.

Lately, I have felt him retreating within himself, becoming increasingly frustrated and resorting to self-injurious behaviors such as head banging and gagging. Tonight I went outside with him to play. I had one of those “flittering” thoughts go through my head, “Use the play therapy you saw today with Jack.”

So, I did.

I started commenting on his behavior just as you did in the videos at the conference today. I used “self-worth building statements” such as:

  • “You stacked your stars just as you wanted.”
  • “Sounds like you know your colors.”
  • “You know where you want to go” (As he tried to walk down the sidewalk.)

Within a few sentences, Jack looked up at me with a brightness in his eyes that communicated to me, “You understand me!” His whole soul lit up. His play continued, and he started communicating more with me than I typically experience, using his eye gaze, pointing, grunts, and other gestures to communicate his world. Although we were not in a playroom, we were in nature’s playroom, and there was plenty for him to explore. His world opened up to me as never before as I worked to “BE WITH” him.

I spent almost an hour doing this with him until I needed a short break from the intensity. Being present with someone is always hard work — but it seems to take more effort when someone is non-verbal. However, maybe that is not the case because with verbal people you can get distracted by your ears. With Jack, I have to listen with my eyes — there is no other way.

The work to “be present” is worth it. Jack felt understood. He felt his existence confirmed. Jack felt important. He felt that he matters, that his world matters. I do not know how often Jack feels this. Most people talk to me about him instead of directly to him because he is non-verbal. I realized today how that could threaten his sense of his existence.

Sometimes I feel sad that my son is non-verbal. Today Garry taught me that play is the only universal language. My son can play. He does have language.

Tonight I was able to communicate to my son that he can do things, he can figure things out. Moreover, I communicated to him that


I am here

I hear him

I understand


I care.



Alison Mackey

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