Synergetic Play Therapy

“You are the most important toy in the playroom.”

– Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S

Synergetic Play Therapy® (2008) is a researched-informed model of play therapy blending the therapeutic power of play with nervous system regulation, interpersonal neurobiology, physics, attachment, mindfulness, and therapist authenticity. It grew from personal experience as well as research in neuroscience, Interpersonal Neurobiology, and attachment theory (see Badenoch, 2008; Porges, 2011; Schore, 1994; Siegel, 1999 for coverage of the ideas behind SPT). Preliminary research suggests that SPT significantly improves emotional tolerance and regulation (Dion & Gray, 2014; Simmons, 2020).

Although Synergetic Play Therapy is a model of play therapy, it’s also a way of being in relationship with self and others. It’s an all-encompassing paradigm that can be applied to any facet of life and, subsequently, any model of play therapy can be applied to it or vice versa. Synergetic Play Therapy is both non-directive and directive in its application.

The Philosophy of Synergetic Play Therapy®

The Synergetic Play Therapist aims to replicate the delicate dance of attunement that occurs between a caregiver and an infant. Since over 60% of communication is non-verbal, it is important that the therapist’s verbalizations and non-verbal activity are congruent during the play therapy sessions in order to transmit trust and safety to the client. In doing so, the therapist maximizes right-hemisphere to right-hemisphere communication and acts as an external regulator for the client’s dysregulated states (Shore, 1994) as they arise in the play therapy process.

The therapist is the most important toy in the playroom.  Toys are used to help facilitate: 1) The relationship between the child and his/her/their perceptions of the challenging experiences in his/her/their lives and 2) The relationship between the therapist and the child. SPT believes that the toys themselves are not as important as the energy and emotions that arise as a result of how the child is playing with them.  In Synergetic Play Therapy’s (SPT) truest form, toys and language are not required.

SPT posits that the therapist’s ability to engage in mindfulness and model regulation of his/her/their own nervous system is the foundation for clients to learn how to manage his/her/their own nervous system. The therapist has to lead the way, just like a caregiver has to lead the way for an infant.

The therapist must work at the edge of the window of tolerance and the regulatory boundary of the dysregulated states inside both child and therapist in order to expand those boundaries and re-pattern the disorganization in the nervous system. A core principal of SPT is the therapist’s ability to be authentic and congruent in his/her/their expressions, coupled with the ability to co-regulate through the crescendos and decrescendos in the client’s arousal system (Shore, 2006), allowing the child to move towards the uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and sensations that are attempting to be integrated.

“When the relationship is experienced as safe enough, the dissociated experiences will begin to come into conscious awareness.  As we resonate together, the activation will amplify and, if our window of tolerance is broad enough to contain this energy and information, our patient will also experience a widening of his or her window.  In the research of Carl Marci and colleagues (Marci & Reiss, 2005), these moments of autonomic synchrony were subjectively experienced as empathetically rich interpersonal joining.  This research showed that within the session, our nervous systems will flow into, out of, and back into synchrony many times.  This rhythm is parallel to the dance of mother and infant as they move from attunement to rupture and back to repair over and over, laying the foundation for security, optimism, and resilience.” (Badenoch, 2008)

With repeated observation of the therapist’s willingness to stay authentic and move towards the challenging emotions and physical sensations aroused through the play, the child’s mirror neuron system is activated and the child learns that it is ok to also move towards his/her/their own challenging internal states.  Research shows that as clients begin to move towards their challenging internal states, new neural connections are created until a critical state is reached that results in a new neural organization (Edelman, 2004; Tyson, 2002).

As an all-encompassing paradigm with Child-Centered, Gestalt, and Experiential Play Therapy influences, it expands on the therapeutic powers of play while focusing on being in relationship with the child, not doing something to the child. Through the play itself, the Synergetic Play Therapist supports the child in changing his/her/their perceptions of the perceived challenging events and thoughts in his/her/their life, as well as getting in touch with his/her/their authentic self.

In SPT, the child’s symptoms are understood as symptoms of a dys-regulated nervous system.  These dys-regulated states arise as a result of: 1) The perceived challenges and thoughts the child is having regarding the events in his/her/their life and 2) The child has lost attachment with him/ her/their self and is attempting to be someone they are not (acting from “shoulds”) instead of being who they truly are.

The result of Synergetic Play Therapy is that the child heals from the inside out and from the lowest parts of the brain up.