Diagnostic Playtime

Within our clinical work in child psychology, we must make a diagnostic impression that will be the guide to offer better treatment or therapy to our boys and girls.

There are many psychometric tests, inventories and/or development scales, personality questionnaires and, above all, projective tests that provide us with a lot of relevant information for the knowledge of our boy or girl.

To learn a little about the latest developments in psychological tests, I leave you the links to the 2013 catalogs of the main Spanish and Latin American companies:

Let us remember that one of the most important techniques or tools for every professional within the scientific field is “observation”.

“It was considered that the royal way to penetrate the child’s unconscious was play instead of dreams. “Which led to a large number of new therapeutic possibilities.” (Brierman)

Diagnostic playtime is a technique that we can use within the psychodiagnostic process with the objective of knowing the child’s reality and complementing the initial interview with parents, the anamnesis, and projective and psychometric techniques.

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In the 4th century, Plato, a well-known Greek philosopher, left us the following famous quote: You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.

By using diagnostic playtime we offer the child the possibility of playing in a particular context, where a field is created that will be structured based on the internal variables of his personality; where he will be able to express a segment of his psychic life in the here and now, his fantasies, fears and desires.

Diagnostic playtime and play therapy

To start learning more about this technique, let’s look at the difference between the diagnostic tool and the therapy.

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Diagnostic Playtime

play therapy

The space where it is carried out and the materials to be used make up part of the framing (to learn more I invite you to read or re-read the articles by Donald Woods Winnicott) of the technique.

Games room and materials

“It is in play and only in play that the child or adult as individuals are capable of being creative and using the totality of their personality, and only by being creative does the individual discover himself.” (Winnicott)

Our playroom is the space that must allow freedom of movement, we must have adequate furniture, allow the child to play with water (those of us who use sandbox therapy). In addition, the materials (toys and other elements) should be easy to reach for children, next to the open box or materials in the uncovered box (for colleagues who implement the “play box”).

The materials will depend on the current or approach of each psychologist or mental health professional.

Erickson recommends us to use structured or figurative elements. The materials that we are going to use based on this theory will depend on the boy or girl’s problems. Among the essentials: telephones (two), doll families, a rag baby, among others.

Klein tells us that it is better to use unstructured materials, because structured ones can produce a suggestive degree in the child and do not allow projection mechanisms. The Klenians use: fabrics, rubber bands, needles, threads, sheets of paper or magazines where the child can explain the situations.

Efron, Fainberg, Kleiner, and Woscoboinik integrate the two previous theorists, indicating an intermediate between structured and unstructured materials, we can use:

  • Sheets

  • Writing pencil and eraser

  • Colored pencils

  • Crayons

  • Rounded tip scissors

  • Macilla

  • Pencil Sharpener – Rubber

  • Toys

  • Family of animals (wild and domestic)

  • Carts

  • Little airplanes

  • Plates with cups

  • Cubes – Wheelbarrow Thread

  • Pieces of cloth

  • Small ball The materials must be in good condition and quality, so that the child can use them with confidence and avoid the “feeling of guilt” that occurs if they break some materials. I recommend that you have several of each of those indicated above. .

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For professionals who share offices or carry out their clinical or professional practices, here I can suggest that you get a box where you can transport the materials.

We already have a little knowledge about the game room and the materials, so now what we tell the child will be the following instructions:

You can use the toys that are inside the box (or on the table) however you want. I, meanwhile, will observe to get to know you and thus be able to help you.

Role of the child psychologist or therapist

  • Observer, here we must know the problem that the child is presenting to us in order to develop our hypotheses. Sometimes the child asks us to get involved in the game, in this situation and because it is diagnostic playtime, let the child tell us the characteristics or role that he wants us to perform in his game, so that they do not interfere. our own fantasies.

  • Record your observation, we have to record our observations, some professionals use notes so as not to lose any details, others write down at the end or record their observations.

Playing time interpretation criteria

Choosing toys and games, here we must keep the following aspects in mind:

The approach mode:

  • Irruption (abruptly taking the materials or in a chaotic manner). It is extremely important to observe the first toy that the child takes, if it is appropriate for his or her age, to know the relationship or the initiative that led him to take the material from the room.

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The game must have a beginning, middle and end. Here we can observe if the child starts playing and immediately leaves the toy. These details will help us learn more about our child’s psychic life.

Additionally, in the game mode, we must observe if it has:

  • Rigidity (it is a monotonous game with little capacity for creativity), stereotyped (it is when children play a single game and repeat it, in some cases the child maintains this repetition throughout the diagnostic play hour).

symbolic capacity

Play is a way to access children’s unconscious fantasies. We can observe:


The child externalizes roles in a dramatic way or can assign situations or conflicts to the play materials.

During playtime it is significant to observe the tolerance to frustration in children’s play, for example: they get angry because of the difficulties that may arise due to not performing a game properly, they are a very passive child.

Interpretation criteria

The child’s play is appropriate “normal”

The neurotic child’s game

The psychotic child game

  • It would not be a game, in the strict sense, as long as there is symbolization (signifier and meaning are the same thing). It’s just a download game.

As professionals we have to observe in detail how the child uses the game and expresses his or her unconscious emotions or fantasies.

Some books that can help us:

Donald Winnicott – Reality and Play.

Arminada Aberastury – Theory and Technique of Psychoanalysis in Children.

Silvia Fendrik – Child Psychoanalysts The True Story (1,2, 3y 4).

Image: on Flickr