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“Dibs in Search of Self” by Virginia Axline

This book by Virginia Axline is a story of how play therapy helped improve the condition of an emotionally disturbed five year old boy. Dibs was always withdrawn and silent. He did not respond to any of his teachers’ attempts to connect with him; as a matter of fact, he barely communicated with anyone at home or at school. His parents had taken him to a psychologist who, like everyone else was not able to connect with him. Dibs attended a private school which was threatening to ‘exclude’ him after he had scratched another child. It is during a conference to discuss this matter that Doctor Virginia suggests play therapy (Axline, 1964, p. 177).

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The play therapy room was stocked with different materials which were aimed at helping Dibs express himself. There was a sandbox, a doll house, different kinds of paints and various other toys. During each and every session, Miss A, as Dibs called Doctor Virginia, sat in the play room and observed Dibs. This was a great idea because she got a first had experience of what was going on in his mind (Robertson & Robertson, 1971, p. 111). Every day during their sessions, she sat there and watched him. She did not ask him any questions and only conversed with him when he initiated the conversation. For instance, “he would walk around the room touching and naming things and Miss A would respond” (Axline, 1964, p. 35). This approach gave Dibs the impression that he was free to do as he wished in this room and no one was coursing him into anything. This approach eventually led to Dibs liking his sessions so much that he did not want to leave for home. He felt like the room was his own small place. In chapter seven, Virginia recounts during one of their sessions, Dibs asks why some things he had said not to be moved earlier had been moved, this shows how much he considered the play room as his own.

Dibs was familiar with the objects in the room and regularly used them to express his feelings (Clarke & Clarke, 1976, p. 223). When he first saw the doll house with its doors closed, he said “No lock doors … Dibs no like locked doors” (Axline, 1964, p. 47). In later sessions, he would tell Miss A that his father would lock him in his room. He would use the dolls and the doll house to act out scenes that had taken place in his own home. In one instance, he acted out a scene where he spilled something on his father and he recalled his father saying “stupid people make accidents” (Axline, 1964, p. 123). This upset him so much that he stopped playing for a while. As he got more and more comfortable in the play room, he expressed his feelings and slowly dealt with the hurt that he had pilled up especially against his father. During the end of the therapy, Dibs tells Miss A that his father is not a bad person though he still felt that he needed to punish him. Dibs was only a child but the harsh situation at his home had robbed him of his childhood. During one of his sessions with Miss A, he spilt colours all over the room and was visible happy about it, he even told Miss A that he had never made such a mess in his life. He was finally feeling free of any restrictions thus letting his inner child come out to play. This was an important step in his recovery because it indicated his path to discovering himself, devoid of any restrictions (Clarke & Clarke, 1976, p. 231).

His sessions also aided him to be able to make a connection with other humans. During their last session before they broke for the summer, Dibs told Miss A that he would miss her and she replied that she would miss him too. He was an intelligent boy and the more he got better, the more he displayed intelligent behavior. At his age, he was able to identify holidays and count the days he had to wait before resuming regular schooling. This was evident that he was a brilliant child. He also regularly made Miss A paintings. This behavior however was not replicated in school. At one time, his school teachers contacted Virginia and informed her of Dibs poor performance. When she saw the paintings he had prepared in school, they were not as good as the ones he did in the playroom. This portrayed how his behavior changed in relation to his environment and also highlighted that his condition may have as well been brought about by environmental factors (Robertson & Robertson, 1971, p. 112). After the en of the therapy, Dibs’ IQ was measured and he scored 168 which is well above the average adult (Neill, 1962, p. 32).

Dibs was not the only beneficiary of the play therapy, his mother found an outlet for her feelings through Doctor Virginia as well. She told Virginia how she and Dibs’ father had problems with their relationship when Dibs was born and she admitted that she may have taken her frustrations out on Dibs. The fact that Dibs was not a ‘normal’ child made the situation worse. His parents would alienate him when there were guests and lock him in his room. Despite the fact that the parents’ relationship was now fine, the effect that their earlier attitude had towards Dibs was still there and this is what they were trying to deal with now. Virginia did not judge Dibs mother on her earlier mistakes in fact, she wrote “A mother who is respected and accepted with dignity can also be sincerely expressive when she knows that she will not be criticized or blamed” (Axline, 1964, p. 186). This had a great effect in the mending of the relationship between Dibs and his parents. He had already trusted Miss A and now that Miss A treated his mother well, Dibs opened up to connect with his mother. After one session when his mother came to pick him up, he ran towards her and told her that he loved her, much to her surprise. A child has a special connection with his parents and for any child, the approval of the parents is vital in the child’s development (Neill, 1962, p. 67). This explains why Virginia’s play therapy was a success. Dibs finally found himself.


  1. Axline, V. (1964). Dibs: In search of self. New York: Ballantine Books.
  2. Clarke, A. M., & Clarke, A. B. (1976). Studies in natural settings: Early experience, myth and evidence. London: Open Books.
  3. Neill, A. S. (1962). Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz Robertson, J., & Robertson, J. (1971). Young children in brief separation: a fresh look. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 26, 264-315.

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