FirstPlay® Therapy

Tapping Developmental Play Therapy as founded by Viola Brody
to Formulate a New Touch-based Model of Intervention
By Janet A. Courtney, PhD, LCSW, RPT-S

There is no doubt that Play Therapy pioneer, Viola Brody, founder of Developmental Play Therapy (DPT) was a woman ahead of her time. Why? Because she advocated early on that children needed caring touch for healthy emotional and psychological growth and development—a fact that modern research now reveals as true ( “Touch is our first communication” she advocated ~ hence the name of her book, The Dialogue of Touch (Brody, 1997).

Brody (1995; 1996; 1997a; 1997b) taught that through the joyful relationship of respectful and caring touch by an attuned adult, children gained a sense of a “felt self” which in turn helped them to develop a “centering place within” ~ an “I” as she called it. She believed that children who experienced caring touch were then able to develop empathetic attachment relationships with others, and to also better self-regulate their emotional states. She emphasized that children’s development of an inner core-self needed to happen first before a child was able to be ready for higher states of emotional and cognitive development. This is where she highlighted the difference between children’s emotional developmental age verses their chronological age.

IMG_0368How did she advocate for this therapeutic caring touch to be implemented? Through the avenue of pre-symbolic play, or first-play ~ meaning an attachment based play therapy approach that specifically involved attention to play BEFORE the use of play materials and the understanding of play themes and so forth. First-play is exemplified by those early playful touch games that one might observe between a mother and infant such as patty-cake or peek-a-boo. Brody believed that the touch component involved in first-play was intrinsically healing ~ and that children who missed those crucial first-play stages of development (through abuse/neglect, for example) can be helped by a practitioner trained in DPT to “go back and pick up what they missed” (Brody, 1995).

When I first met Dr. Brody in 1993, I had a background working in adoption and foster care. I was intrigued by the uniqueness of DPT as a healing approach with its emphasis on building attachment relationships and on touch. I attended her intensive DPT trainings eventually arranging for trainings in my area and hosting her in my home. When I chose to complete a dissertation on DPT, I was thrilled when Dr. Brody agreed to be on my dissertation committee ~ but then deeply saddened when she died before its completion. I was honored to be asked to give the Tribute to Vi Brody at the 2004 Annual APT General Assembly.

Over the years I have carried on the teachings of DPT, among other practitioners ~ (See for example, Schwartzenberger, 2004; Short, 2008) to a new generation of play therapists. However, I kept coming back to ~ and the participants in my workshops always raised ~ one nagging issue: TOUCH! Mainly it was the concern about practitioners touching children. In the early years of Brody’s teaching and practice, the topic of touching children was not a major issue or concern among professionals. Consequently, Brody’s recommendations regarding ethical considerations involving touch were sparse—there was little demand for it. However, as the heartbreaking revelations of abuse of children by adults in positions of responsibility came to the forefront in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, concerns of professional liability regarding the touch of children heightened (Carlson, 2006; Field, 2003). The need to address ethical considerations regarding touch and children became paramount and has and is being addressed (Aquino & Lee, 2000; Caplan, 2002; Carlson, 2006; Courtney, 2012; 2014; Courtney & Gray, 2014; McNeil-Haber, 2004; Sprunk, Mitchell, Myrow, & O’Connor, 2009; Theraplay Statement on Touch).

In my effort to effectively address professional considerations of touch, I examined this topic through several means including my doctoral research in DPT (Courtney & Gray, 2011; 2014); through extensive post-doctoral study; implementing DPT in practice with children and families for over 20 years; by attending training at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami; becoming an Infant Massage Educator, developing a course on the Ethics of Touch in Play Therapy, and even studying the ancient healing art of Reiki. My work has yielded some significant insights:

  • Indeed touch is healing in many ways. It even releases the essential connectivity and calming hormone ~ oxytocin ~ an important factor in attachment and bonding. (Moberg, 2003)
  • Respectful, caring and attuned touch is vital to the development of an inner directed-self thus leading to children’s ability to develop close and securely attached relationships with others and to better self-regulate their emotional states.
  • The attention to touch highlights the therapeutic value of the mind-body connection.
  • Children who have been the recipients of caring and respectful touch know how to give respectful and caring touch to others.
  • Children who receive caring touch develop enhanced empathy for others ~ and importantly toward their peers.
  • Caring and respectful touch focus needs to begin at birth and first-play activity and infant massage are avenues for an infant to receive essential touch.
  • Populations such as children diagnosed with autism, with sensory processing disorders, and ADD/ADHD can especially benefit from touch-based therapies (Courtney, 2012).
  • Sadly, despite governmental and public policies over the years to stop abuse, children are still being harmed through touch ~ whether it is through physical or sexual abuse of a child, or even harm by a push from a bully in a school hallway.
  • Child professionals in European countries such as the United Kingdom and Sweden are pioneering touch therapy, education and advocacy ~ especially within their school systems. (See for example, The Peer Massage Project; Moberg, 2003; Thomas & Jephcott, 2011)
  • Ethical considerations regarding children and touch in Play Therapy, and for others who work with children, needs to be further delineated as new information and research surfaces.
  • If practitioners are using a touch-based therapy in practice, then having had training in touch is essential. As well, research outcomes revealed that practitioners need to become aware of their own life experiences with touch in order to examine any potential countertransferences that may arise in practice (Courtney & Gray, 2014).
  • Practitioners need to be aware of the cultural differences regarding touch which can often boil down to differences within individual family systems.
  • And, my key insight was to change the focus from the practitioner implementing the first-play touch activities with the child (as is mostly demonstrated in DPT), to practitioners teaching and guiding the parent or caregiver to do the caring touch first-play activities. With this change in direction, it completely removes any concern of liability about the touch of children by practitioners.

IMG_0398It is with these above insights in mind that I formulated a new touch-based directive play therapy model called, FirstPlay® Therapy. FirstPlay® is designed as a parent-child preventive and treatment approach that combines all the underpinnings of Developmental Play Therapy, and comprises Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1979); Ericksonian-based storytelling (StoryPlay®) (Mills & Crowley, 2014;; infant massage literature (Drehobl & Fuhr, 2000; Leboyer, 1976); and research and ethics in touch (Aquino & Lee, 2000; Barnard & Brazelton,1990; Caplan, 2002; Carlson, 2006; Courtney, 2012; 2014; Courtney & Gray, 2014; Field, 1995; 2003; McNeil-Haber, 2004; Sprunk, Mitchell, Myrow, & O’Connor, 2009; Theraplay Statement on Touch).

Supported by the theoretical constructs of Attachment Theory, FirstPlay® Therapy enhances the parent-child attachment relationship, and encompasses two separate approaches that meet the needs of children at two different developmental stages:

  • FirstPlay® Infant Massage Storytelling (ages 4 weeks to toddler), and
  • FirstPlay® Kinesthetic Storytelling (ages pre-school to six years).

In FirstPlay Therapy, Certified FirstPlay® Practitioners teach, model, guide and supervise parents and caregivers (on a baby-doll and/or stuffed animal) the implementation of the nurturing techniques of FirstPlay® Infant Massage Storytelling and/or Kinesthetic Storytelling® or “BACK stories” (stories that can be told on a child’s back) ~ (Courtney, 2013a; 2013b). During instructional sessions with the FirstPlay® Practitioner, parents simultaneously practice the storytelling touch activities with their children. Practitioners do not touch the child. In this way children are receiving the respectful and caring touch needed for healthy development by their parents or caregivers—such as foster parents; as facilitated by practitioners who have received the appropriate training in FirstPlay® Therapy and in touch. While DPT continues to be a highly effective intervention for special client populations in need, its theoretical emphasis on attachment and touch has been beneficial to the formulation of FirstPlay® Therapy.



Aquino, A. T., & Lee, S. S. (2000). The use of nonerotic touch with children ethical and

developmental considerations. Journal of Psychotherapy in Independent Practice, 1(3), 17-30

DOI: 10.1300/J288v01n03_02.

Barnard, K.E., & Brazelton, T.B. (1990). Touch: The foundation of experience. Madison, CT:

International Universities Press.

Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. New York: Methuen.

Brody (1995). Center for Play Therapy (Producer). Developmental play therapy: A clinical session and  

     Interview with Viola Brody. [Video tape]. (Available from Center for Play Therapy, University of

North Texas, P.O. Box 13857, Denton, Tx 76203- 6857)

Brody, V.A. (1996). Play therapy as an intervention for acting-out children. In G.L. Landreth,

L.E. Homeyer, G. Glover, & D.S. Sweeney (Eds.), Play therapy Interventions with children’s

     problems (pp. 22-24). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.

Brody, V.A. (1997a). Developmental play therapy. In K.J. O’Connor & L.M. Braverman

(Eds.), Play therapy theory and practice: A comparative casebook (pp. 160-183). New York:

John Wiley & Sons.

Brody, V.A. (1997b). The dialogue of touch: Developmental play therapy (2nd ed.). Northvale,

NJ: Jason Aronson.

Brody, V.A. (1999). Circle time in developmental play therapy. In D.S. Sweeney & L.E. Homeyer

(Eds.), Group play therapy: How to do it, how it works, whom it’s best for (pp. 139-161). San

Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Caplan, M. (2002). To touch is to live: The need for genuine affection in an impersonal world.

Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press.

Carlson, F.M. (2006). Essential touch: Meeting the needs of young children. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Courtney, J.A. (October, 9, 2004) Association for Play Therapy International Conference,

Denver, Colorado. Presented Viola Brody Tribute to the General Assembly.

Courtney, J.A. (2012). Touching autism through developmental play therapy. In L. Gallo-Lopez

& L.C. Rubin (Eds.), Play-based interventions for children and adolescents with autism

     spectrum disorders (pp. 137-157). New York, NY: Routledge.

Courtney, J.A. (May, 2013a). TEDxDelrayBeach; TEDx Youtube Channel (posted: September 20, 2013). The Curative Touch of a Magic Rainbow Hug.

Courtney, J.A. (2013b). The Magic Rainbow Hug. Palm Beach Gardens, FL: Developmental Play & Attachment Therapies. (Illustrations, Siblings, Grace & Ben Myers)

Courtney, J.A. (October 7, 2014). To touch or not to touch: Ethical considerations regarding touch in play therapy. Workshop presented at the 2014 Annual APT Conference. Houston, Texas.

Courtney, J.A., & Gray, S. W. (2011). Perspectives of a child therapist as revealed through an

image illustrated by the therapist. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy

     Association, 28(3), 132-139.

Courtney, J.A., & Gray, S. W. (2014, April). A Phenomenological Inquiry into Practitioner Experiences

of Developmental Play Therapy: Implications for Training in Touch. International Journal of Play

     Therapy, 23(2), 114-129.

Drehobl, K.F., & Fuhr, M.G. (2000). Pediatric massage for the child with special needs. US:

Harcourt Health Sciences Company

Field, T. (Ed.). (1995). Touch in early development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Field, T. (2003). Touch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Leboyer, F. (1976). Loving hands: The traditional art of baby massage. New York: Newmarket


McNeil-Haber, F. M. (2004). Ethical considerations in the use of nonerotic touch with

children. Ethics and Behavior, 14, 123-140.

Mills, J. founder of StoryPlay an Ericksonian-based play therapy model. Website:

Mills, J. C. & Crowley, R. J. (2014) Therapeutic Metaphors for Children and the Child

     Within (2nd edition). Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge.

Moberg, U. K. (2003). The Oxytocin factor: Tapping the hormone of calm, love, and healing.

Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Short, G. F. (2008). Developmental play therapy for very young children. In C. E. Schaefer, S.

Kelly-Zion, & J. McCormack (Eds.), Play therapy for very young children (pp. 367-378).

Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Sprunk, T. P., Mitchell, J., Myrow, D., & O’Connor, K. (2009). Paper on touch: Clinical,

     professional & ethical issues. Retrieved from Association for Play Therapy website

Schwartzenberger, K. (2004, October). Developmental play therapy. Paper presented at the

21st Annual Association for Play Therapy International Conference, Denver, CO.

Theraplay Statement about the use of touch in treatment. (n.d.). The Theraplay Institute.

Retrieved from menu-



Thomas, J., & Jephcott, M. (2011, Winter). Touch is a “hot topic.” The Journal of the

     International and UK Societies of Play and Creative Arts Therapies, p.5.

The Peer Massage Project: Helping Imagination and communication to flow with positive touch.

Touch Research Institute, University of Miami:


Contact Info.

Janet A. Courtney, PhD, LCSW, RPT-S


Phone: 561-267-0625


Courtney, Bio

Janet A. Courtney, PhD, LCSW, RPT-S is founder of FirstPlay® Therapy, is a StoryPlay® Facilitator, an Adjunct Professor at Barry University, Miami, and former President of FAPT. The Magic Rainbow Hug represents her new process of Kinesthetic Storytelling®; as shared in her TEDx Talk, The Curative Touch of a Magic Rainbow Hug.