‘Dibs in Search of Self’ by Virginia Mae Axline

Virginia Mae Axline (1964) Dibs in search of self: personality development in play therapy Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Virginia Axline (1911-1988) was the main architect of non-directed play therapy and her account of her work in the early 1950s with an emotionally disturbed five-six year old, which had a profound effect on her, has become a classic text.

Key Points

  • Never give up trying.
  • Don’t allow people to buy their way out of responsibility.
  • Don’t assume children don’t know what you are up to.
  • Allowing children to express strong emotions and acknowledging the reality of those emotions enables children to deal with those emotions themselves.
  • Once children are secure in a relationship, they can make decisions for themselves.
  • Successful work with children depends on a profound respect for their parents.


In Chapter 1, Virginia Axline describes her first sight of Dibs in a corner, crouched, head down, arms across his chest, ignoring the fact that it was home time and resisting his teacher’s attempts to get him to go home. If Dibs had not stopped resisting by the time his mother arrived, the chauffeur would be sent in to collect him.

Dibs had been in private school for two years. Initially he had been mute and had not moved; then he had started crawling around the room but had huddled in a ball if anyone had approached him; he had never looked directly at anyone and had never answered anyone. He had come every day without a problem but had waited for someone to take his coat off and take him to the class; he had looked at books a lot. Sometimes he had appeared mentally retarded and sometimes intelligent. He had never accepted anything but would pore over pages of books left near him. The teachers had tried everything to gain his interest but were baffled; the psychologist had been unable to test him, and Dibs had been wary of the paediatrician.

Dibs’s mother had influenced the school board to accept him but had refused the offer of professional help; his father was a well-known scientist and his younger sister a ‘spoiled brat.’ With other parents complaining after Dibs had scratched another child, his mother had been told that the school was thinking of excluding him and there had been a case conference to which Miss A (as Dibs called her) had been invited. The staff were obviously captivated by Dibs and had agreed to her suggestion of play therapy.


In Chapter 2, she says that everyone has their own private world of meaning and it is important to try once more, because we don’t have all the answers. She had arranged to observe Dibs in school, to visit his mother and to see Dibs in the play therapy room at the child guidance centre.

The day of the observation, Dibs had been uncooperative and had struck out at a boy who had tried to engage with him but, while the children were around the teacher, Dibs had been on the floor not too far away and, when they broke up, he had moved off to examine things in the room, taking a book from the book corner and starting to read it. When the teacher had asked him about it, he had hurled it away and thrown himself on the floor but had later carried on reading it.

At playtime, he had initially declined to go out but had done so when Miss A did; he had rested along with the other children after playtime and, when the children had joined in group activities, Miss A had invited him to the playroom. He had gone with her, holding her hand tightly.

This was a rather gloomy room where Miss A had sat down and Dibs had initially stood still; then he had walked round the room touching everything and naming them to which Miss A had responded. He had looked at the doll’s house for a long time and then said ‘No lock doors … Dibs no like locked doors.’ He had played with the doll’s house until Miss A had given him a five minute warning after which he had sat in front of the doll’s house. Half way back to the classroom Miss A had given him the chance to return on his own which he had accepted.

In Chapter 3 she describes her visit to his mother the following day. She had been let into a drawing room where tea had been served but there had been no sign that it was ‘lived in’. His mother had said that she did not expect any change in Dibs and had offered him as raw data for study. She had also suggested using Dibs’s playroom but Miss A had insisted on using the child guidance centre even though his mother had offered her a higher fee if she had used Dibs’s playroom. She had given his mother a consent form to record the interviews and accepted his mother’s insistence that she would not be coming to the sessions. His mother had commented that his sister was a ‘perfect child’.

She comments that his mother had previously been able to pay her way out of responsibility for Dibs and she was determined that she should not do so this time; his mother had also been more anxious in the first interview than Dibs.

In Chapter 4 she recalls that it was several weeks before the consent form arrived while Dibs had carried on as usual. When he had arrived for the first session, she had taken him to the playroom, which was more attractive than the one at school but with the same equipment.

He had started as before walking round, touching and naming objects. She had asked whether he would like to take his hat and coat off and he had agreed but had done nothing about it. Eventually he had asked for help to take things off but had dropped them on the floor, so she had put them on a hook.

He had gone to the easel, named and put all the colours in order, reading the labels, and had then made a colour wheel, spelling out each colour. He had got into the sandbox and asked for help to take off his shoes before moving to the table to build a tower of blocks on the table and then start painting. She had given him a five minute warning but at the end he had refused to go and cried as she had put his clothes back on; when she had taken him to his mother, he had had a temper tantrum.

In Chapter 5 she recounts how next week he had read the sign on door: ‘play therapy room,’ and had then started as in the first week. He had found some soldiers which he had counted and then buried three of them in the sandbox; he had also discovered the finger paints but had become worried when he had got them on his fingers and had repeatedly asked for his fingers to be wiped clean. So he had decided that he preferred water colours and with five minutes to go had painted a house for her.

At the end he had started making excuses why he could not go but she, while sympathising as he cried when she put his clothes on, had insisted he must go which he had done without a fuss, much to his mother’s surprise.

In Chapter 6 she recounts how Dibs had checked that she had put the lids on the finger paint pots he had left the previous week. He had taken his outdoor clothes off and hung them up before inspecting various things and telling Miss A to take off her outside shoes. He had then stood and thought what he would do, in the course of which he had tested her by leaving the water running in the sink and then investigating all the cupboards where the supplies were kept.

He had engaged her in fixing various broken toys and had made a road in the sandbox for a truck and three soldiers who do not come back. After asking her to write down “Dibs came. He found the sand interesting today. Dibs played with the house and the fighting men for the last time. Goodbye”, he had picked up his clothes and walked out to meet his mother.

In Chapter 7 she recounts that he had asked her why the things he had asked not to be moved have been moved and, when she had gone out to sharpen a pencil whose point he had broken, the observers behind the two-way mirror had recorded that he had dug in the sand, found a soldier and buried him again. When he had asked her to turn on a radiator, she had explained that the boiler was broken and being fixed. He had said that you could find out a lot by just hanging around people and watching what they do.

As he had played with various things, he had mentioned the school rabbit, which he had called a “caged rabbit”, and had said that he sometimes let it out when no one was looking. Playing with the soldiers, he had mentioned that July 4th is a Thursday, when he normally comes, and the day when soldiers and sailors march; he had also mentioned that it was Washington’s birthday the next day, so there would be no school until Monday. When his father had come to pick him, he hadn’t been interested in what Dibs was saying.

In Chapter 8 she recounts how his mother had phoned up the next day to ask for an appointment. She had said that she was worried about Dibs – he was coming out of his room more often but looked unhappy. She had told how Dibs was an unplanned pregnancy for which her husband had blamed her; he was very remote and she had felt “humiliated” because Dibs was not normal. So they had cut themselves off socially because friends wanted to see Dibs and they couldn’t find anywhere to send him. A psychiatrist had told them that Dibs was a rejected and emotionally deprived child and that she and her husband needed the treatment, something which had nearly wrecked their marriage. So they had sent him to a private school and filled his playroom with toys.

The day before, his father had said that Dibs was babbling like an idiot and, when she had asked what he was saying, Dibs had thrown a chair and screamed, “I hate you! I hate you!” at his father; he had locked Dibs in his room and come down crying.

His mother had asked whether he was mentally defective and she had said, “No”. “Will he be all right?” “I think so”. Filled with tears, his mother had said that there were no more temper tantrums, he didn’t suck his thumb and he talked more, though only to himself.

In Chapter 9 she recounts how he had arrived fifteen minutes early at his mother’s request, had taken his outdoor clothes off, hung them up, started painting and then tapped the two-way mirror and said that he knew that people had been there before but that they weren’t that day. He had then played in the sandbox, breaking to look at her notes and telling her to spell out the names of the colours and not abbreviate them. He had later sung a song full of hateful words and tried to fix the doll’s house. He had pretended it wasn’t time to go and had hoped that the doctor would hurt his sister when he did the jabs, the reason for the earlier appointment.

In Chapter 10 she recounts how he had talked, among other things, about seeing similar toys in a shop and going to collect his father’s shoes from the mender’s while spending most of the time playing in the sandbox.


In Chapter 11 she recounts how he had created a little town with the toys and told of an incident when his father had insisted on Jake, the gardener, cutting down a branch that overhung his window against Dibs wishes. He had gone on to say that he liked listening to Jake but, since Jake had had a heart attack, he had only been around occasionally. He had commented that Jake went to church but his parents didn’t.

In Chapter 12 she recounts how Dibs had missed a week because of measles and on his next visit had played in the sandbox, sang some of the songs he had learned at school and asked her what therapy was. He had told her that, while he was ill, the room had been darkened and his mother had read to him and he had listened to records but he had missed his books. He had said that he was very happy now and had pretended when the clock outside struck the quarter that it was 1 o’clock (and therefore a long time to going home time) but had put on his hat and coat and said, “Goodbye”.

In Chapter 13 she recounts how his mother had arranged to collect him a bit later if necessary; he had sung and painted and engaged in a lot of water play before recalling a visit to his grandmother when he had forgotten to pack his toy animals and she had sent them along with another gift by post. He had said he was glad his grandmother was coming soon and that he would have a party. Later he had mimicked his mother while setting out a tea party and then enacted an incident in which he had accidentally spilled something and his father had said that, “Stupid people make accidents”. This had upset him so much that he had stopped the game and asked to go to her office. There he had written a letter about the party and put his own and his family’s birthdays on the calendar. Not finding a card for himself in the card file, he had filled one in giving ‘The Playroom’ as his address.

In Chapter 14 she recounts how Dibs had arrived with his birthday present, a Morse code set, and initially reverted to his original very childish way of talking. While looking out of the window, he had refused to answer a girl who had spoken to him but had said, “Goodbye” to a truck. He had then played in the sandbox, interrupting that to bake some biscuits, and had started talking about when he was a baby but had then changed the subject. He had got excited throwing water all around and had said, “I’ve never made such a wonderful mess in all my life”.

He had then asked to go to the office where he had looked up ‘yeast’ in the dictionary, written a Morse code message which he had also written on another card in the card file, had told her what other presents he had received and had thanked her for her birthday card.

In Chapter 15 she recounts how he had started to play with the doll’s house, speaking first of being afraid of people and then playing out with the dolls an elaborate story of his own family including his father telling him off, of a boy giant locking his parents in the house, of his father accidentally setting light to the house and of Dibs trying unsuccessfully to rescue them.

Through his tears Dibs had explained his hurt at doors being closed and locked against him and had then continued with drama, saving his parents from the house and saying that they used to lock him in his room but not any more. After he had recovered from the emotions of this drama, he had left relaxed and happy.

In Chapter 16 she recounts how Dibs had admitted to winding up his father, while threatening the father doll with a toy gun which he then hid in the basement of the doll’s house. He had then gone on to talk about the children at school before engaging in some water play, making a glass harmonica, and then mixing up all the paint jars. He had then gone to the office where he had pasted in some bookplates and asked for reassurance about his relationship with her. On his departure he had run to his mother and said, “Oh mother, I love you”.

In Chapter 17 she recounts how his mother had visited the next day to say thank you and report all the improvements in Dibs. She had admitted that she had known he was not mentally retarded because she had tried to prove herself as his teacher and she knew what he could do. He had always been relaxed when his grandmother had visited and she had told her to relax.

But she was now anxious that he was “too unusual” and wondered if he was schizophrenic; they had sent his sister away to school so that they could concentrate on him. She had admitted that she had taken things out on Dibs because of the strained relationship with her husband, with both of them fighting to avoid admitting guilt for Dibs’s condition. But now both parents’ feelings had changed.

In Chapter 18 she recounts how she had received a call from one of the teachers who had described a gradual change in Dibs’s behaviour at school and so she had arranged to meet two of the teachers for lunch. But, when they had showed her the very elementary pictures and writing he was producing, she had initially been baffled but hadn’t told them that he could do much better because it might have discouraged them.

In Chapter 19 she recounts how Dibs had asked if he could record something on the tape-recorder and had recorded a monologue about his behaviour at school corresponding to the account given by the teachers and then one about telling off his father and sending him to his room where he had screamed. After playing that back he had made another recording about hating his father and wanting to punish him; but he had then said it was only make-believe and he had made various gifts for him at school. After he had made a couple more hateful recordings, explaining however that his father wasn’t like that any more, he had gone to the playroom to build a prison for his father but had eventually arranged for the Dibs doll to rescue him. He had gone on to describe how his father had taken him out to Long Island and they had had a good time but had said that he still wanted to teach him a lesson.

In Chapter 20 she recounts how Dibs had said there were three more times counting that day and had gone on to talk about their vacation on an island with his grandmother. He had suggested poisoning his sister because she screamed and scratched and hurt because he wouldn’t let her in his room but had then gone on to talk about the times when they had played happily together. He had made some ‘poison’ for his sister but then said that he would think over whether to give it to her.

He had then made an impossible demand of the mother doll, shouting at and threatening it before breaking off to play tenderly with the sister doll and talking about school and the things he had made at school for the members of the family.

Resuming telling off the mother doll, he had recounted how she used to cry before speaking tenderly to the mother doll, putting the family of dolls together and beginning a prayer which he had stopped abruptly with the words, “These are not church people”.

He had finished the session by painting and had said how much he would miss her over the summer, a sentiment she had reciprocated.

In Chapter 21 she recounts how she had borrowed a test set of toys which enabled him to build a world in which he had become absorbed. He had commented that his father was very busy but that a doctor friend had visited his mother and had said that Dibs was “out of the woods … whatever that means”.

At the end of the session he had left the father doll in a car immobilised by a stop sign.

In Chapter 22 she recounts the final session in which both had said they would miss each other; he had checked his name in the card file and listened to the tape recording before making another recording.

He had then gone to the playroom and laid out the town again, putting his family in jail. Then he had picked out an adult doll to represent himself, asked if he could come back after summer, shared the school year book and shown her his contributions to it, told a story about his family and her, moved her house away from his own and buried the original Dibs doll in the sand.

In Chapter 23 she recounts how, after the summer holidays, his mother had telephoned to book another session. He had talked to the secretaries first before going to the office and, finding that she had moved the other cards into another box leaving just the cards he had created in the box, he had written another card saying, “Goodbye”. Then he had gone into the playroom where he had turned on the water, poured yellow paint on floor, decided that she was “the lady of the wonderful playroom”, smashed the baby’s bottle in pieces, played with various things, put the doll family in the doll’s house living room, asked about other children visiting the playroom and, looking out of the window, had asked to go and see the church across the road.

In the church he had said his grandmother had said church was God’s house and Jake had said that it was a sacred place; he had been startled when the organist had started to play, saying he had never heard such music before.

Back in the playroom he had asked why some people believed in God and others didn’t and wondered what God was like and whether He loved him, commenting that his grandmother had said that his father loved him but he didn’t understand why he didn’t know it.

He had repeated the question about why some people believe and some don’t and she had said that everyone made up their own minds when they were older but that it was confusing for him now.

Dibs had said that his father was trying to teach him baseball and, when his mother had arrived, he had said, “Goodbye” and that he wasn’t coming back any more.


In Chapter 24 she recounts how, two and half years later, she had heard Dibs talking to a friend outside her flat and learned that Dibs had moved into a house down the road. She had later met him in the street; he had told exactly how long it had been since their last session because he had framed the date of the last visit.

He had told her, to her surprise, that she had said, “This is all yours, Dibs. Have fun. Nobody is going to hurt you in here”, and he had gradually come to believe her. He had said that he had found his enemies and fought them; he had also learned how big God was and, in response to a question, she had revealed that she had heard his earlier conversation which had made him realise that they were now neighbours. She had met his parents a few days later when his mother had asked him why he called her Miss A. “A special name for a special friend”, he had replied.

In the Epilogue she recounts how she had spoken about Dibs to various student groups, how one had written to describe how he been thinking about Dibs where he had heard someone else talking about Dibs, how the family had left the neighbourhood and she had lost contact with them but a teacher at a school for gifted boys had shown her a letter in the school newspaper by Dibs, now fifteen, protesting at the expulsion of a fellow pupil.

So she had asked him what he was like. “He’s a brilliant boy. Full of ideas. Concerned about everybody and everything. Very sensitive. A real leader … he acts on the things he believes in”.

In an Author’s Note she adds that, when Dibs’s IQ was measured shortly after the sessions had been completed, it had been found to be 168 and that all the words in the book are those of Dibs and his mother. She concludes, “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” (p. 186).


It is difficult in a summary such as this to convey the depth and power of the descriptions of Dibs’s encounters with Miss A, one reason why it has been a regular on so many students’ book-lists for nearly half a century, but it is important not to be carried away by the work with Dibs. The key to her success, as she points out, was as much her uncritical, accepting and respectful relationship with his mother.

Like Homer Lane (Bazeley, 1928) and George Lyward (Burn, 1956), she did not believe that, because a parent appeared to have ‘failed’ with their child, that was any reason to exclude them from what was happening to their child. Like Lyward she imposed the boundaries that she thought were necessary for her work and she took the same risk that Lyward did – that they would reject those boundaries and therefore the work with their child.

Trasler (1960) had found that some of the most successful foster placements were those where the children’s parents were welcome visitors and, twenty years later, Berridge (1985) found that one reason why some children rejected foster care was because it implied rejection of their own parents and they preferred residential care because it did not. Yet some residential workers and many social workers lose interest in parents (Thorpe, 1973) and government policy in England has been for as many children in care as possible to be adopted rather than make their parents partners in bringing up their children as intended in the 1989 Children Act and required by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Dibs’s story parallels that of Lucy (Robertson and Robertson, 1971); both in their different ways had had a breakdown in their relationships with their mothers. The provision of an alternative caring environment in which they could establish a fresh secure relationship with an adult gave them the capacity to re-engage with their own mothers which then enabled them to make a fresh start with them.

Residential care can take advantage of this possibility if the child goes home regularly, for example at weekends or on the way home from school (Berridge, 1985). It also needs to be recognised that sometimes there never will be an opportunity for the child to return to live with their parents permanently but the improvement in child-parent relationships is likely to have a significant effect on wider family relationships, including sibling relationships, which are likely to be a source of support in the future.

The story of Dibs also reinforces the evidence that children have the capacity to self-heal if they are provided with an environment in which that self-healing can take place (Clarke and Clarke, 1976). As Neill (1962) and Lyward found, children don’t need individual therapy; at no time does Virginia Axline try to discuss or explain or interpret his behaviour to Dibs. She simply gives him an environment in which he can explore his own feelings and come to his own conclusions about them, whatever they are.

Excluding the initial session in the school play therapy room, she only had 17 hours with him, perhaps an illustration of Clarke and Clarke’s observation that the greater the adversity, the more rapid the initial recovery from it.

This also raises the possibility that the effectiveness of ‘group therapy’ has nothing to do with the theoretical framework chosen to underpin it but simply with whether or not the group within which a person was allowed to explore their own feelings had appropriate boundaries and levels of tolerance of strong feelings to enable a person to do express them freely on their way to resolving them.


Bazeley, E T (1928) Homer Lane and the Little Commonwealth London: Allen & Unwin See also Children Webmag February 2009

Berridge, D (1985) Children’s homes Oxford: Blackwell

Burn, M (1956) Mr Lyward’s answer London: Hamish Hamilton See also Children Webmag May 2009

Clarke A. M and Clarke, A D B (1976) Studies in natural settings In A M Clarke and A D B Clarke (Eds) Early experience: myth and evidence Chapter 6, pp. 69-96. London: Open Books.

Neill, A S (1962) Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz Originally published 1960 Summerhill: a radical approach to child rearing New York: Hart See also Children Webmag July 2009

Robertson, J. and Robertson, J (1971) Young children in brief separation: a fresh look Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 26, 264-315 See also Children Webmag October 2009

Thorpe, R (1973) Consumers’ Viewpoint Social Work Today 4 (3)

Trasler, G (1960) In place of parents: a study of foster care London: Routledge & Kegan Paul


5 thoughts on “‘Dibs in Search of Self’ by Virginia Mae Axline”

  1. I’m a parent now,at 42.I read this book exactly 30 years ago and I’m reading it again and again.Every part of it is a part of me,because when I read it for the first time,it opened up new doors and continues to open. I’m inside of these new path I can visualize ahead of me and my son is with me.The colours Dibs talked about,and the leave left behind ,the that listen to him,every time his memory called for an answer, that same leave that travelled around the world to came back to him because every child deserves a tree,a star,someone to lo e,a broken flower that can grow,and bring life to a broken family.LOVE!!!

  2. Hei i just want to know.what was not helpfull and what would one have done differently in case of dibs now?.what was in place to determine dibs needs or how did the counsellor and school determine dibs needs? Was his needs met what shows that what did axline did in trying if not satisfying dibs needs..help me i want to understand an put in practise

  3. Dibs is set in the late 1940s when there were no general ways of assessing children’s needs and what children received was more a matter of chance. Lots of people were trying out new ideas and the book was, like many others at this time, intended to publicise one of these new ideas.
    According to the book the outcome was positive.
    Everyone will get different things from the book but the message I get is to start where the child is and not impose a predefined theory on what you do with a child.


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