In 1967, Ann Jernberg, Ph.D., became the Director of Psychological Services for the new Chicago Head Start program. She brought in Phyllis Booth as one of her assistants. She and her team were to identify children in need of psychological services and refer them to existing treatment centers. However, there were very few resources for childrens' mental health at the time, and the existing ones could not possibly handle the hundreds of children identified as needing help.
Jernberg set out out to create her own program that would treat children at the Head Start centers, rather than at outlying clinics, and could use paraprofessionals supervised by mental health professionals to do the actual work. The result was a model based upon healthy parent-infant interaction which borrowed elements from the work of Austin Des Lauriers and Viola Brody. From Des Laurier she took the idea of actively engaging the child in an intimate environment that focused on the here and now. From Brody, she adopted the nurturing relationship between child and therapist, including touch, rocking and singing. Ernestine Thomas, a talented early therapist, contributed the focus on being strongly affirmative and hopeful about the child's health, potential and strength.
The Jernberg team took the model and recruited people with a lively, playful ability to engage children. They trained and supervised them to go into the schools to work individually and intensively with the children who needed help. When they ran into resistance to this unorthodox method, they produced films to demonstrate its effectiveness.
The Theraplay Institute was formed in 1971, and people familiar with the Head Start work began referring children for treatment. In 1976, Theraplay was registered as a service mark to protect the integrity of Theraplay treatment and training around the world. In 1979, Jernberg published Theraplay: A New Treatment Using Structured Play for Problem Children and Their Families.
In the 1980's the focus became increasingly on training others to use Theraplay. The Theraplay Institute reached out beyond the Chicago area to train mental health professionals in other areas of the United States and Canada. Today, there are chartered Theraplay Assocations in Germany and Finland, and an official Alliance for Theraplay in South Korea. People from over 28 other countries have been trained in Theraplay. Theraplay therapists are working with Aids orphans in Botswana, victims of war and natural disasters all over the world, and many other humanitarian projects.
Phyllis Booth published the second edition of the Theraplay book in 1999, and in 2010 the third edition of Theraplay: Helping Parents and Children Build Better Relationships Through Attachment-Based Play. Theraplay has evolved since its Head Start roots to focus on the child-caregiver relationship, which has led to an increased emphasis on secure attachment and affect attunement (D.N. Stern, A.N. Schore, M. Ainsworth).