When I’m choosing play therapy toys these are the things I’m thinking about (click any pictures to make them bigger):
Does it have play value?
Play value means that not only is this toy fun but there is, as Anne of Green Gables would say, “scope for imagination” in it. Take the stuffed tree there on the right, the one sheltering Wonder Woman and a tie-dyed monkey. Children hide things in it, hide people in it, hide animals in it. They use it as a safe house for favorite bunnies or a lair for an evil parrot. They use it to play hide and seek with me or with themselves. They use it for storage and they use it for scenery. It’s sturdy (it’s survived being sat upon an awful lot since it’s the right height for some kids to see it as a stool) and it’s cozy being made of the same flocked cloth a favorite teddy bear might have. I also try to be mindful of the different ages I have in my office. It’s not unusual for me to see a 3-year old in the morning and a 13-year old in the afternoon. For that reason I also have busy toys — the kind of thing that a big kid can play with without feeling silly but will keep their hands occupied enough that it’s easy to chat together with our attention semi-focused on something else.
Does it have therapeutic value?
Good guys and bad guys, fights for the dark force or the bright way, this is the stuff of legends and of play therapy sessions. Kids need tools to help them explore being the heroic maiden as well as the angry dragon to work out their own hopes, fears and everyday experiences. Sometimes a castle is just a castle and sometimes it’s a refuge for our struggles with friends, family and ourselves. I have a variety of good guys, bad guys and everything in between. I have a number of different families — people and animals — so children can build their own or ones they wish for. I look for toys that have room for symbolic meaning, that can stand in for both big and small feelings and I look for toys with therapeutic purpose that’s more obvious like baby bottles, a doctor’s kit and tools for fixing anything that’s broken.
Can it be used in more than one way?
My office is small so storage space is at a premium. I want toys that can do double or even triple duty. Signs like these posted in my sand tray also work with the blocks, the stuffed animals or the cars. Kids can use them literally (as part of a town or roadway) or figuratively (images of boundaries that must not be crossed). I can also draft them into more directive games by setting up cards to map the trajectory of our angry or worried outbursts and asking kids to show me when it’s time to STOP our escalating emotions or anxious thoughts.
Every play therapist has her own style and her own tools. While most of us will agree on the basics (Doctor’s kit! Baby dolls! Dollhouse!) the details are our own. I love to check out the stash of other play therapy offices for ideas and inspiration and also because toys are just plain FUN.
Note: If you follow me on Instagram then you know I often post pictures of the toys from my office including the ones I’ve posted here. Some of these look like they’re in “mid-play” and they are but I’m the one playing with them.
The reason I’m telling you this is that I want to be very very very clear that I never — and I mean NEVER — post anything related to a play session with a client. NEVER.
Play therapy sessions hold the same standards of confidentiality that an adult session would have (with some obvious exceptions related to the parent-child relationship). I would no more snap and share a picture of a child’s sandtray than I would snap and share a picture of my case notes. Even without identifying information attached, sharing pictures drawn by a client, sandtrays created by a client or a configuration of toys set up by a client violates the sanctity and trust of the therapeutic relationship.
Sharing such pictures is a clear ethical violation and it’s important for me to let you know that anything you see up on Instagram or here on my blog has absolutely no client connection whatsoever.