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.
Finally, scroll down to see a quick YouTube tour of my whole office as it looked a few weeks ago. I’m always adding (and sometimes subtracting) toys but you’ll get the general idea.
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.
I have a basket of miscellaneous toys on my shelf and the kids like to rummage through them. Most popular are the real cell phones even though they’re not smart phones. The kids really like the ones that slide out so they can “text”. There’s also a magic wand, some rubber balls and a toy gun. Toy guns in play therapy aren’t as controversial as, say, toy guns in preschool but they are still part of an ongoing discussion that play therapists have with each other.
We all agree that a fully stocked play therapy office needs to include some ways to be aggressive like rubber swords, dragon puppets, lion figurines or guns. Most of us are ok with guns and some of us are not. We have different ideas about what kinds of guns can be used (at the agency where I used to work we had Nerf-type guns that shot spongy “bullets”) and we have different rules about how they can be used (some therapists don’t allow kids to point a gun at the therapist and some do — my decision depends on context).
The gun I have looks an awful lot like the cowgirl cap gun my mom bought me from Sears to go with my red-with-white-fringes cowgirl Halloween costume. I think that was 1975 so this one is a little different — it has more plastic, less metal and it has the orange tip that they started adding to toys in 1992.
I chose this gun because it is so clearly a toy. It doesn’t look like a modern gun (it isn’t black, you have to cock it) and it doesn’t actually shoot anything. Lemme tell you, I got really tired of helping kids dig under chairs for those spongy yellow “bullets” so when I set up my own office I decided no Nerf-type guns.
Some kids are very excited when they find the toy gun. Other kids don’t care one way or the other. Very, very occasionally a child will tell me that he or she is not allowed to play with toy guns and ask me to remove it and of course I always respect this request and we talk about that.
My decision to allow toy guns in my play therapy office is indicative of my belief that kids should have a full vocabulary in the language of play. As a mother I struggled with gun play and it was something my friends and I discussed at length. We all fell on different sides of the decision — some of our kids had full arsenals and some weren’t even allowed to play with figurines that had guns attached to their tiny hands — but we all thought about it a lot. Other weapons like swords, knives, and bows and arrows didn’t cause us as much concern. I suppose there are vestiges of this struggle in my decision to use an anachronistic cowboy gun in my play therapy room. But I never considered not having a gun available to my clients.
Kids are smart. They get that the play therapy office is different then the rest of the world. They understand that the rules I have aren’t the same as the rules that their parents or their teachers have. Children who aren’t allowed to use guns in the rest of their lives but who welcome the one in my basket are OK with leaving it there when they go. (Although they are usually super excited about showing it to their parents — sometimes they even run out to the waiting room with it when they find it!)
Some of the children I work with use the toy gun to work out feelings of helplessness or power by shooting my stuffed dragon or the picture of the guy doing a handstand on a horse that hangs above my couch. Some of them don’t use it at all but keep it near them while they work in the sand tray or color; having the gun nearby makes them feel safe.
Sometimes children shoot my Feelings poster (a grid of pictures featuring kids making faces to illustrate different emotions) often as an indicator of their own frustration at their inability to understand or name their own feelings.
Sometimes kids tell me who they would like to shoot or announce that they’re shooting someone while they aim into the middle distance. This can be upsetting for parents to witness but I liken it to an adult saying in my office, “I could kill my boss!” or “I wanted to throttle my brother-in-law!”
Often children just want to use the gun because they think it’s fun. This includes both the kids who can play with guns at home and those who aren’t allowed to. Some of them include it in their play because it’s part of a language that’s familiar to them. Others use it because it’s novel and they’re excited to explore. Many, many children glance at the gun, cock it and pull the trigger a couple of times and then put it back never to play with it again.
Frankly the cell phones are way more popular.
If you bring your child to see me and have concerns about the gun or any other toys I have in the playroom, I encourage you to bring it up.
I just finished a kid’s book titled Return of the Twelves. It’s about a set of wooden soldiers once owned by Branwell Bronte and his sisters. The soldiers are alive and the little boy who finds them watches over them as one of their Genii (plural for genius).
When you’re a child small things are so appealing; this is why the sandtray is the most popular (and powerful) toy in my whole office. You can make a whole world in there and most of the kids take intense pride in how “real” they can make it look. The setting up — place each thing exactly where it ought to go next to the exact thing it should stand besides — is very nearly more fun than playing with it afterwards. Do you remember doing that? Setting your toys up and then gazing at them with satisfaction? Most of the kids who come to my office like to take pictures of their set up sandtray on their parents’ phone so they can take it home and share it with other family members. I usually take pictures, too, and make them part of my case notes.
Anyway, reading Return of the Twelve made me think about the other books like that and I came up with an incomplete list.
Which others do you remember?
Usually I let my kid-clients decide whether or not they want their parents to come into their play therapy sessions with them. (Some situations require parents be an active participant but most don’t.) The littlest children always want a parent to sit in the room, which is absolutely fine. The kids and I play together and the parents watch or read a book or play on their smart phones.
I know that sometimes parents are sitting there watching us have a tea party or race cars or build with blocks and thinking, “I drove all this way for this? Took time out of the day, got the other kids childcare, took time off of work, took my kid out of school for this?” Because play therapy looks an awful lot like playing.
I try to head this off by explaining how play therapy works at the intake session but it doesn’t always sink in. And then we’re all in the office together and their child is playing and I’m watching (because I don’t play unless I get invited to play — my job is facilitation and observation) and … well, I’m not surprised when the question comes up, “What exactly are you doing anyway? And how is it helping?”
What I tell parents is that talk therapy is facilitated exploration through discussion and play therapy is facilitated exploration through play. Play is how kids communicate.
What makes the play therapy space special are the same things that make the talk therapy space special:
- Unconditional positive regard (I accept you, I appreciate you, I see the good in you no matter what you do or say);
- Safety (with rare exception what you share is private and stays in that room);
- Concentrated focus (I am paying sharp attention to what you do/say and trying to both understand you better and help you understand yourself better);
- A commitment to helping you move forward (I am actively looking for ways to help you grow through your experience);
- A particular kind of loaded environment (comfy chairs, quiet, tissues at the ready and specific toys that encourage sharing).
Unlike most adults and bigger kids who can learn through give and take discussion, young children lack the insight and the vocabulary that allows them to discuss their experiences and feelings. Through play they are able to share what is causing them concern and work through it.
Many of the children who come see me play the same game over and over, trying to make sense of something so they can move forward. Just as talking something out can help, playing something out can help, too.
A common example is a child who heads straight to doctor’s kit every session because she’s working out her feelings about her last well-child visit. Having an understanding witness who gives voice (through her unbiased observation) to the story helps the child take control of her narrative.
We used to have two gorgeous handmade wooden sand trays at our agency but when our boss left she naturally took her toys with her and that included the sand trays. I knew they were leaving but didn’t think much of it because I figured we’d get out the old Rubbermaid boxes we used to use and I thought, well, they aren’t as lovely but what the heck, they’ll work just fine.
Funny thing, though — they don’t work nearly as well.
An official sand tray is wooden and is painted blue inside (to symbolize water). They come in different sizes (and some of them are round) but the standard size is around 24″ x 30″ and about 3″ to 4″ deep. The reason they’re so big is they’re meant to hold an entire world. The reason they’re not even bigger is that they’re meant to hold that world in a space small enough that the child can see all of it without turning her head.
The Rubbermaid containers are smaller and they’re not as pretty. The small size matters because the kids who are used to the bigger trays are annoyed to find the worlds they make are now all cramped up. And the prettiness matters because the toys we use are our means to communicate with our clients and the better our tools, the more we are conveying our respect for what they have to say. I believe that the respect that comes with working in a solid, lovely sand tray makes a difference in how welcomed the child feels in our sessions together and the Rubbermaid fix — while workable — doesn’t have that same gravity and consideration.
I didn’t have a sand tray for my private practice because I was holding out for a good one and they’re not cheap. I kept thinking about giving in and buying something makeshift but I didn’t want to compromise. Once I saw the difference our switch to the Rubbermaid containers made in my sessions at the agency, I became even more determined to wait until I could get a good, solid, wooden tray.
Then I found these instructions for making your own. Hurray!
Now I’m not handy so I knew that I wasn’t up for the task but when I was talking to my father-in-law about it he volunteered to make me one. And he did and it is beautiful and I am thrilled.I’m still working on building up my miniature collection and exploring ways to display it to make it accessible (right now it’s a jumble). I’m thinking about using molding to create shelves for the figures but want to make sure that they’re not prone to tumbling off before I start drilling holes in the wall.
I love using the sand tray with my clients. It’s such a great way for a less verbal child to communicate with me and it calms down the sensory seekers like nothing else (except maybe play dough). Children who are feeling shy about choosing toys in the playroom will generally dive into sand tray work much more quickly and then it seems once they’ve established their place in the sand then they are able to transfer that sense of ownership over to the rest of the toys.
It’s also a useful way to get a better understanding of relationships since families can create trays together. Watching two brothers negotiate a world together gives me a glimpse of how they work together (or don’t) at home.
A sand tray is an important investment for anyone doing play therapy and getting a good one is definitely worth the time or money. (I tried to talk my father-in-law into making himself available for building one for local friends but he said that while it was an easy project, it’s not something he’s rushing to do again. But he does encourage the handy among you not to be afraid of trying to build your own.)
It’s only as an adult that I appreciate board games. As a kid I didn’t like them because I was a sore loser. I don’t think I ever finished a game of Monopoly; I always ended up storming off when I landed on my sister’s Park Place hotel.
Now I play board games in therapy several times a week because so many of the kids I work with like to pull them off the shelf. This is especially true for the tweens. We have some therapy-specific board games (like these), which can be nice and some kids love them but usually the ones they grab are the usual suspects — Trouble and Monopoly Jr. And card games, too, like Uno.
A lot of therapists do inspired things with Jenga but honestly, that game rattles my nerves too much so I’m a little useless around Jenga. Pop-Up Pirate is more my speed when it comes to games with built in tension.
What’s great about board games is that it keeps you and your client busy so maybe they’re comfortable talking about things they don’t normally want to talk about. It means she don’t have to just sit there, hands in her lap, feeling nervous, which is a lot to ask a child to do especially if she doesn’t know me well. Games have the same give and take that conversation is supposed to have, which makes it easier to follow the rhythm of taking turns and let it lead to a discussion. Plus if the topic starts feeling too intense, the child can shift focus back to the game.
Another nice thing about playing games in the therapy office is that it puts everyone on an even keel. A game like Sorry is all chance so even a little kid can take down an adult if he gets a lucky roll. Let me tell you, when a child walks in feeling defensive (or downright angry) about coming to counseling and then gets to send me back home in Sorry, he’s much more likely to open up to me later.
Playing games with my clients also gives me a chance to know them better. Are they sore losers like I was? Gracious winners? Do they try to cheat to win? Or to lose? Do they take particular glee in humiliating my gingerbread man? There’s a lot to learn when I’m playing a game with a client.