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.
One of the things I really like about working with other people’s kids is that they are other people’s kids. When I’m playing with my child clients, it’s very easy to hang back and be observant and to feel invested in their play without fighting any urge to “help.” With my own children, it’s hard not to take advantage of so-called “learning opportunities.” It’s hard not to push a little bit — “What if we added this curved block there?” But I know from my time working with other people’s kids that hanging back and watching creates more opportunity for learning and growth than butting in ever can.
It’s hard not to be a help but well intentioned helping can often be a hindrance.
I notice this when children are opening new toys. Grown ups often start unpacking the items more quickly or they’ll grab the instructions and start to read them out loud. New toys are exciting even for adults! But if we can stand back and let the child come to his exploration in his own sweet time then he will have the chance to make the toy his own. He will get to try things that don’t work before discovering things that do, which is a great big part of learning.
If you are like me and often impatient with your child’s play, try sitting on your hands and watching next time.
- Watch your child put the puzzle piece in the wrong place, discover the wrongness and then try something else.
- If you would like to participate, describe what you see once you know your child has seen it, too, “Huh, that puzzle piece is blue and that space has mostly green around it.”
- Resist the urge to head off mistakes.
- Wait to be invited or ask, “You seem like you’re getting frustrated, can I help?” If they say no, believe them.
- Do the bare minimum of help once your presence is welcomed and be prepared to step back again when your child wants to take the lead once more.
- Allow your child to do things “wrong” because there really is no wrong (as long as people are safe). (It’s a good reason to buy sturdy toys — they need to be able to stand up to rigorous inspection, especially when children are younger.)
- If your child is used to you taking the lead prepare for some push back. If she gets angry because you are not showing her how to do it, model exploring. Let her correct you when she watches you do something that may not work.
Even though I am comfortable watching other people’s children struggle until they figure it out or ask for my help, I sometimes have to take a break from watching my own children get frustrated with a K’nex model or art project. I want you to know this because sometimes parents will watch me with their kids in my office and they’ll tell me they feel guilty. But it’s much harder with your own children! The dynamics are so different!
(You know what’s really hard for me? Stickers! The stickers that kids are supposed to put on the plastic cars or dollhouse furniture. I feel very stressed watching my kids trying to get them on right!)
So when it comes to my own children, I’ll make an excuse (“I’m just going to get a drink of water”) or find something else to do (“I’ll just be over here sorting the mail so holler if you need anything”). I sometimes have to steel myself for the tears I know are coming because there is value in frustration and learning to manage it even though what I’d really like to do is head it off and avoid it (and sometimes that’s appropriate — you know your child best!). But as frustration tolerance improves so will our children’s abilities as architects of their own experiences.
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I used to have this at my house but now I have an office so I’m going to move it there. You’re all invited!
This is your chance to clean out your cupboards, closets and under the bed and maybe get a head start on your holiday shopping.
Here’s how the Annual Toy Swap works:
- People arrive with their gently used toys, books and clothes.
- They drop things off in my waiting room and maybe get themselves a cup of tea
- They rummage through other people’s things.
- They laugh with each other, complain about how their kids never even TOUCHED that toy after begging for it for months, pick things out, discard things, hold up dresses to consider sizing and discuss their holiday plans as well as the extended family members with whom they will be forced to deal with in the upcoming weeks.
- They will leave with new-to-them stuff.
- OR they will drop their things off and leave without grabbing more, just happy to have an excuse to declutter.
- Everything left over will get donated to either the Northwest Counseling Help Me Grow program or to the Syntero therapy offices serving kids or to Volunteers of America.
When: Sunday, November 24th, 1pm to 5pm
Where: My offices at 6660 North High Street, Suite 1A (park in back, come in the side doors)
Frequently Asked Questions:
- Can I come get things if I don’t have anything to share? Absolutely!
- Can I drop things off without picking things up? Sure!
- Do I have to hang out the whole time? Nope, but you’re welcome to if you’d like.
- Can I drop things off beforehand? Yes, just contact me to arrange it.
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.)
I recently reread The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau and I walked around the rest of the day thinking with an English accent.
This is the last paragraph of The Willow Cabin (it holds no spoilers):
In such a moment of solitude as this, she could feel accompanied by every joyful adventure that she had known, every person who she had loved. She brought into the empty room the crowd, of whom she was made.
The book was making me think about acquisitions. The two main women in the book talk about the “tyranny of property.” I am not like this — I like property for the most part.
Then later when I got online to do some writing, I (of course) tried to avoid work by scanning through my bookmarks and I started seeing the tyranny of my bookmarks.
I bookmark things out of greed; I love the acquisition. I have no time to ever look at 75% of them again. Instead I feel guilty every time I open my bookmarks file to find the one or two I use regularly but I can’t delete the rest. Tyranny indeed. When I get a new browser I rarely import the bookmarks. Then for a very brief time, I feel absolutely free of all those sites I mean to visit someday to read in earnest instead of just scan. But eventually it begins again. Someone sends me an article I want to read but don’t have time or the homeschool email list has a link to a nifty science site and there I am drowning in bookmarks again. It’s a terrible thing.
When the kids were small we used to have regular rounds of Twenty-Five Toss, which was when I’d take a cardboard box, place it in the middle of the hallway and tell them to find twenty-five things they wanted to throw away or donate. By the end of the day we’d have a box full of gum wrappers and outgrown socks and toys no longer needed. If we did this once a week through spring or summer we’d end the season with more space to think. Plus the kids like the alliteration.
Twenty-five is a reasonable number — big enough to make a dent but small enough that the kids won’t get overwhelmed. Plus a person can always cheat her way through it if she needs to and just throw away twenty-five magazine order cards and receipts and old envelopes instead of committing to an entire day digging through basement boxes.
So I think I’ll try this with my bookmarks over the course of the next week or so. And maybe if I get really ambitious, I’ll apply it to my iTunes library, which is about to take over my entire computer.
Now please do not bookmark or pin this article if it’s just going to end up tyrannizing you. Or do it and then make it the first of the twenty-five things you’re going to do away with to make your life more free and easy.