play therapy techniquesPlay therapy is the proven method through which children are able to explore, express and experience whatever it is they need to heal and grow. It has been said by many of the great play therapists who provide play therapy training throughout the world such as Garry Landreth, and Eliana Gil, that play is the language through which children express what is happening in their world and the toys with which they play are their words. With this explanation of play therapy, you might wonder why would we ever need play therapy techniques if play itself is naturally healing and expressive for children.

Pure play is indeed a way for children to work through whatever is bothering them so play is the curative agent. And in all of my own play therapy workshops and webinars, I teach that the tenets and essence of child centered play therapy (CCPT) should be the foundation of ALL play therapy. The tenets of CCPT provide that we as play therapists should meet the child where they are, allow the child to freely explore, express and experience and we should hold a safe space with sincere tracking, reflecting and returning responsibility only setting limits when limits need to be set. The essence of CCPT is that we have deep respect for the child as an individual with thoughts and feelings of her own and as a result our presence with the child is honoring of where the child is mentally and emotionally in every given moment.

But there are times when it is beneficial to be prescriptive in our approach to helping children through play therapy which requires we take into consideration what is happening for the child in her heart, mind and the world she experiences and decide when and if pure CCPT is best and when it may be therapeutically appropriate for the therapist to introduce and invite a child to participate in more directive, or what I call facilitative play therapy techniques.

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When facilitative play therapy techniques are useful:

  • When children are older and their cognitive abilities are more developed
  • When children become “stuck” in a particular theme in their play,
  • When younger children have pre-verbal trauma or sensory-motor delays
  • When there is a limitation on the amount of time or number of sessions a therapist has to help the child
  • When a child is in an immediate crisis situation such as parents divorcing or presence of abuse

Dr. Charles Schafer wrote in his book The Therapeutic Powers of Play that play therapy techniques help therapists to be more specific in how we use the play materials so that we can effectively implement the healing powers of play. Play therapy techniques ideally should be introduced to a child in a way that is gentle, invitational and with intention of facilitating a growth and healing opportunity.

The 2 facilitative play therapy techniques I want to introduce you to in this article can be used to help children experience their thoughts and feelings in a way that empowers them to better identify, understand and express their emotions.

Post-It-Note® Worry Boards

Items you will need: 3 white poster boards taped or pinned to the wall labeled SMALL, MEDIUM, BIG. A pack of square Post-It-Notes®, a cut out of a cardboard drawing of a child with a worried expression (you can create this on a large poster board using a large ginger-bread shape to begin adding expressions, hair and clothes. It’s advised to make the figure gender neutral so that the child can identify with the figure).

Implementing the technique: Introduce the child to the concept of worries. Explain that we all have worries and our worries come in three sizes. Introduce the cardboard child cut out as your friend Worried Wilma or Worried William who has a lot of worries. Wonder out loud what some of the things are that this child might be worried about. Invariably your client will project her own worries onto the cardboard cut out child.

As your client identifies a worry, ask the child if that worry feels like a small, medium or big size worry. Write the worry on a Post-It-Note® and invite the child to stick it onto the poster board that is labeled as the size of worry the child determines it is. If the child gets stuck, you can wonder aloud about a worry you happen to know the child has expressed in previous sessions or that the parents have told you about, “I wonder if Wilma ever worries about sleeping alone in the dark?” 

After the child finishes identifying all of Worried Wilma’s worries and placing them on the boards, as you and the child look at the worry boards, wonder aloud, “I wonder if we were going to help Wilma with her worries, which board should we start with?”  Allow the child to identify which worries to begin with.

Finally, wonder aloud, “I wonder if any of these worries Wilma has are worries you’ve ever had.”  When the child confirms she can relate, tell the child you actually have lots of fun ways to help children who have these worries and ask the child if she would like to have you help her.

Purpose of this technique: After building initial rapport using more of a CCPT based approach in previous sessions, this technique can be used to help the child identify there is something the child needs help with, gain assent from the child for treatment and set goals for the treatment with the child at an age appropriate way. This technique sets the framework for further sessions in which you can reference this process and introduce more facilitative play therapy techniques.

The Light vs. Heavy Experiment

Items you will need: 2 white boards, dry erase pen, 10 very light weight plastic balls such as found in a “ball pit” , 10 palm size river rocks, 2 grocery sacks with handles.

Implementing the technique: You will set up the experiment by placing the white boards on opposite sides of the room with a grocery bag beside each white board. You will set the containers of balls and the rocks in the middle of the room between the two boards. You tell the child that today we are going to think about different kinds of thoughts we think and we are going to do an experiment. If the child doesn’t know what an experiment is you will explain how scientists use experiments to try out different things to better understand how things work.

You will explain that we have light thoughts and we have heavy thoughts. You will write on one board “HEAVY THOUGHTS” at the top and on the other board write “LIGHT THOUGHTS.” You will begin by  explaining the light thoughts help us feel happy and hopeful and give an example to which the child can relate such as, “I am really good at playing baseball.” As you give the example write it on the LIGHT THOUGHTS board.  Explain that light thoughts are hopeful, happy and positive.

Then give an example of a heavy thought the child can relate to such as, “I don’t have a lot of friends,” and write that on the HEAVY THOUGHTS board. Explain that heavy thoughts are worrisome, sad and negative.

Introduce the child to the items in the middle. Have him pick up a light ball in one hand and a rock in the other hand. Ask him which one feels light and which one feels heavy. Invite him to place one light item in the bag by the LIGHT THOUGHTS board and one heavy item in the bag by the HEAVY THOUGHTS board. From here you help the child to identify light thoughts and heavy thoughts he often has and each time, you or he write the thought on the board and place an item in the bag for each one.

After identifying 10 for each board and placing 10 items in each bag you invite the child to pick up the bag of balls and carry it while walking around the room in a circle 3 times. Explain that when we think light thoughts it’s easy to walk around. We don’t get tired of carrying light thoughts. Light thoughts help us to move through our life feeling happy and hopeful that we can do just about anything we need to do.

Next invite the child pick up the bag of rocks and see if he can walk in a circle carrying the bag. Invite him to notice how it feels to carry the bag of rocks compared to how it felt to carry the bag of light balls. Reflect that when we think a lot of heavy thoughts, it’s like carrying around a bag of rocks and after a while the load starts to feel so heavy we can’t keep going. Invite the child to set down the bag of rocks and introduce the child to the idea of choosing which thoughts he wants to think.

Purpose of the technique: Through this experiment the child is introduced to an experience of felt lightness and heaviness to demonstrate how our thoughts lead to emotions and feelings in the body affecting the way we move through daily life. The experiment provides an experience of empowering choice in terms of what thoughts we are going to hold on to and carry around. This analogy can be referenced in later play therapy sessions as you continue to help the child realize he has choice and ability to change his thoughts to affect how he feels in various situations.

In all of my play therapy trainings I teach that it is essential therapists learn and practice CCPT first before rushing in with directive play therapy techniques because otherwise a child will not have the established rapport, relationship and emotional safety to be able to benefit from facilitative play therapy techniques.  Even in the midst of facilitating  play-based techniques, you will want to use CCPT interventions of tracking, reflecting and returning responsibility when appropriate which helps the child to feel seen, heard and respected.

For more play therapy techniques please check out my recorded training on Creative and Affordable Play Therapy Interventions