What is play therapy? Well, it’s a bit like sneaking broccoli into the spaghetti sauce. You are adding a vital “nutrient” into your child’s life, but disguising it with something enjoyable. Psychiatrists designed play therapy almost 100 years ago as mental health support for children. In some cases, children who are given play therapy options have serious issues they had no way to express. The basic concept of child-centered play therapy is one from which every child can benefit — and every parent can offer.
Play Therapy Activities Your Kids Can Benefit From
In this article:
- Getting Started
- Examples of Play Therapy
- Color-Feeling Matchups
- Pick-Up Sticks and Memory Sharing
- Balloons and Burdens
Some parents undertake play therapy at the suggestion of a family therapist. Counseling may have been needed because of a family crisis, or because of the child’s own special needs. Often, parents are introduced to the technique in sessions known as “filial therapy.” Simply put, parents learn from professionals about various types of play, and how to use these types of play therapeutically for kids between 3 and 12 years old.
Filial therapy can be useful if your child is dealing with a particularly delicate emotional crisis. In turn, the main mental health challenge brings with it a set of sub-problems. For example, if your child has serious anger issues, meltdowns ensue when things don’t go their way. Play therapy can help your child better develop their problem-solving skills as well as healthy ways to cope with anger.
Play therapy is useful if you simply hope to help your child cope with the emotions all children face. This kind of therapy also helps strengthen the bond between parent and child.
You can try many of these techniques without training. You can also enlist a counselor to help you and/or your co-parent with filial therapy.
The basics of conducting child-centered play therapy start with setting the stage for each session. Describe the activity, define where the play area will be, and show your child what toys and/or crafting materials will be used. Setting up the play therapy activity beforehand allows your child to then drive the action, with you acting as an occasional prompter. This is known as non-directive play therapy.
Examples of Play Therapy
Play therapy does not have to be sophisticated in order for your child to get something valuable from it. Below are three simple activities.
Coloring is a natural medium for helping kids express their own emotions. As your child begins to color with crayons or markers on the paper, begin to talk to them about their color choices. Ask if they associate any colors with feelings, and what they are.
Talk to your child about the color-emotion pairings they identify. Try not to express surprise at their choices. After all, adults are used to the symbols of green for jealousy and red for anger. But kids still have plenty of unique ideas — both for what colors represent, and what they call their emotions. If “black” equals “cozy” to them, let that be your guide. Forcing your child to choose “yellow means happy” may cause them to shut down and stop opening up to you.
Next, try to come up with additional pairings. Scribble with a new color and ask your child what feeling it evokes. If they are unsure, you can do some prompting. “Well, when do we usually see the color gray?” On their own, they might remember that the clouds are gray when it rains, and it makes your child feel sad not to go outside.
Once you have several color-feeling pairings, give your child fresh sheets of paper. Name a feeling and ask them to make some pictures based on that feeling. If they do not remember what color they chose, you can prompt them. It does not matter whether they attempt to draw actual people and things, or just random shapes. (It’s not unusual for angry scribbles to go with children’s “mad” pages.)
Some basic feelings to explore are happy, excited, sad, mad, lonely, bored, and jealous. You can also add “very happy” and “very mad” colors if your child seems to understand the difference.
How It Can Benefit Your Kids
This type of play therapy is helpful in more than one way. First, it establishes color-feeling pairings for additional activities. Next, your child has a chance to talk about feelings, and specific incidents she connects with them. She may not have opened up before about what makes her lonely, but as she draws with the color she’s identified as that feeling, she might talk about when you leave for work each day. It might also have been an incident in which her friend said she was coming over, but did not.
You can return to coloring-based play therapy again and again. It’s especially helpful if she’s having trouble processing her emotions. If a grandparent has passed away, coloring with you can be a way for her to understand that her emotions are just as important as those of other family members.
Even positive emotions can be overwhelming for a young child. For example, an upcoming vacation might seem too far away. She can be soothed by drawing pictures of what she’s looking forward to about it, using her “excitement” crayon or marker.
Pick-Up Sticks and Memory Sharing
Playing with colorful pick-up sticks allows you to springboard the color-feeling pairings your child identified with the coloring game. This time, she’ll be focused solely on talking about specific incidents connected with that emotion color.
If your child is already familiar with the classic pick-up sticks game, there won’t be much more for her to grasp. Even if she has not played, it’s simple enough to learn. The straws are spilled on a surface, and both players take turns picking up a stick without moving any other sticks. The game ends when someone moves a stick. The winner is the one holding the most sticks.
To this classic game, you’ll add the element of taking discussion cues from the color sticks you each pick up. Have her talk about specific moments that something made her feel the color emotion of the stick she’s picked up. “I was bored when we were in the doctor’s waiting room for a long time.”
Of course, you’ll also be participating when it’s your turn. Keep your examples simple. The focus should be on her. You can say mild things like, “I was excited that we all got to go to the movies last weekend” if you pick up an “excited” color stick.
What To Expect
For this play therapy activity, allow your child some latitude. There may be a stick she picks up simply because it’s easy to get. Yet the color emotion it represents makes her feel uncomfortable. Allow her to pass on coming up with an incident for that stick, and just continue with the game. In this way, she will look forward to the challenge of the actual game, and the ability to express her emotions when she’s comfortable enough to do so.
Balloons and Burdens
With this type of play therapy, you’ll need to buy 10 or 12 small helium balloons. In addition to the balloons, some heavy blocks or smooth rocks, a pad, and pencil are all you’ll need. The point of this game is to show your child that unexpressed negative emotions are more of a burden than shared, positive emotions. It also helps develop problem-solving skills.
How To Play
Have your child dictate or write negative thoughts they have recently had on a sheet of paper. These could be any reactions that trigger emotions of anger, sadness, fear, or shame. On a separate sheet of paper, they’ll write or dictate positive thoughts they have about recent situations. Remind your child that those good thoughts bring of feelings of happiness, excitement, love, or graciousness.
Next, explain the concept that it’s OK to have negative feelings, but they can weigh you down if you don’t find a way to handle them. Then, talk about how thinking about good things more often can make you feel lighter, and carefree.
Now put these abstract concepts into a concrete play activity. Ask your child to hold a balloon in one hand and a block in the other. This will give them a sense of their difference in weight. If your child likes guessing games, you can ask them to predict how many times they can go around the room with all of the blocks, versus how many laps they can make with the balloons.
Then, them all of the blocks at once. (If they’re too bulky to carry, you can put them in a bag.) Ask them to walk around the room until the bag gets too heavy. Suggest that they put the bag down to feel the relief of lowering the burden. Then, bundle the balloons and ask your child to circle the room as long as they can while holding the balloons.
Afterward, you can compare how many times your child circled the room with both the blocks and balloons. Discuss how much easier it is to carry the light “good thoughts” balloons as opposed to the heavy “bad thoughts” blocks. It’s also important to stress that it’s not bad or wrong to have negative thoughts. The idea is by finding healthy ways to express them, they won’t weigh your child down as much.
Balloons and Burdens Variations
Variation 1: Attach each written feeling to a specific balloon or block with a bit of string. If you wish to do this variation, cut up strips of paper to write the feelings down on beforehand. Use a hole puncher in one corner of each paper strip to run the string through.
Variation 2: The day after you do your initial “balloons and burdens” play therapy, have your child hold the bag of blocks. You’ll reach in and take out one block. Read from the strip of paper attached to the block. Ask your child if they can think of a way they might be able to deal with the bad thought.
For the most part, your child can probably think of at least one solution. “I can ask you to keep me company if I have that bad dream again.” When they do, remove that block from the bag. If your child can’t think of anything, put it back in the bag. Chances are, the bag will be much lighter when you’ve talked about all of the negative blocks. They’ll also have made some problem-solving breakthroughs. As for the bad thoughts for which they could not find solutions? You can ask if your child would like you to help them think of some.
Find out more about how play therapy can help your child with this video from TEDx Talks.
If you need help developing ideas for child-centered play therapy, the internet is full of resources. Professionals can also help you and/or your co-parent with filial play training. What’s important is remaining patient and letting your child go through the exercises at her own pace. Remember, your child gets enticed by the actual playing. Your job is to make sure play therapy sessions feel different from chores, school, or formal therapy sessions. These are the core principles of non-directive play therapy.
What are your views on child-centered play therapy? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!