One of my favorite things to do is to help new play therapists develop the skills, training, tools, and knowledge to begin practicing play therapy with young people. One of the most often questions I get is about how to set up the playroom. What toys should I get? Do I need everything from this giant list? AND the tricky thing is that some play therapists are juggling supplies and toys between multiple locations, schools, telehealth, or doing in-home therapy.
Now, with the shift to Tele-Play this has created a whole new level of stress about how to outfit each child with the right toys to engage in meaningful play therapy work. Most of us don't have the budget to equip each child with all the toys and supplies that we all have in our play rooms! And, as we imagine what it might take to go back to in office work we are grappling with worries and fears of how to support our client’s best and in a safe and ethical way by sanitizing offices, staggering appointments, and the way we sanitize our toys and environment. Additionally therapists are brainstorming about each child having their own kit or set of toys that only they play with to decrease any potential spread of germs. There are so many questions and decisions to make - masks or no masks? Cleaning between clients or separate play kits? Staggering appointments or still full on telehealth? What ARE the best ways to clean my toys? Ugh - so much information that is constantly changing (because well....science) and from so many different sources, it is so overwhelming to conceptualize "what next?"
How do we make sense now of what play therapy will look like for the children we work with when we return to the office - whether that is a month from now or 6 months from now? Most will agree that the toys you have available depends on your theory and what goals you might want to accomplish with the populations you serve. I also would argue that Garry Landreth's categories of toys (more on that here and here) , even if you are not a Child Centered Play Therapist, is a great list of the toys and items that may be helpful to understand what children need to process through and make sense of big emotions and life events.
However, in the midst of all of this I love to reflect on the teachings of Lisa Dion's article here and podcast Lessons From The Playroom Episode 1 here, where she (along with many other play therapists) argues that you are the most important toy in the play room. It is truly the relationship with the child and our ability to hold space that is the most important thing about our time with young people.
I also want to take this time to add that we need to trust the creativity and resiliency of children. For children sticks, rocks, and even remote controls can become magical, wonderful, creative tools for rich, imaginative, and meaningful play. The remote controls and cogs above? Those are "families". Yes - a mommy, daddy, and a little boy. Well... at least to my little boy. It warms my heart to see my son rocking, nurturing, and patting the bottom of the "baby" remote or "baby mote" as he calls it.
Knowing what I know about children, I want to use this space as a reminder that we don’t need every specific perfect toy – children will create their own worlds and express their needs through their imagination with what they have in front of them.
I am taken back to my early days as a play therapist, which I talk about here, where I just graduated with my master’s degree, was working for a non-profit agency with no agency budget to equip play therapists and I had a tiny personal budget at best to equip myself with the tools for working with children. So, I headed where most young play therapists head (and experienced therapists too!) – the dollar store. I got a bazillion mini animal figures along with some other toys from rummage sales, donated by amazing friends and family who knew I was on the hunt for toys, and digging around in my own space to see what I could find. What I came up with was a selection of toys that fit every category from Garry Landreth's categories of toys, but was a touch haphazard and a bit misfit. To say it was a far cry from what my playroom looks like now is an understatement.
Even with these imperfect play therapy tools the children I worked with still did incredible and deep work. There were nurturing families of frogs, epic battles with pool noodles, amazing art creations with crayons, and healing that occurred with less than perfect doctor kits.
We may need to be flexible (like the noodle here) with our expectations of what this new landscape of play therapy may look like for those that are doing Tele-Play and as we dream of what going back in office may hold.
The healing is within the relationships we create and hold with young people and inside the resilience and creativity of children.
Drop a comment below (no client identifying info of course) with your experience of the resiliency and creativity of children!
Scavenger hunts are so much fun! It’s the excitement and anticipation of the what you might find, using creativity to find something that fits in the category, and the challenge of completing or finding all the items on the list.
Now of course, scavenger hunts are not just something to kill time, they need to be grounded in theory and tied to the goals you are working on with the client. Essentially – the golden thread!
However, what is so great about scavenger hunts is that they lend themselves to working on SO MANY goals and skills young people may be working on and most can be flexible enough to fit into a wide range of theories! AND the most important of those might be that when children are having FUN they are able to stay in their prefrontal cortex, in their window of tolerance, and this is where learning and growing happens! Wooo Hoo! And this is so important because the fun and joy we bring to our sessions allows us to connect with our clients and develop relationships, and research shows HERE that of the factors we have control over as therapists, the relationship is the number one factor for client change. Sit with that for a minute.
Let’s talk about goals – depending on what and how you are hunting you may be working on mindfulness, self esteem, self talk or self statements, regulation skills, impulse control, rule following, or rapport building – just to name a few!
There are so many interesting and unique ways to do a scavenger hunt. I have found that sometimes the first prompt takes us to the end of the session even when the client has found all the items in under a couple of minutes! The processing about the items is so rich and because the client is in their own environment you get another window into their lives that you might not with other activities.
Now, what about the prompts? I’ve include a FREE download HERE of 5 different therapeutic scavenger hunts! It includes scavenger hunt items and prompting and processing questions as well as a therapist guide. Scavenger hunt topics include mindfulness and grounding, gratitude, nature, emotions, and self esteem. However, this is the absolutely tip of the ice burg of scavenger hunts of what you can create for or collaboratively with your client! Below are some pro tips and extra layers of challenges you can add in to make things interesting!
Drop a comment to let me know if you have used scavenger hunts in your work (in office and in Tele-Play) with clients! How did it go and what are your best pro tips?
Download the worksheet bundle HERE!
Doing therapy as Tele-Play rather than in office therapy is a bit different to put it mildly. Now, don’t get me wrong – there is beauty in connecting in times of crisis, supporting those we work with, and giving our best to serve our clients with what we have.
BUT one of the big things I have noticed is that for some young people our play is a bit more, ummm, stationary. For someone who spends a majority of her professional life on the floor with young people, or up engaged in an epic battle or soothing a crying baby (doll of course - or maybe dinosaur?), the shift to sitting in a chair to make sure I am visible, on camera, and because my work space is a little small to say the least – it was a big difference for me to limit my movement!
Now, I can be intentional and stretch and move between sessions but what about during sessions? I want to share something that was born in one of my sessions that has been incredibly helpful for those energetic movers and shakers we work with. It is called….THE SHAKE BREAK! *cue your favorite most body shaking music track here*
There are definitely cues that young people may have that they need to get their bodies moving. Maybe they are tuning out a bit, or you can see them wiggling all over the place, they are chewing their markers and pens, or a number of other things. At this point you lightly introduce your observation of what you are noticing with their bodies and get curious if they may need to move. Most of them will say yes and you explain to them that you would like to use Shake Breaks in your session. This is simply where you take some time to shake out your bodies.
As this becomes more part of your routine what can happen next is magical! Either you or the young person will yell out SHAKE BREAK!!! during the middle of an activity and both get up and go wild – shaking all that energy out!
The other awesome thing about this is you can use it to really dive in to what the warning signs were that their body needed to move and shake. What were they noticing inside? How did they know it was time to move? It also gives them control over and practice in making decisions that are right for regulating their bodies.
What other techniques and tips do you have for helping young people move their bodies in Tele-Play? I would love to know more about what everyone is doing so drop a comment below!
I loooove me some pasta! Maybe it’s because I’m part Italian, maybe because it is a staple of so many wonderful memories, or maybe it’s because it is delicious. I can’t be entirely sure. BUT what I know is that it is not only useful if you want a delicious meal, but it can be useful in therapy too!
Now the pasta I am talking about is not a rigatoni, cavatelli, or farfalle. No, it is one of those nice long thin pasta noodles – think of a spaghetti, angel hair, or one of my personal favorites – linguine! Most of us are familiar with using spaghetti noodles to connect young people with their bodies and work on relaxation. In this exercise, like this script here, you ask the child to tense their body like an uncooked spaghetti noodle (noticing the sensations), and then relax their body to be like a cooked noodle noticing those sensations and the difference - all paired with breathing.
I have been using these delicious noodles to help young people learn more about the window of tolerance. More specifically, how to we help young people identify and regulate through the distress to stay in their prefrontal cortex integrating both the emotional and rational/logical parts of our brain to make the best decisions we can in any given situation. Wheeewww – this is so much easier to describe with noodles!
Now, how does pasta help us do this? Well I am so glad you asked. Back to that nice long pasta noodle! When the pasta noodle is uncooked it is rigid with little flexibility. When we put any pressure on it, even the tiniest amount – it breaks! I use this metaphor to process what it looks like to be out of the window of tolerance and “break” – potentially anxiety, rumination, rigidity, inability to engage in perspective taking, anger outbursts, etc., all with the slightest trigger or pressure.
I also talk to young people that you don’t want to cook noodles too long because they also get mushy, lose their shape, and break apart easily. Pasta also actually loses taste and nutrients too! We can process this like hypoarousal and the numbing out we can experience when we get into this state. Like mushy blah tasting noodles.
Next you bring it back to that perfectly cooked al dente pasta noodle and process that these noodles have just the right flavor, are firm enough to hold their shape, but cooked enough to have flexibility. This is the window of tolerance where we can handle and regulate through the ups and downs of life while still holding our shape. Wiggly and flexible, handling whatever life can throw at us! Here you can brainstorm what kinds of things help young people stay in the window of tolerance, handle distress, and stay emotionally and cognitively flexible.
The last step is my favorite part! You process the experience of what the noodles look like in the boiling pot of water when they go from uncooked to cooked. I like to think of it as the pasta dancing in the pot! Then – with the client leading you come up with your pasta cooking DANCE! Yes – dancing like the cooked pasta in the water as a prompt and reminder to stay flexible! These dances are so fun, whole body, wiggly, flexible dances!
Bonus points for this activity if you actually have the energy to make some cooked pasta to bring in!!
What are your favorite ways to teach emotional regulation? Any other foods that lend themselves to the window of tolerance? Let me know and leave a comment below!
I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.