Last year one of my friends reached out to talk…about dinosaur poop.
Specifically what it might mean if during a play sequence a dinosaur pooped in a very specific way and the sequence was repeated over and over.
These are the exciting conversations play therapists get to have!
So I wanted to share with you as we dissected the play sequence, the 5 questions I asked to get clarity on what this theme might mean.
Question 1: How old is the client?
When we think about play, play sequences, and play themes there is so much of development that we might need to understand and comprehend before we get down to the nitty gritty. A client playing this way at 4 years old may look and feel differently than a 10 year old. Play that is regressed may have a different symbolic meaning than play that is age typical. It is important to first assess what is the chronological age of the client and what is the emotional and developmental age of the play.
Question 2: What theory of play therapy is being used?
This is an important question to consider regarding how the space was held during the play sequence. We might draw different conclusions from play if the space was held in a completely non-directive Child Centered Play Therapy space vs. one where the therapist set up an activity such as in Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy.
Question 3: What toys were available?
The specific toys that a client is drawn to and the play sequences that unfold may be looked at and assessed under a different lens depending on the materials available. Dr. Gary Landreth would say that the toys are the language and the specific sequences are like the words that tell the story. In a playroom with only miniature soldiers and princesses for play materials we might draw different conclusions about play vs. a fully stocked playroom. There was a time early in my career where my miniature set only included different animals. The play and stories would inevitably be different than what unfolds in my playroom today!
Question 4: Any history of trauma?
Specific ways toys can be used to interact together through play can be indicative of a trauma play sequence. If you want to know more about posttraumatic play check out this book HERE! It’s always important to consider trauma when evaluating play themes.
Question 5: Any death/dying or grief/loss?
Some theories of Play Therapy, specifically Experiential Play Therapy have some specific meaning that may be more likely to be assigned to specific toys. In Experiential Play Therapy the meaning of dinosaurs may indicate a death and dying theme a child is working through.
Although we can never concretely say that a specific toy 100% can mean the same thing each time or HAS to mean a specific thing, it is one way that we get curious, develop hypotheses, and gather clues and information about what the play may mean.
After those questions were answered and there was clarity of the external factors that could have been impacting the play we could really get into the likely meaning of the play sequence!
What are your favorite questions to ask when assessing play themes? Comment below!
Looking for more resources and support around play therapy themes? Check out the training Dinosaurs In The Dollhouse: Interpreting Themes in Play Therapy and learn the 7 frameworks and tools to interpret play themes with TONS of case examples!
I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC,