Your Play Therapy theory guides you on the “what” to do in the Playroom - what you should say or not say. What toys are present or absent. Who makes the decisions about what happens in the Playroom. If and when parents come to play.
AND beyond what we do in the Playroom how we show up in the Playroom is equally important if not more important. What I am talking about is about creating a neuroception of safety in the Playroom. Neuroception is the process of neural circuits determining if a certain situation is safe, dangerous, or a life threat. If a child perceives us or our Playroom as dangerous or a life threat all that theory and technique goes out the window.
In this blog HERE I talk about creating a neuroception of safety via Tele-Play and dive a little bit deeper into neuroception and co-regulation. Well...what about when we are in the office?
Some of the ways of creating a neuroception of safety over virtual platforms are pretty similar, BUT we do have a different nervous system experience when we are sharing the same physical space.
Before we dive into cues of safety let’s get clear on what our nervous system nerurocepts as dangerous. Lisa Dion identifies four threats to the nervous system in her book Aggression in Play Therapy. They are:
Okay - now that we know what the body perceives as dangerous or threatening here are my top tips of how to create a neuroception of safety in your Playroom!
Create Structure and Consistency
“Trauma is chaos – structure is healing” is one of my most loved phrases from my Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy training. Because it is SO TRUE. I talk about this concept extensively with parents when working on how they can support their child at home.
BUT this is really true when it comes to our Playroom too. We need to create structure for our session so young people know exactly what to expect each time they see is. In her book, Lisa Dion also refers to “the unknown” as one of the four threats of the nervous system. With creating structure we are making the unknown known.
When it comes to the Playroom this means giving consistency and structure down to the little details of how you start your sessions - parent check in, right into the play, or checking in in some other way. It also includes starting and ending at a consistent time.
In Child Centered Play Therapy this also comes with the entry to the Playroom statement and the warning for session closure. The biggest victory? When the child can repeat verbatim your entry to the Playroom statement or comment on how it is the same every time.
Predictability creates safety.
It also means sticking to the structure you have set up. If you are structuring a Child Centered Play Therapy session it doesn’t mean half way in asking questions and transitioning into a talk therapy session or a directive Play Therapy session.
Also - how do you say goodbye? Is it the same every time? Some therapists even get so predictable they wear the same exact thing every day. Although I can’t manage that I do have a work “uniform” that consists mostly of leggings, a dress, and a sweater (hey - a girl has to be comfortable right?).
Send Social Cues of Safety and Co-Regulation
This Co-Regulation Quick Guide from Justin Sunseri is fantastic! He talks a lot about “safe and social cues” as the foundation for creating a neuroception of safety.
When you are in the Playroom I think the most important safe and social cues you can give are:
If we are not present and we are out of our window of tolerance our clients will feel our nervous system energy and also become dysregulated. It sends them a cue of danger that something in the environment may be dangerous or off - even if it is just you preoccupied with an unanswered email, a phone call you just made, or a stack of notes.
So figuring out what you need in between sessions and during sessions to regulate your nervous system so you can be the best version of your therapist self. Lisa Dion is fantastic at emphasizing the importance of connecting to and feeling your body as well as discharging nervous system energy through body movement during sessions. This might mean swaying and moving during your time with the child.
And outside of session? Regulating yourself might mean eating something crunching between sessions, stretching and going for a quick walk around the office, or deep breathing and meditation exercises. Maybe what you need is co-regulation and to pop over to the office next door to connect. The great news is there is a gigantic buffet of regulation skills options out there – find what works for you!
And what if we can’t be regulated? Well, then it is essential to be congruent! Congruence is the ability to be real, open, authentic and integrated during sessions. This is also what Carl Rogers would refer to as genuine – a core condition of therapy!
The opposite of congruence? Incongruence- another cue of danger! Lisa Dion has an excellent blog post HERE about the importance of congruence as a Play Therapist.
Essentially the importance of authentically being yourself and showing up as you are because when we are “faking it” - kids know. They can sense something isn’t right even if they aren’t able to quite put their finger on it. Sometimes they make assumptions it is them, their play, or they can be led to feel rejection. All of these? Well they are working against your therapeutic goals.
So overall it is best for us to show up as we are and be authentic as ourselves.
Want to go deeper? Check out this article by Dee Ray, Kimberly Jane, and Hayley Stulmaker from the International Journal of Play Therapy!
Be Mindful of The State of The Playroom
Okay, we have all had those sessions. The sessions where our shelves get wiped out and nearly every toy ends up in a pile on the floor. Creating safety for our clients also involves making sure everything gets put back in a consistent spot and the Playroom looks pretty much the same every time they enter. They know where to find the dolls, the trucks, oh...and the handcuffs!
Things should also be placed in a neat order so the nervous system isn’t overloaded. More things to scan and clutter means the amygdala is working harder to scan for safety and danger.
This also means having a good hard look at your desk. If you have a hybrid office where your desk is also a part of your Playroom or play space making sure there are not 1,000 post-it notes all over, stacks of paperwork, or 50 coffee cups.
Lastly there are certain colors (like red) that can be activating to our nervous systems and other colors that can soothe. Pictures or art that is activating can put us into a heightened state of arousal. Pictures of nature or water or elements of nature like plants, flowers, or a fish tank can all create a neuroception of safety.
And that’s a wrap! What are your tips for creating a safe Playroom? Pop them in the comments below!
Looking for more resources for regulation? Check out my training on Keep Calm and Regulate On: Play Therapy and the Neuroscience of Emotional Regulation!
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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.