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!
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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.