Play Therapy Activities to Engage Children
In play therapy, children are encouraged to express, through play, all the things they may have difficulty saying or contextualising into words. As a consequence of this primary focus, play therapy has expanded to include most of the expressive art forms including drawing, painting, sculpturing, music, dance, drama, movement, poetry, and storytelling. So while the mainstay of play therapy is still the playroom with its selection of symbolic toys, the play therapist has greatly expanded the medium for nonverbal and verbal expressions.
Selecting Appropriate Activities
Activities in play therapy aim to engage the child and enable the child to tell their story and in the telling reshape it accordingly. When selecting an activity, it is important for the therapist to note that each child is different both in personality and presenting issues. It is therefore important to match the play therapy activity with the child’s abilities and needs (Geldard & Geldard, 2008). Three key factors to consider when selecting a play therapy activity include the following:
- The child’s developmental age
- Whether the child is receiving individual or group therapy
- The current therapeutic goals for the child
Adapted from: (Geldard & Geldard, 2008)
Activities for Expressing Feelings and Emotions
Some activities that can be used to promote expression of feelings and emotions include the following: Clay tends to promote expression of anger, sadness, fear and worry as it allows the child to be creative and it is through this creativity that the emotion of the child is likely to emerge or be expressed. Drawingallows the child to get in touch with their thoughts and emotions. For example: Children can be asked to create a representation of what has made them angry. Finger painting tends to promote emotions of joy, celebration, and happiness.
It is important to work with the child in determining which activities they prefer and also which activities promote a clarity and freedom of expression with their emotions.
Activities to Develop Social Skills
Social skills include the ways in which the child relates to others in order to make friends, get their needs met, be assertive, employ boundaries and cooperate. In order to develop social skills effectively, it is important that the child understands and experiences different behaviours and their consequences. To achieve this in play therapy, a therapist may use the following activities:
An imaginative pretend play to help the younger child learn about social skills and practice them. For example: if a child is engaged in playing as a mother, looking after and feeding the baby (doll), the counsellor could ask, “What should I do now” Dolly hasn’t eaten her cereal and I’m her big sister” This gives the child an opportunity to interact with the counsellor in the imaginative pretend play, gaining empathy for the mother and also gaining an understanding of their own position as the big sister.
Puppets and soft toys can help the child learn and practice socially acceptable behaviours too. By getting involved in the puppet play with the child, the therapist can create situations that require the child to respond to various social situations by using their puppets. In this way, the child can indirectly explore the appropriateness of their own social behaviour. For example: a therapist can invite the child to start the puppet show by introducing the characters. Therapist: “why don’t you show me all the characters in your play and introduce them one by one”. As the child introduces the characters, the therapist can engage in a conversation with each character as it is presented. For example: “Hello Tom. I like your big red tie”.
Activities to Build Self Esteem and Self Concept
Children’s self concepts and self esteem are almost inevitably affected whenever they experience troubling events or trauma (Hebert & Ballard, 2007). In order to help build a constructive self esteem and self concept within the child, the therapist needs to select activities that promote self fulfilment and independence in the child by enabling the child to explore, accept and value their strengths and weaknesses (Geldard & Geldard, 2008). Examples of activities that aim to achieve this are listed below.
Drawing can be used to illustrate the development of the child’s own strengths. For example: a child may show through a drawing, their progression from infancy to the present day to highlight memorable milestones and how much they have developed and grown and accomplished over the years. Games can be used to target the child’s specific skills to give them an opportunity to perform well and experience their strengths.
Imaginative pretend play can be used to help the child experience various roles that either represents their current strengths or the qualities that they would like to have. For example: playing as a leader or a helper.Specific worksheets can be used to address issues that directly relate to the child’s self esteem and self concept.
Activities to Improve Communication of Problems
By expressing themselves symbolically through toys in play therapy, children are allowed to distance themselves from difficult feelings and memories, which are frequently too hard for them to talk about directly with others. Creating an opportunity for children to communicate their fears, worries, problems, wishes, and desires to others, even if it is done symbolically through toys can be very beneficial.
Through such a process, the therapist can obtain a better understanding of child’s inner world, which also helps the counsellor obtain a better understanding of what the child may need in order to provide the appropriate type of help and support for them. Some of the activities that can be used to improve the child’s communication of problems include the following:
- An imaginary journey to allow the child to get in touch with their memories in order to relate their perception of the events more accurately.
- Imaginative pretend play to encourage communication through dramatic role play.
- Miniature animals provide visual pictures that can encourage the child to talk about whatever may be troubling them.
- The use of symbols in the sand tray can help the child develop a visual picture of events they have experienced.
Activities for Dealing with Loss, Grief and Death
For most children, death is a new experience. And like all new experiences, the unknown can be confusing and frightening. Most children do not know what to expect following the loss of a family member or friend or even a pet. Young children may not understand what death really means and may be confused or even frightened by the reactions of other family members (Perry & Rubenstein, 2002). Some of the activities that can help the child express loss and grief include:
Drawing: to allow the child to get in touch with their thoughts and emotions. For example, a child can be asked to draw their family before and after the loss.
Telling stories: the child is encouraged to create their own story as opposed to reading story books. It is highly likely that the child will project ideas from their own life onto the characters and themes in the story. The child may even include themselves in the story. Telling stories enables the child to express their wishes, fantasies and hopes. This is particularly useful for children who are experiencing painful life events as it gives them opportunity to express their hurt.
Use of clay: clay allows the child to be creative and it is during this creativity that the emotions within the child are likely to emerge and be expressed. Clay allows the child to express a wide range of emotions. For example: a child may calmly stroke the clay or aggressively punch the clay or pull it apart in frustration. As such, the emotions that the child may be withholding are more likely to be expressed outwardly and with cathartic effect.
Sand tray work: this can provide the child with an opportunity to tell their story using symbols etched out in the sand. Through telling their story in such a way, the child has the opportunity to recreate the events and situations from past to present and explore possibilities for the future.
- Geldard, K. & Geldard, D. (2008). Couselling Children. A Practical Guide (3rd ed.). London: Sage Publications.
- Hebert, B.B. & Ballard, M.B. (2007). Children and Trauma: A post Katrina and Rita response. ASCA.
What books do you recommend one should buy as a qualified therapist to assist with story telling for children in counselling. Many of our bookstores are so limited. I am from South Africa Cape Town. Also could you mail me more information or brochures about counselling. Regards Tash
Hi Tash. We recommend you search for books on Amazon.com — as you’ll be able to order online and have the books delivered to you in South Africa. Below is a recommended list of readings (including books and journal articles) that focus on Play Therapy. To find out more information about our courses, please visit http://www.aipc.net.au.
Botkin, D. R. (2000). Family play therapy: a creative approach to including young children in family therapy. Journal of Systematic Therapies, 19, 31-42.
Geldard,K. & Geldard, D. (2008). Couselling Children. A Practical Guide (3rd ed.). London: Sage Publications
Gurney, L.F. (1983). Client centred non directive play therapy. In C.E. Schaefer and K.J.O’Connor (Eds.), Handbook of Play Therapy. (pp.21-64) New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Hebert, B.B. & Ballard, M.B. (2007). Children and Trauma: A post Katrina and Rita response. ASCA
Landreth, G.L. (1991). Play Therapy. The Art of the Relationship.
Levy, A.J. (2008). The therapeutic action of play in the psychodynamic treatment of children: A critical analysis. Clinical Social Work Journal, 36, 281-291.
Levy, D.M. (1982). Release therapy. In G. Landreth (Ed.). Play Therapy: Dynamic of the Process of Counselling with Children 9pp92-104). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Moustakas, C.E. (1959). Psychotherapy with Children: The Living Relationship. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Ramirez, S.Z., Flores-Torres, L.L., Kranz, P.L., & Lund, N.L. (2005). Using Axline’s eight principles of play therapy with Mexican-American children. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 32, 329-337.
Rasmussen, L.A. & Cunningham, C. (1995). Focused play therapy and non directive play therapy: can they be integrated. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 4, 1-20.
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