Risë VanFleet

Designing Your Own Play Therapy Ideas


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While there are many wonderful ideas described in the growing number of play therapy books, it can be both helpful and rewarding to develop your own creativity and spontaneity with play therapy ideas of your own.  Even if you primarily use child-centered play therapy, there are times when you may need some additional interventions (make sure to keep the child-centered play sessions and directive techniques clearly delineated for the child, though!).

The following set of questions can help guide your thinking as you try to design a play therapy intervention for a child or family or specific problem.

  1. Determine the therapeutic goal(s) with the child/family.
  2. What “traditional” methods of therapy might apply to this problem/goal?
  3. What does each “traditional” method in #2 aim to do?
  4. How could these be made playful?
    • puppets or dolls?
    • imaginary games?
    • board games?  (existing or made up)
    • artwork or craft creations?
    • release play therapy?
    • sandtray methods?
    • storytelling approaches?

Take as an example a 5 year old girl who is stung by a bee in the front of her house and her fear generalizes to the front porch and front yard.  She refuses to leave the house through the “bee way” (front door).  She throws tantrums whenever her parents suggest she try going out the front door.  Her need to use the back door at all times is time consuming and somewhat of a nuisance to the rest of the family, and her parents realize that allowing her to use only the back door may only be reinforcing her fear and behavior.

  1. The goal would be to help her become comfortable using the front door, front porch, front yard again.
  2. Traditional methods?  First, it would be important for the parents to determine if there were any hives or nests belonging to “stinging creatures” in front of the house, and to have them removed (common sense).  Second, we might use systematic desensitization to help her overcome her “phobia” or fear.
  3. What does SD aim to do?  By helping the client learn a response incompatible with her fear (i.e., relaxation) when in the presence of the stimulus, the therapist helps the client become desensitized (less afraid).  This is done in a hierarchical fashion until the client is able to face the actual feared stimulus (the front of the house) without experiencing the fear.
  4. How could this approach be made playful?  Play might also be considered to be a response incompatible with her fear.  A game involving a bee puppet could be developed.  The therapist could talk with the child about why bees sting (because they’re threatened or afraid), and that it might be fun to show the bees that the child isn’t going to threaten them.  Using bee puppets (best if the child and the therapist each have one), the therapist helps the child practice “being a bee” by flying the puppet around the room and making buzzing sounds.  This would all be done in a very lighthearted manner, with laughter and silliness.  (Of course, if the child might be afraid of the bee puppet, the intervention would have to start with an even less “realistic” approach–a judgment call on the part of the therapist, although discussing the puppet idea with the child first can help with that decision.)

The “Be a bee” game could be played (rehearsed) for several sessions, perhaps having the child teach her parents how to “be a bee” as well.  Eventually the game could be tried in vivo, either with the therapist present at the home, or with some training so the parents would know how to handle the in vivo attempt.  Here’s how one family handled it:  They made their own bee puppets using yellow socks, black magic markers, and pipe cleaners.  They then let the “queen bee” (their daughter) lead the way out the front door, with the entire family buzzing along behind her.  They kept it light with lots of laughing, just as they had learned during the therapy sessions, and after a week of family buzzing, their daughter grew tired of the game and no longer needed assistance in using the front door!

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