Risë VanFleet

How to Set Up a Filial Therapy Playroom


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What is Filial Therapy?

Developed in the early 1960s by Dr. Louise Guerney and Dr. Bernard Guerney, Filial Therapy is a highly effective psychoeducational family intervention in which parents serve as the primary change agents for their own children.  The therapist trains the parents to conduct special child-centered play sessions with their own children, supervises these play sessions, and eventually helps parents transfer the play sessions to the home setting.  The therapist helps parents understand their children more deeply, explores parents’ reactions and issues, and guides parents in problem-solving.  Children benefit greatly from the play sessions, and parents gain skills and confidence in the complex tasks of childrearing.

Filial Therapy can be used as a prevention approach as well as an effective intervention for a wide range of child/family problems:  oppositional behaviors, anxiety, depression, abuse/neglect, single parenting, adoption/foster care, relationship problems, divorce, family substance abuse, toileting difficulties, trauma, family reunification, chronic illness, etc.  (Please see the Books & Articles page of this website for more information).

Setting Up the Playroom:  Toys

A Filial Therapy playroom looks much like a child-centered play therapy room.  A variety of toys which can be used in imaginative and expressive ways by children are scattered in an inviting manner around the playroom.  A sample listing is below:

Family-related and nurturance toys:

  • doll family (mother, father, brother, sister, baby)
  • doll house/furniture
  • puppet family and animal puppets
  • baby doll
  • dress-up clothes
  • baby bottles
  • container with water
  • bowls for water
  • kitchen dishes

Aggression-related toys:

  • bop bag
  • dart guns with darts (colorful, toy guns)
  • small plastic soldiers and/or dinosaurs
  • 6-10 foot piece of rope
  • foam aggression bats

Expressive and construction toys:

  • crayons or markers and drawing paper
  • Play-Doh, Sculpey, or other modeling substance
  • sand tray with miniature toys
  • plastic telephones
  • scarves or bandannas
  • blocks or construction toys
  • heavy cardboard bricks
  • blackboard
  • mirror
  • masking tape
  • magic wand
  • masks

Other multi-use toys:

  • cars, trucks, police cars, ambulances, firetrucks, school buses, etc.
  • playing cards
  • play money
  • ring-toss or similar game
  • doctor’s kit

Because parents eventually conduct filial play sessions at home with their own toys, the filial therapist develops a modest playroom.  Extravagant playrooms can unintentionally create pressures on parents to “compete,” or may set the children up for disappointment when they begin their home sessions.

Setting Up the Playroom:  Layout

Ideally, the filial therapist would have a playroom and an observation area with a one-way mirror.  This is particularly useful with filial therapy groups.  Since most of us do not operate under ideal conditions, an alternative is discussed here.

If you have a single room, it can be divided into a play area and an observation area.  (The observation area is used by parents who watch the therapist’s play session demonstrations and by the therapist as he/she supervises the parent-child play sessions.)  In essence, the observation area is delineated by furniture arrangement.  For example, a desk or table can be placed at the end of the room or across a corner with one or two chairs on the non-play-area side.  The desk or table would be considered “off limits” to the child during the play sessions and could be handled with an initial explanation to the child and by normal limit-setting thereafter.

My current playroom uses about 2/3 of a room.  I’ve placed a dress-up chest and a toy cabinet across the open end of the room.  Once the child enters the play area, I (or the parent) place a child-sized chair in the opening we’ve entered through.  On the non-play-area, or observation, side (the remaining 1/3 of the room), I have a small desk and chairs.  It’s clear by this furniture arrangement that the observers are divided off from the play area.

Even though the therapist is in the same room, clearly visible to both parent and child during their filial play sessions, I have found that children are rarely distracted by this.  Occasionally, children may turn to the observing therapist and ask a question.  When this happens, I tell them to check with their parent (affirming the parent’s authority over the play session). I also use peripheral vision as much as possible while observing so that I remain as unobtrusive as possible.

If you have extremely limited space and cannot have a permanent play area, you might want to try this idea shared by a therapist who attended one of my workshops (I don’t recall her name, or I’d give her credit!).  She placed a blanket on the floor and the toys on the blanket.  The boundaries of the blanket became the physical boundaries of the play sessions.  When the play session was over, she simply folded up the blanket with the toys inside and placed it in a closet until it was next needed.

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