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Experts use many play therapy techniques during play therapy sessions. These techniques help the subjects, mostly children, to express their emotions and thoughts.
Before we get into the techniques, let us first understand what play therapy is all about.
What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy has been used in psychiatry and psychology since the 1930s. However, it may have been used for hundreds and thousands of years before it became mainstream in today’s psychology and psychiatry.
As the name suggests, play therapy uses play to help children between 3 and 12 years express their repressed thoughts and deep emotions. Sometimes, play therapy is also used for adults. Healthy development of a child is the primary goal of play therapy.
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Just like other forms of therapies, play therapy also takes place in a safe environment. These sessions are usually conducted in comfortable playrooms with very few limits and rules. This encourages the child to express their emotions freely. Therapists are also able to observe the behavior, decisions, play style and the choices that the child makes.
The goal of play therapy is to help a child express themselves in a better and healthier way. It teaches them to be more empathetic and respectful. Moreover, it also helps them discover different positive ways to solve the problem at hand.
When to Use Play Therapy?
Play therapy is effective for children who are facing emotional and social issues. It teaches them to communicate in a better way and improve their behavior. In addition, it also helps to develop problem-solving skills in them. It also teaches children how to interact and relate to others in a positive way.
Children who face or have undergone stressful events in their life are prescribed play therapy. This includes hospitalization or serious illness, abuse, domestic violence, a family crisis or any other event that may have a serious emotional and psychological impact on them.
Children with social or academic problems can also get help from play therapy. Furthermore, it is also used for children who face learning disabilities and suffer from depression, anxiety, behavioral disorders, anger, and grief. Children on the autism spectrum and attention deficit disorders can also get help from play therapy.
To sum it up, play therapy is a type of therapy where the therapist allows the subjects, who are usually children, to play during the sessions. It is nothing like a normal therapy session, where they just sit with the clients and ask them questions. Play therapy may be directive or non-directive, depending on the problem the client is facing.
Play Therapy Techniques
Here is a list of different techniques that therapists use during play therapy. These techniques have been helpful in getting clients to express their feelings and emotions. In addition, they have also been helpful in improving the behavior of the clients and making better decisions.
Play Therapy Techniques – Objects and Toys
Play therapy sessions for children involves the use of objects and toys.
1. Ball Play
Ball play is a play therapy technique that is used in group therapy sessions. The therapist gives the group a ball that they take turns to throw around. Whenever someone catches the ball, they have to say something. It can be anything like what makes them happy, what they enjoy the most, what they like to eat, etc.
2. Baby Doll Play
Another technique often used during play therapy sessions is baby doll play. The therapist uses a baby doll during the session and tries to build a positive and nurturing behavior in the client. In addition, the therapist may allow the client to play with the doll and observe their instincts.
The way the child plays with the doll says a lot about how they are treated. There is a probability that the child is mistreated by someone close to them if they start mistreating or beating the doll. Therapists take into account a lot of factors before reaching any conclusions.
3. Medical Play
Medical play is commonly used for clients who are currently undergoing or have undergone a medical procedure. Children are asked to do a pretend examination of one of their toys. This helps the children express their feelings better. It also gives them a sense of control, which is important for their mental and emotional well-being.
4. Bop Bag Play
Bop bag play is used for clients who are facing anger issues. It includes giving the child a phone book. They are asked to tear pages out of this book, crumple them up into a ball and throw them away in a trash bin.
This teaches the children how they can get rid of their feelings of anger. The behavior of children who feel angry all the time and are difficult to deal with can be controlled through these sessions.
5. Plush Doll Play
As the name suggests, plush doll play involves the therapist giving the client some stuffed animals to play with. The therapist may ask the client to bring their own stuffed animals. This comforts the child during their therapy session and improves their behavior.
6. Baby Bottle Play
Baby bottle play is a commonly used method in play therapy when dealing with kids who just had a new sibling enter their life. They feel jealous and unhappy as the attention they previously got is now shared. They may also not feel good about the new position they’ve got in the family.
The parents are told to play with the child using a baby bottle. They are told to treat the kid as if they were an infant again. This will make them less resentful towards their new sibling. This improves the relationship between the siblings and also makes it easy for the parents.
7. Bubble Play
Therapists use bubble play when they want to relieve their clients of stress. The child runs around blowing bubbles and popping them. This helps relieve stress and also allows children to bond with one another during group sessions.
8. Magic Wand Play
Another very effective play therapy technique using toys is the magic wand play. This technique involves giving the child a wand. The therapist asks them to make three wishes using the wand. At least one of these wishes is most likely related to some problem they are facing.
Once the therapist gets to know about the problem, they can then work on the client and make it better for them.
9. Toy Telephone Play
Play therapy sessions often use this technique. The therapist and the client each take a toy telephone. The therapist asks different therapy questions and the child answers them using the toy phone.
This technique allows the child to communicate with the therapist openly. They answer questions in detail. On the other hand, they hang up when they feel uncomfortable answering any questions. This tells a lot about their personality.
10. Sensory Play
Therapists use sensory play in situations where they want the client to feel in control and relaxed. There are different ways to go about it.
The therapist may give the client some play dough. They can play with it, sculpt it and do whatever they want with it. This brings out their creative self and also allows them to feel relaxed and comfortable during their therapy sessions.
11. Block Play
Block play therapy is common among clients who face anger issues. Building blocks are used to build a wall. The client is asked to knock the blocks down using a ball. This technique is helpful in releasing anger and puts them at ease during the session.
12. Balloon Play
Therapists often use this technique to break the ice between children and foster bonding among them when they are in a group session. The technique involves asking children to play with a balloon and keep it from touching the ground as long as they can.
Play Therapy Techniques – Storytelling and Metaphors
Metaphors and storytelling is another common technique used in play therapy sessions.
13. Turtle Technique
This technique is very common among play therapy sessions with clients who have serious anger issues. The therapist gives a turtle puppet to the client. They then explain how the turtle reacts when it is upset— it goes into its shell, closes its eyes and takes deep breaths. The client is then asked to practice the same thing when they feel angry or upset.
This method has been very helpful in changing the behavior of children who face anxiety and anger.
14. Externalization Play
Externalizing the fear and worries of a client is also a common play therapy method. The therapist and the client work together to create a character that depicts the problems faced by the client. For instance, a dragon to represent the fears the client might have.
The therapist then asks questions about the dragon rather than directly asking the client about their fears. This allows the client to open up and helps the therapist address the client’s fears.
15. Concrete Play Metaphors
In concrete play metaphors, the therapist presents the client with a number of toys of different nature. They pick one that represents each of their family members. The therapist then asks questions about why they chose each toy. This tells a lot about their feelings about each member of the family.
Play therapy sessions commonly use a storytelling technique. This entails the therapist asking the client to tell them a story starting with ‘once upon a time’. The story they tell is usually a reflection of what is happening in their own life.
17. Emotion Thermometer
Children sometimes find it difficult to show their emotions and feelings. The emotion thermometer technique can help them tell what they are feeling. It consists of an emotional thermometer, which shows a range of emotions. It starts from 0 (smiling face) and goes up to 10 (angry face).
The therapist then asks the client to tell what makes them happy and what makes them angry. This helps the therapist understand more about the personality of the client.
The therapist may give the client a storybook that is based on the same problem that the client is facing. There is also a solution to the problem in the story. The therapist asks relevant questions about the feelings of the client while reading the story.
Asking simple questions like ‘do you also feel this way’ can help the client open up about their issues.
Play Therapy Techniques – Role Play
Role play has been used for centuries to help understand emotional issues that a person might be facing.
Role-playing a situation in which the client feels anxious can help reduce anxiety. When the client and the therapist role-play a situation, the client understands that there is nothing to worry about. They will be able to face the situation in a better way whenever they face it again.
20. Superhero Play
Many children look up to superheroes and consider them as their role models. The powers of superheroes intrigue them. Superhero play involves the therapist asking the client to draw a superhero and the powers they want that superhero to have.
The figure they draw can help a therapist understand the powers that a child is looking for and what they mean. The therapist also talks about the personal strengths the client has and how they can be used as their very own superpowers.
21. Costume Play
Children who are not willing to open up can benefit from the costume play technique. The therapist dresses up the child in a costume that gives them a new identity. For instance, they are dressed up as the king or queen with a crown on their head.
The therapist asks them what they would like to do now that they are the king or the queen and have power. The answer they give to these questions tells the therapist a lot about their likes and dislikes. Therapists design future therapy sessions accordingly.
22. Puppet Play
Puppet play is quite similar to the concept of concrete play metaphors. This time, the client and their family members are all asked to pick up a puppet that they think represents them. All of them then tells a story about their puppet.
The therapist asks each member of the family questions about their story and then discusses it with the entire group. This allows the therapist to know about family dynamics that the client is not comfortable discussing directly with the therapist.
23. Mask Play
Mask play is very helpful with clients who feel that no one understands them. The therapist gives the client two masks, the outside and inside mask. The outside mask is how they think the world sees them, while the inside mask is how they feel about themselves.
Using this technique can be very helpful to know what the client thinks of themselves and the world around them.
Play Therapy Techniques – Creative Arts
Arts have always been considered a form of therapy. Play therapy also makes use of creative arts to help clients take on their life in a better and positive way.
24. Destruction Play
Destruction play is found helpful for clients who are dealing with serious anger issues. The therapist gives the client an old book and they can rip off the pages from it, crumple them and throw them away. This helps them get rid of their anger and their behavior becomes better in some sessions.
25. Clay Play
Children and adults love playing with clay as it helps relieve stress. The therapist gives the client a ball of clay to play with. They can sculpt things from clay or simply use it as a method of stress relief. The therapist asks them about the figures they have created and if they have any special meaning.
Many clients open up about their feelings this way and talk to the therapist about the issues that they might be facing.
26. Color Your Life
This technique involves the therapist asking the client to represent their feelings with different colors. For instance, blue signifies sadness, yellow represents happiness, red portrays anger, etc. The client then draws a timeline of their life and uses these colors to represent different periods of their life.
This allows the therapist to understand which phase of the client’s life is causing problems. They then focus on this phase and work to make the client feel better. Therapists apply this technique to any aspect of the client’s life, such as sports, school or family life, etc.
27. Trauma Drawing
Therapists commonly use the trauma drawing technique when they are dealing with clients who have undergone any kind of trauma. They ask the client to draw a picture that depicts the traumatic incident that they’ve faced. They are then asked to crumple up the drawing and throw it away. This gives them a sense of control and makes them feel better.
28. Free Drawings
This technique involves the therapist giving the client a piece of paper and asking them to draw anything they want. The therapist then asks them open-ended questions about the drawing. This tells a lot about their personality.
29. Serial Drawings
Therapists use serial drawings to track the progress of clients over the course of therapy. The client draws a picture in every session about their feelings. The client and therapist can talk about this picture in each session.
These drawings tell a lot about the progress of the client as the therapy progresses.
30. Mandala Drawings
Mandala drawings are also commonly used for stress relief, relaxation and creativity. The therapist gives the client a mandala template drawing to color. Children may also be asked to make their own mandala drawings to color if they want. This helps reduce stress and the client feels relaxed.
31. Postcard Art
The therapist gives a blank postcard to the client. The client is asked to paint one side of the post card and use the other side to write any message to anyone they want. This teaches children about how to express their feeling using the right words.
Collage techniques work best with children who are facing frequent nightmares. The therapist asks the client to draw a collage about their nightmares. They can use the outside and inside of a box to draw the collage. The client is then asked to play with the box, which makes them less scared of the nightmare.
33. Movement Play
It is commonly used to help put the client in a relaxed state of mind for a therapy session. They can do anything like dancing or playing with a hula hoop. This keeps them focused when the therapy session starts.
34. Sand Tray Work
The client is given an opportunity to discuss their stories with the therapist by etching out symbols in the sand. This allows the child to recreate events from the past and explore the different possibilities they have in the present and the future.
The therapist asks the client to paint anything they want using their fingers. Once they are done, the therapist then asks the client to tell a story about what they’ve painted. This helps them convey their suppressed emotions and feelings.
36. Family Sculpting
The Family sculpting technique is used to understand the relationship that one family member shares with the others. The client is asked to sculpt their family members, including themselves, using clay. The therapist then asks the client to put the figures together based on their relationship.
This technique allows the therapist to know a lot about the relationship between different family members and the client.
37. Musical Play
Musical play is often used in situations where the clients find it difficult to express themselves. It involves the therapist giving the client some toy instruments to make up a song or asking them to play along with the music that is already playing.
This technique is helpful in increasing the self-esteem of the clients. It also improves the relationship between the client and the therapist.
38. Draw a Family
The client is asked to draw a picture of their family with all their family members in it. Once they are done, the therapist asks them questions about each drawing and anything the client wants to discuss regarding their family members.
This allows the therapist to understand the personalities of each member of the family as perceived by the client.
Play Therapy Techniques – Fantasy and Imagery
Fantasy and imagery techniques are also used during play therapy sessions to help clients.
39. The World Technique
The world technique involves the client creating their own world using toys, figures, scenery and others. The client is then asked to build a world of their own without any judgment or guidance. The therapist then asks questions from the client regarding the world they have built.
The clients usually depict their hidden feelings, fantasies and emotions when they are given an opportunity to build a world of their own. It helps the therapist understand the real life issues the client might be facing.
40. Guided Imagery
Guided imagery is an effective technique to help a client feel in control. The client asks them about any difficult situation they might be facing. They then tell the client that this situation is just like a movie and they can change it if they don’t like it.
The therapist may also work with the client to create a happy ending of the serious situation, just like it happens in the movies. The client’s brain feels in control this way, and they can use this experience to deal with any situation that they may face in their lives later on as well.
41. Family Relations Technique
Family relations technique is also another play therapy technique that tells a lot about the client’s family dynamics. The therapist puts mailboxes in front of the client. There is one mailbox for each family member. Another mailbox is for ‘Mr. Nobody’.
The therapist gives mail to the client in the form of strips. It includes messages like ‘loves me’, ‘likes me’, ‘protects me’, ‘hates me’, ‘hurts me’, etc. The client is asked to put each message in the right mailbox. This tells the therapist about the relationship between the client and each family member.
42. Adaptive Doll Play
Some dolls are given to the client and they are asked to play out a scenario that they are currently facing. The dolls represent their family members. The different scenarios that the client plays tell a lot about their life and personality.
This can help the client figure out different ways that they can respond to different scenarios. It enhances positive outcomes and gives more sense of control to the client.
43. Dollhouse Play
Dollhouse play can be helpful in understanding the family dynamics of the client. The client is given a dollhouse and some dolls that represent their family members. They are then asked to model different daily scenarios such as bedtime, cleanup time, playtime and dinnertime.
The placement of dolls in the house during all these times tells a lot about the relationship between family members. It also tells about how things work in the client’s home, which has an effect on their personality.
44. Rosebush Fantasy Technique
The rosebush fantasy technique involves the therapist asking the client to imagine that they are a rosebush. The client closes their eyes and describes the rosebush along with many other important features. This includes things like who cares for the rosebush, where it is and if there are any thorns, roots and flowers on it.
The therapist later asks the client about the parts of the rosebush they identify with. This tells a lot about their personal life and the people that influence their current situation.
45. Tea Party
Is the client progressing well? If they are, the therapist can throw them a tea party to commemorate their achievements. This party serves as positive reinforcement. This raises their self-esteem and also improves the client-therapist relationship.
46. Worry Dolls
Guatemalan worry dolls are also very effective in helping clients who feel anxiety all the time and worry about everything. The client is asked to assign one worry that they have to each doll. The dolls are then put in a box and left in the therapist’s office.
The client is told that the client doesn’t have to worry about these things as the dolls will do all the worrying. The therapist can then bring out these dolls in the future sessions to ask the client how they are dealing with the issues and worries now.
Play Therapy Techniques – Game Play
Playing different games with the client is also found helpful in play therapy.
47. Self-Control Games
Self-control games are played to increase self-control and attention of the client. In these games, the client has to pay attention to what the therapist is saying and act accordingly. This allows the client to improve their focus and take the right steps accordingly.
48. Cooperative Games
Cooperative games are also helpful in building up the client-therapist relationship. In addition to this, cooperative games also build social skills in the client. This helps clients who are having trouble building positive relationships with their peers.
49. Communication Games
Communication games can help a therapist understand how the client reacts in different situations. A common way to play this game is to write different scenarios on cards. The client draws a card and has to play along with whatever situation comes up.
For example, if the card says that you are in a party, the client will have to describe what is happening in the party. The therapist can then tell the client how they can make their reaction better in different scenarios.
50. Strategy Game
Strategy games such as checkers, chess, etc., are very helpful in creating a positive bond between the client and the therapist. It also improves the focus of the client and makes the client feel comfortable with the therapist. Moreover, these games also give the clients a feeling of mastery and control.
51. Squiggle Game
Squiggle game can also help ease the client into the therapy sessions. The therapist draws a random squiggle on a piece of paper and asks the client if it looks like anything. The client does the same. This simple game can be really helpful in building a positive client-therapist relationship.
52. Chance Games
Chance games, including card and board games, help the clients feel comfortable during the therapy sessions. Furthermore, since winning or losing these games is based on chance, the client also learns how to deal with unexpected losses. The therapist is able to teach the client how to go about such situations.
Other Play Techniques
Here are some other play therapy techniques that are also commonly used during play therapy sessions.
53. Stress Inoculation Play
Stress inoculation play involves playing out a stressful situation that is likely to happen in the near future. The client works out what might happen during this situation and thinks about possible responses. This makes them less stressful when the actual situation arises.
54. Hide and Seek Play
Hide and seek is a common game that is often played during child play therapy sessions. It makes the child feel comfortable and also helps create positive bonding between the client and the therapist. In addition to all this, it is also a fun activity for the client and eases them into the therapy sessions.
55. Laughter Play
Laughter reduces stress and makes a person feel good. The therapist and the client can play laughter games where they have to make each other laugh without touching anyone. The client can also play this game with their family members. It helps them relax and also improves the client-therapist relationship.
56. Desensitization Play
Desensitization play involves desensitizing the client to something they fear. For example, the therapist asks the client and their family to play games at night if the client is afraid of darkness. These games help the client understand that there is nothing to be afraid of.
57. Reenactment Play
The therapist may reenact a stressful event to help the client get over it. For example, a car accident is reenacted in the playroom. The client can move around cars to get a sense of control of the scenario. It also helps them get rid of the feelings of fear, trauma and stress.
58. Feeling Faces
Feeling faces therapy involves the therapist pasting different faces on their office walls. They ask the client to point at the face that depicts their true feelings. It helps the client communicate with the therapist without having to say anything.
The therapist can ask the client the same question at the end of the session to know how well the session went.
59. Magic Tricks
Simple things like magic tricks really help create a great bond between the client and the therapist. Ask them if they want to see a magic trick and do one for the client. The therapist may also teach the client how to do the trick, which gives them a sense of control and also improves their level of self-esteem.
Play Therapy for Special Children
Play therapy is found helpful for children suffering from autism, ADHD, anxiety and trauma. Let’s take a look at different play therapy types for these special clients.
Children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can also get help from play therapies. Play therapies include repetitious nature of play, which is helpful in desensitizing the child from the source of the trauma. Cognitive behavioral therapy programs are found helpful among children who are undergoing a trauma or have faced one in the past.
It may sound surprising, but children as young as 6-8 years often feel anxiety. Child-Centered Play Therapy is found highly effective in helping such children treat their anxiety and feel better. Cases of childhood anxiety are increasing these days, and play therapy can help make such children feel better.
Children suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity syndrome can also get help from play therapy. Most of the children suffering from ADHD find it difficult to play with other kids. However, their behavior tends to improve with regular play therapy sessions.
Children suffering from autism can get help from play therapy. It especially works for kids who are facing communication issues. LEGO therapy is commonly used for autistic children. Other forms of play therapy for children with autism include Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, which includes the Parent-Directed Interaction and Child-Directed Interaction.
These were some of the most commonly used play therapy techniques that help improve clients’ condition and behavior. These techniques have made the lives of many children and adults better. These techniques are centuries-old and are highly effective in changing the behavior, emotions and feelings of the clients.
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