Listening activities to promote cognitive flexibility and communication

Reader Emily Clifton sent in this very useful assortment of interventions. Ms. Clifton earned a gift certificate to childtherapytoys.com for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

Game: Puppets

Ideal for: group or in family sessions

Instructions: In this game you assign one group the role of puppet, and another group serves as the puppet masters. You will have the group act out a situation. The puppets are doing the actions, but each have a puppet master that will be their voices, so the puppets’ actions have to be guided by what the puppet masters are having them say.

 

Game: Sculpting

Ideal for: group or family session, must be done in pairs

Need: Play-Doh, Legos or another building material

Instructions: The therapist gives each member equal amounts/sizes of play-doh or Legos. The therapist has one person make a sculpture that the other person cannot see. Then they have the builder describe to the other person how to recreate their sculpture. At the end they compare to see if their sculptures are the same. Then you have the participants switch roles. The therapist should ask questions such as: What was difficult about being a listener? What was difficult about instructing others?

 

Game: One-Liners

Ideal for: group or family session

Instructions: The therapist chooses three people to create a scene. Two people are given one generic line. Throughout the scene, they can only say this line. The other person may say whatever they want. You give the participants a general character and scene, such as: two customers and an employee at McDonald’s. During the scene, you can say freeze to help characters that are stuck. Afterwards, you can talk to members about how it felt to have their control limited or to be the one in charge of moving the scene forward, etc.

 

Game: Storytelling

Ideal for: individual, group or family sessions

Need: Deck of Apples to Apples cards, In a Pickle Cards, Story Cubes or other cards with nouns on them,

Instructions: Each person during their turn chooses a card at random. They must use the noun on this card to start, continue, or end a story. They must not negate anything the person before them has said. In a larger group, it is also good to include the parameters around the story getting violent or lewd.

 

Game: 5-2-1

Ideal for: group or family in sets of two or three

Instructions: Group people into twos or threes. Ask each of them to think of a story concerning something that has happened to them that is about five minutes long. Then you assign each person in the group a role: listener or teller (and if there’s a third person–observer). The Teller will have five minutes to tell their story. During this time, the listener can’t talk, but has to show they are actively listening to the story. After the five minutes, the listener has two minutes to summarize the story they just heard, and the teller has to show active listening skills. Then, during the last minute, the teller has to summarize the listener’s summary. Afterwards, the facilitator can ask questions such as: How did you know the listener was listening? How was it to listen without being able to talk? How did you show you were a good listener? How was it to tell a story without being interrupted? What was it like to be an observer and what did you notice? Then each person can take turns taking on the different roles in rotation.

 

Communication/Feeling Identification Activity:

Ideal for: clients needing to identify different cues regarding how people are feeling or the environment around them.

Need: Pictures from magazine or photos of people interacting with one another in natural settings: library, trick-or-treating, cooking dinner, etc.

Instructions: Show kid(s) one picture at a time. You can ask them to identify the who, what, why, when and how of the picture, asking them to point out which contact clue led them to know something about the people in the picture. For example: drinking orange juice could signal breakfast time, or the color of leaves on a tree could signal season. You can also ask about what emotion each person is feeling and how you know this from their body language, facial expression, proximity to one another, etc.

Using the Sand Tray to Detect Family Roles

Here’s another interesting article submitted by reader Martha Nodar on the subject of sand tray therapy. Ms. Nodar earned a gift certificate to childtherapytoys.com for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

Bradshaw (1988) argues families are systems with systemic needs which are typically fulfilled, mostly unconsciously, by family members. These family members may become unwitting participants drawn into the family drama. In dysfunctional families triangles are common because they serve the purpose of providing a relief to the drama. In such cases, children and adolescents may unconsciously adopt roles within their family in order to survive their environment and help bring some balance to the scene. For instance, a so-called difficult child may be unconsciously acting-out the unspoken tensions within the parental dyad (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Fairy tales have a way of representing these family dynamics in a way that is both nonthreatening and entertaining. Sandtray also provides a safe forum to give a voice to the unspoken.

Sandtray and Fairy Tales

Lowenfeld (1993) suggests children see the world around them as “stories” that can be represented in the “tray” (p. 16). Lowenfeld argues fairy tales are an effective way to access two worlds at the same time—a fantasy world and one’s internal world through the use of metaphors. Drawn by her experience, Lowenfeld contends that children may enjoy fairy tales because “the rules of life within it are magical and different altogether from those at home” (p. 16). Fairy tales serve a purpose in cognitive and emotional development by giving children an opportunity to make sense of their world. Below is a sandtray activity that may be used with fairy tales designed to help the play therapist uncover the roles children or adolescents and their families may be playing within their family system.

Detecting Family Roles in the Sand (sand tray activity)

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  • Have the sandplayers first choose one of their favorite fairy tales and select miniatures to represent the story. Any fairy tale may be represented
  • The above image represents the Cinderella story. Cinderella is portrayed to the right. She was the daughter of a loving father and later became a congenial stepdaughter despite the way she was treated. A female sandplayer who may have adopted the Good Daughter role may identify with Cinderella
  • A father and a young daughter are featured in the center of the tray symbolizing the relationship Cinderella had with her loving father, but also symbolizing the safety children feel when they grow up in a nurturing environment. Sandplayers who have or wish they had such a relationship may identify with this miniature
  • The birds surrounding Cinderella and the Prince symbolize friends and companions. There may be sandplayers who may identify with the Friend or Companion role to a sibling or even to a parent. A male sandplayer may identify with the role of the Rescuer within the family and may be drawn to the Prince miniature
  • The Queen miniature symbolizes the evil stepmother. She is surrounded by two leopards, one on each side representing her two daughters, Cinderella’s stepsisters. Sandplayers may perceive themselves or someone in their family to be playing the role of the Queen or Leopard
  • Ask the sandplayers: “What do you know or remember from reading about this character?” How the fairy tale actually unfolds is not as important as how the sandplayer may recall or experience the story
  • Give sandplayers the choice of representing themselves in the scene by either:
    • Adopting the role of one of the miniatures already in the scene, or
    • By bringing a new miniature into the tray. Then ask; “What would this character do or not do?” Stay with the metaphors
  • Has the story changed? What role is the sandplayer now playing? What could be deciphered by the location and sequence of the miniatures?
  • Let us assume the sandplayer might have brought wild animals fighting with each other into the fairy tale activity. In such case, Homeyer and Sweeney (2011) suggest this may qualify as “An Aggressive World,” (p. 41), which may illustrate the sandplayer’s internal fear to expressing anger within his or her family system
  • Give the sandplayer the option to remove any or all of the miniatures from the scene. Homeyer and Sweeney (2011) argue a sandtray is considered an “Empty World” if two thirds or more of the tray has no miniatures” (p. 40). Children who grow up in dysfunctional families where they may feel unheard may come to adopt the role of the Lost Child (Bradshaw, 1988). A Lost Child is likely to create an Empty World sandtray to reflect his or her role in the family

Discussion

Each family has its own traditions, language, culture and routine. The different roles family members may adopt are unconsciously created and implicitly manifested to maintain the status quo and hence, protect an innate and universal fear of abandonment from one’s tribe. The problem with adapting a role is that the role may not be consistent with one’s real Self, but rather a modified self that may have been acquired out of a need to survive one’s environment. Sandtray therapists may become the sandplayer’s fellow traveler, sharing the tools to cope with life’s circumstances and for developing a differentiated Self from those tied to the family system. The goal is not to detach from the family, but to detach from participating in the family drama by refusing to play the roles dictated by a closed family system. Sandplay is a therapeutic tool ideal for symbolic archetypical journeys through the safety of metaphors.

References

Bradshaw, J. (1988). Healing the shame that binds you. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Homeyer, L., & Sweeney, D. (2011). Sandtray therapy (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kerr, M., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Lowenfeld, M. (1993). Understanding children’s sandplay: Lowenfeld’s world technique. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Sussex Academic Press.

Positive Postings with The Play Therapy Chalkboard

This is a fun technique by Jacqueline Swank, found in Favorite Therapeutic Activities for Children and Teens, edited by Liana Lowenstein. I’ve adapted it to be used with the Play Therapy Chalkboard, which I developed.

After reading a book about self-esteem, playing a game about self-esteem, or discussing self-esteem, clients are encouraged to draw a picture of themselves. In my session with Hillary we read I Like Myself, and then she drew a picture of herself on the chalkboard.

image001 After finishing the drawing on the Play Therapy Chalkboard, Hillary was asked to make positive statements about herself, which I wrote down on post-its. When finished, I read each one aloud and Hillary posted each one on her drawing. I then took a picture of the drawing with the post-its on it and sent the picture home with Hillary.

image004During this activity, therapists can talk about how to make positive self-statements when upset or discouraged, using specific examples from the child’s life.

This activity can also be used in small group and family sessions, with members writing down positive statements about each other.

The therapist should adjust how active they are in generating positive and affirming statements based on the skill of the client to identify and accept their own positive characteristics.

Using ‘Taboo: The Game of Unspeakable Fun’ to Teach Impulse Control

Taboo isn’t just for dinner parties! Here’s a fun intervention idea submitted by reader Charity Armbruster that uses the game to treat impulse control. Ms. Armbruster earned a gift certificate to childtherapytoys.com for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

Taboo is a word guessing game by published by Hasbro. In the Taboo game, you need to get the other participant(s) to guess the secret word, but the obvious clues are strictly off-limits. To get someone to say pinball, you might say arcade, game, flippers, tilt, or roll. In this game you can’t because all of those words are strictly forbidden. There is an additional challenge in racing against a clock.

The Taboo Game can be difficult for children with impulse control issues and anger issues. However, as the game is played children are able to develop cooperation skills, persistence, impulse control, and learn how to delay gratification. I play the game with students in our schools who have anger issues. Many of these children can be rather explosive. As an angry child becomes more emotional, they may refuse or be unable to say why they are upset or what happened to cause their distress. Before starting the Taboo game I explain how difficult it can be to communicate when angry, and I state that when someone becomes so angry they cannot express their feelings, it’s like a game of Taboo. The teachers and aides are trying to figure out what the problem is, but the child is not saying anything. I explain that even a simple “I don’t know” can be more beneficial than not saying anything.

Playing the Taboo game is usually combined with other lessons related to anger control, such as identifying what makes me angry, strategies to control my anger, and techniques to regulate and/or healthily redirect my anger.

Example 1: In this example the game was played one-on-one with a student. I began by explaining the rules of the game to a student, and then I went first. The child’s task was to guess what the word on the card was. Within minutes the student became very upset  because he could not guess the word. As we played the game, we would stop and take breaks, and process the frustration and ways to handle it.

Example 2: During another game a student became frustrated and threw the cards across the room, stating this game is “stupid”. Again, I processed and discussed the frustration with the student. He sat in the chair and stared at me. He then said “it’s really hard.” I asked him if instead of throwing the cards could he “ask me for help from me.” Often I would stop and use humor to defuse his frustration before it became to explosive.

For children with impulse and anger issues, Taboo: The Game can be difficult because they may have a hard time finding the right word. However, playing the game over time gives the child and counselor ample opportunity to develop anger management strategies, frustration tolerance, and better communication skills.

TabooGame

Alexis and the Thumball: A Story About A Girl Who Did Not Want To Be In Therapy

Eleven year old Alexis had been to therapy many times for her disruptive behavior. Her parents and teachers were unhappy with her and it was her experience that they were ALWAYS mad at her. She did not want to be in therapy, and had made it clear to her parents and to me during the initial visit, that she had no intention of talking or cooperating with therapy.

At the beginning of the second session I checked in with Alexis and she assured me that she still did not want to come to counseling. While I was talking to Alexis I held a Thumball in my hand. I asked her how hard she had tried to convince her parents not to bring her back, and what she had said to them. I asked if there was anything I could do to convince her parents not to bring her back. Apparently there was! Just tell them there was nothing wrong with her.

I reminded Alexis that one of her parent’s concerns was that she had difficulty listening the first time. “How have you done this week, listening the first time?” Alexis assured me that she had done very well, and I suggested she wouldn’t be in therapy very long if that was the case.

image_0Alexis appeared to notice that she was engaging with me, and withdrew. She became a little quieter and the look on her face was somewhat angry. So, I changed the subject and asked her if she knew what a Thumball was? After she replied that she did not, I threw it to her, and immediately asked her to throw it back. This happened fairly quickly so Alexis didn’t have time to think about whether or not she was going to cooperate, and she threw it back. I responded to the first panel. I tossed it to her and she responded. After a few minutes I suggested that since we were stuck here for 45 minutes perhaps we could do something else. I suggested we could continue to talk, play in the playroom, do a sand tray, or play a game. She chose to play a game.

Like all good stories, this story should have a lesson or a moral. Something we can learn from it. First, let’s consider what this story tells us about play. According to the United Kingdom’s Children’s Play Information Service:

  • Play includes a range of self-chosen activities, undertaken for their own interest, enjoyment and the satisfaction that results for children;
  • Very young children, even babies, show playful behavior when they explore sound and simple actions and experiment with objects of interest;
  • Play activities are not essential to meet basic physical survival needs. But play does seem to support children’s emotional well-being as well as a wide range of learning within their whole development;
  • Children can play alone, but often they play with other children and with familiar adults. Even very young children engage in simple give-and-take or copying games with their peers, older siblings or with adults;
  • A playful quality in activities is shown by the exercise of choice, enjoyable repetition and invitation to others to join the play.

So, once Alexis and I threw the ball back and forth, we were engaged in play, a game of catch. However, play as it is engaged in by play therapists is not just a behavior or an activity. It is not just something done with toys in the playroom. The therapist’s attitude of playfulness is important in bringing play into the session and engaging the child. I was playful in my approach to discussing Alexis’ lack of desire to be in the session, but still respected what she had to say and her desire to not participate in therapy. I held a ball in my hand, which implies that play may occur.

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If I held a book, or an axe, something different would have been implied.

The game of catch has likely been with us since humans discovered they could pick something up and throw it, and most children know that you throw the ball back after you throw it to them. So play is both an attitude of playfulness, and an activity.

Winnicott argued that playing is a necessary part of working with children. “Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play. (Winnicott, D.W., 1968)

Play is the most developmentally appropriate way for children to build relationships with adults. Through play children develop critical thinking skills, impulse control, process stressful experiences, and learn social skills.

How does play become Play Therapy? I would argue that the moment Alexis catches the ball, our engagement is deepened and is becoming therapeutic, and we are engaging in Play Therapy. How is that play therapy? Alexis is now having fun with an adult who is enjoying her, liking her, and listening to her. And she’s not being required to talk about what a bad kid she is, so now she can relax a little. As an adult who is also a therapist I bring an expectation and desire to promote change, or resolve difficulties, in a particular way. And this is communicated through my attitude and communication style, and supported by my training, understanding of the problem, and intervention techniques.

Unlike her experience in any of her previous sessions, Alexis’ mood is now elevated and improved as she engages in a playful activity. At her next session, her parents quietly whispered to the therapist as he brought Alexis back to her session, “she didn’t complain once about coming back to therapy.”

Snow White: An Archetypal Journey

Here’s a very interesting article submitted by reader Martha Nodar on the subject of archetypes. Ms. Nodar earned a gift certificate to childtherapytoys.com for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

Snow White: An Archetypal Journey

         Once upon a time, Jung (1953) argued that archetypes are shared universal and implicit patterns of behavior which reside in the collective unconscious. For instance, the Child archetype is innate in every psyche (Myss, 2001) and almost needs no explanation. Fear of rejection is a characteristic associated with this archetype and it is frequently explored in fairy tales such as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—the story of a princess rejected by her family who is thrown into a journey of survival, both literally and metaphorically. Jung emphasizes it is important to understand the meaning of the symbolism behind the archetype. In other words, what does it mean to have the Child archetype and how does the fear of rejection is likely to manifest symbolically in one’s life as the result?

Child-Orphan Archetype

        While Jung (1953) focused on a few major archetypes, Myss (2001), a Jungian analyst, has expanded Jung’s repertoire to cover different dimensions of the major archetypes Jung suggested. She contends that although humans share four major symbolic archetypes in their collective unconscious (Child, Victim, Saboteur, and Prostitute) (Myss, 2001), there is usually one archetype that seems to be more prominent in an individual’s psyche. For instance, in the case of Snow White, Myss (2001) proposes, the princess embodies the Child-Orphan archetype (a dimension of the Child archetype), which includes those who feel “they are not part of their family. . . [and yet, oftentimes]. . . succeed at finding a path of survival [after] having won a battle with a dark force” (p. 372). Snow White’s dark force is her wicked stepmother who wants to see her dead. Consistent with Myss’ arguments, one of the characteristics associated with the Child-Orphan archetype is the ability to build a network of friends—illustrated in the story through the princess’ relationship with the dwarfs and Prince Charming. One of the aspects of the shadow side of this archetype is the extent to which one may be vulnerable to be indiscriminately trusting of others who may have a hidden agenda. This dynamic is symbolized in the fairy tale when the princess trusts the disguised wicked stepmother and eats the poisoned apple.

Check out the full article here: Snow White

Pinterest as a therapeutic tool!

Here’s another great submission from Megan Boyd. Ms. Boyd received a certificate to childtherapytoys.com for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

I am so excited to share this intervention with you guys!! I have been waiting for just the right client to try this with, and I have finally found one of my adolescents who is responding to Pinning as a therapeutic tool. 

Problem: 
This particular client is a 12 year old female. She is not only presenting with some symptoms of depression but she has been having a difficult time emotionally communicating with me as her counselor. 

Intervention:
I observed at our first meeting that this client was not entirely comfortable with conversation/discussion, so I tried the typical routes of drawing and coloring and worksheets. These interventions were not creating an atmosphere of trust or engagement. So tonight I introduced my client to Pinterest. Initially, I shared a sample board with her; explaining the premise of the site itself. I showed her various categories, and even gave her examples of how I am using the site.  

Results: 
I handed my client the tablet and watched her play around with creating her own Pinterest boards, and her face immediately lit up. Just by a few clicks, I had already gathered insight into her self-esteem, her feelings, her interests, and her challenges. By responding to her selection of pins and categories, she explained what she related to in the pictures, and “guessed” as to what the motivation of each picture meant… The best part was that we were able to identify cohesive themes and tie these to her previously reported symptoms. Some of the pictures around this post are examples of what she chose….if you look closely you’ll be able to see the themes as well.

Plan:
With the caregiver’s permission, I invited this client to create more boards as her homework between sessions. I encouraged the two of them to complete these activities together; (ex. Create a board of movies they would like to watch). I will be checking in with this family next week, and I can’t wait to see if and how this has affected their communication. 

Please let me know if you try anything like this with your clients! I’d love to hear other ideas and/or suggestions for modifications!

This was originally posted on “The Unconventional Counselor”. Be sure to stop by and check out more great posts like this one. 

Using Face Painting in Family Therapy

This great intervention idea was submitted by reader Paula Jensen. Ms. Jensen earned a gift certificate to childtherapytoys.com for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

This is a creative therapy technique that can be used between a parent and child, two or more siblings, or a couple.

Directions:

Materials: Face paint in many different colors; a sheet of pictures/ideas; soap and water for clean-up, and a mirror.

Session length: 60-75 minutes (including clean up).

  1. Each client is allowed about 20-25 minutes to paint a design of their choosing on their family member’s face (e.g. parent paints the child, sibling paints another siblings face).
  2. After face painting is complete, allow time at the end to discuss observations you have made throughout the activity and for clients to process their thoughts and feelings from the experience. It may be necessary to allow processing throughout the activity.
  3. Allow 5 minutes for clean-up.

Notes: Clients may look at their face at the end of each turn or once all clients are complete. Allow the clients to make this decision together before beginning.

Generally, I would allow the client who I perceive to have the least power in the relationship to go first.

Clinical Benefits

  1. It allows insight into what motivates a client’s behaviors in a way that may be difficult to gain through traditional talk therapies.
  2. It opens discussion about how a person interacts with family or loved ones, and how they interact in the world.
  3. It can allow clients to begin processing insecurities or areas in which they feel powerless and may assist them with overcoming some of these internal conflicts.
  4. It provides insight into a parent-child relationship. How the parent and child interact, including how they give and take direction from each other. It can allow the therapist and client to see how comfortable parent and child are with giving up control to the other family member.
  5. It is a fun, non-confrontational, creative way for allowing growth to occur.
  6. It can simply be a bonding experience between the parent and child.

Example:

When I worked as a child and family therapist, I utilized this face painting activity during a mother daughter session. Initially, my goal was to provide a positive bonding experience for the family. Through the out the activity, it came to light that the mother’s self-consciousness about herself interfered with her willingness to try new things and participate in activities with her daughter. This was a big issue between them because the daughter was not receiving the mother-daughter time she desired. In addition, it helped mom express to her daughter how proud she was that her daughter was so outgoing and confident. Through this activity I was able to assist the family with addressing a core issue within their relationship.

Contribute to our blog and get free stuff!

We recently received some great articles from fellow practitioners which you can read below. I’d like to remind our readers that contributing to our blog isn’t just an opportunity to share your hard work with others, it’s also a way to get free stuff at ChildTherapyToys.com! In fact, the authors of the below articles each earned a $25 gift certificate!

This blog was created as a place for practitioners, or anyone interested in play therapy, to come for news and information relevant to this unique therapeutic method. I also envisioned it as providing a forum for play therapists to share their knowledge, ideas, and experiences.

Send us an idea or intervention that you have developed or used in the play room, and if we publish it to the blog, we’ll send you a $25 gift certificate for ChildTherapyToys.com.

All entries are only accepted by email. Send to gary@childtherapytoys.com.

‘Seeing Red’ and ‘Cool Down Cubes’

These fantastic intervention ideas come from Brandon Menikheim. They are great anger management tools! Mr. Menikheim earned a gift certificate to childtherapytoys.com for his submission. Learn how you can do the same!

When working with children, I find it especially important to develop ways to teach and engage them. Most students learn by association. If they have a concept that they can connect something visual to, the visual then serves as a reminder to them. Students remember the lessons I teach them better if I find a way to incorporate them into something familiar.

One strategy I used recently–and which appeared to be a big hit with my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students–was a lesson on anger management. We started off by defining anger: “What does anger mean to you?” ”What do you think about when you think about the word anger?” Students frequently referenced the color red. We then took red food coloring and dropped it into a clear plastic cup of vinegar. As we continued our discussion about anger, we focused on warning signs and triggers that accompany or give way to those feelings. With every warning sign and trigger that was discussed we squirted a dropperful of red vinegar into a bowl of baking soda. Students were then asked what was happening in the bowl. It was a great way for them to visualize and quantify anger.

Each little thing that angers us causes something to “bubble up” inside of us. If we continue to allow it to bubble up it will eventually boil over. For this reason, it becomes increasingly important for us to find ways to cool down, to keep ourselves from bubbling over. To illustrate this I introduce a tray of ice cubes. Inside each ice cube is a laminated cool down strategy, frozen within it.  As seen from the attached picture, I created little rectangles with a strategy on it, and then I “laminated” it by using packing tape. After covering each rectangle with tape, I folded them long-ways so that it would fit into the ice cube hole by pressing itself up against the sides. The students task is then to melt the ice (without smashing or throwing it). Cooling down takes time; it’s a slow process and sometimes it isn’t as easy as we think. All of these characteristics are illustrated in the process of trying to melt the ice to get to the piece of paper inside. Students find the activity exciting, because they want to see what’s inside. When they reach it, they are enthusiastic about reading it and then ultimately sharing it with the rest of the group. While sharing, I encourage the students to practice the strategy if possible. This activity is especially good for a warm day, as it provides a great way to literally cool down!