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.

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.


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.”

Contribute to the EmotiPlush Kickstarter campaign!

EmotiPlush dolls are the expressive dolls every play therapist has been waiting for. These dolls are adorable, sure…but they also have one of the most unique features I’ve ever seen, and it’s one that’s especially useful in play therapy. Watch the video (which is pretty delightful in itself–done in the style of an old silent movie) and find out what makes these dolls so special. Contribute to the kickstarter campaign now to help bring these great toys into play therapy rooms everywhere! And be sure to check out the rewards for contributing!


An Affordable Way to Find Items for Your Sand Tray

This article was submitted by Karen Carnabucci, MSS, LCSW, LISW-S.

Are you a sand tray psychotherapist?

Sand tray items can get a little pricy, and rummage sales, yard sales and thrift shops are a good way to find items for your sand tray shelves. I recently found this conglomeration of items at the local Zen center’s annual fundraising center, with the total receipt at just over $5.

Here are lots of other places that I’ve found items for sand tray for low cost or no cost:

  • Stones, seashells and softly worn glass from the beach.
  • Fortune cookie fortunes.
  • Pine cones of various sizes — watch while walking your neighborhood or at the local park.
  • Junk drawer (variety of marbles, small items, lost Legos, old keys, mismatched playing cards and the like).
  • Kitchen drawer (small baskets, small scoops, plastic containers, bottle caps, plastic spoons, Popsicle sticks).
  • Jewelry drawer (look for odd earrings, old pendants, etc., such as hearts, stars and other symbolic items).
  • Sewing kit (old thimbles and darning eggs, buttons).
  • Holiday ornaments and decor that you no longer use (use all or part of item). These might include faux evergreens (take apart to 2-inch lengths to use as bushes), plastic or other kinds of Easter eggs, angel ornaments and Halloween items.
  • Paper umbrellas and plastic picks, saved from tropical drinks, plus chopsticks.
  • Small plastic babies, baskets and other cute party favors from baby and wedding showers.
  • Clearance shelves and racks at department stores, variety stores, rock and gem shops, hobby stores, novelty shops and other shops.
  • “Free” box at yard sales.
  • Small bowl of pennies.
  • Check with children who you know, who outgrow their small toys and other little objects.

The money that you save can be spent for small figures that you do not have at online sand tray stores like Child Therapy Toys.

Special offer for graduate students from Child Therapy Toys!

Putting yourself through graduate school is increasingly expensive and many of us recall the days of living on pasta and hot dogs just to try to stay above water. We at ChildTherapyToys.com do at least and that’s why we’re offering a 15% discount for graduate students. Just drop us a line at support@childtherapytoys.com. Be sure to include a student ID and a picture ID to match and we’ll sign you up!


Dr. Gary’s Therapeutic Cootie Game

Over 50 million copies of the Cootie game have been sold since it was introduced in 1949. It is a great preschool game. The game consists of a picture board that depicts all the game parts, Cootie body parts (body, head, antenna, proboscis, eyes, 6 legs), and a die.

This modified version of the Cootie game introduces a therapeutic element. The versions described below focus on social skills and depression, but any story can be written to work on any number of issues and challenges.

First, here are the basics of the game. The object of the game is for each of the players to construct their own Cootie. The first player to do so wins the game. In the therapeutic version, it is not necessary to have a winner. The goal is to complete the story.

Game Play: Each part of the body is identified by a number as follows: 1-Body, 2-Head, 3-Antenna, 4-Eye 5-Probobcis, and 6-Legs. There are two ways to begin the game. Each player rolls the Die once and the high score starts the game, or the youngest (visitor) may go first.

Each player tries to get the body of the Cootie by rolling a “one” spot. If he succeeds, he gets a free roll of the Die, to try for the head. The body and the head must be obtained in the order named, before any other parts of the Cootie can be attached. The legs, eyes, antenna, and eyes can be acquired in any order; all are eligible after the body and head are obtained. The player loses the Die when he fails to roll the number for an eligible part that they have not yet acquired. For example, if the player rolls a 4 and already has the eyes, then the die gets passed to the next player. If they roll a 4 and don’t yet have the eyes, they pick them up and roll again.

One body, one head, eyes, two antenna, one proboscis, and six legs are required to make a complete Cootie.

Once the body and head are acquired all the other body parts can be acquired in any order. In the therapeutic version, parts are acquired but must be added to the Cootie in order, so that a story can be told that makes sense. If a part is acquired out of order, for example a leg before Cootie has a proboscis, the part is picked up and set aside until it can be added.

Social Skills Story
When a one is rolled and the body is acquired each player says: “Cootie wants to play.” When a two is rolled and the head is acquired each play says: “Cootie wants to play with
____________ (choose the fellow player, a peer, or a sibling).

Players are now eligible to acquire body parts in any order, but they are added to Cootie in the order listed below.

When the eyes are acquired each player says: “Cootie is going to look at __________when Cootie speaks. Cootie is going to look at _________ when ___________ talks” and the player attaches the eyes to Cootie. If the player has already acquired the antenna, then that can now be added.

When the antenna is acquired and added each player says: “Cootie is going to listen carefully when __________ talks” as they attach the antenna to the head.

When the proboscis is acquired each player says: “Cootie is going to keep his/her tongue, feet, and hands to herself when she plays” as they add the proboscis to Cootie.

• Each leg represents a skill or affirmation, depending on the child’s needs. Here are some examples:

• Leg 1: Cootie says, “Do you want to play with me.”

• Leg 2: Cootie tells himself: “I won’t get mad is someone says no, I’ll find someone else to play with.”

• Leg 3: Cootie says: “You’re the guest. What do you want to play?”

• Leg 4: Cootie tells himself: “Make sure your friend is having fun.”

• Leg 5: Cootie says: “Thanks for playing with me. I had fun!”

• Leg 6: Cooties tells himself: “I did a good job taking turns and sharing today.”

After each Cootie is completed, the story is retold, repeating each statement as the appropriate body part is pointed to.

Here’s an alternative version for a depressed child:
When a one is rolled and the body is acquired each player says: “Cootie doesn’t want to be sad and bored today.”

When a two is rolled and the head is acquired each play says: “Cootie is going to think of three things he can do today.” The therapist can prompt the child, or make suggestions.

When the eyes are acquired each player says: “Cootie looks for Mom (Dad, teacher, sibling) and gives them a hug” and the player attaches the eyes to Cootie. If the player has already acquired the antenna, then that can now be added.

When the antenna is acquired and added each player says: “Cootie tells himself one thing he likes about his life” as they attach the antenna to the head (the therapist can ask the child to identify that one thing, or make a suggestion).

When the proboscis is acquired each player says: “Cootie enjoys tasty food. The tastiest food I had this week is __________” as they add the proboscis to Cootie.

Again each leg represents a skill or affirmation, depending on the child’s needs. Here are some examples:

• Leg 1: Cootie says, “I don’t have to be bored. I can find something to do.”

• Leg 2: Cootie tells himself: “I don’t have to be sad all the time. I can be happy when _____________.”

• Leg 3: Cootie says: “Two things I like about my life are __________ and __________.”

• Leg 4: Cootie tells himself: “The person who can help me when I’m sad is ___________.”

• Leg 5: Cootie says: “I am beautiful. And then Cootie says it again really loud, I AM BEAUTIFUL.”

• Leg 6: Cooties tells himself: “I am good at ________________.”

Again, after each Cootie is completed, the story is retold, repeating each statement as the appropriate body part is pointed to.

Here’s a story for non-compliance, with a focus on “listening the first time.”
When a one is rolled and the body is acquired each player says: “Cootie listens the first time.”

When a two is rolled and the head is acquired each play says: “Cootie is guessing what his Mom and Dad are going to tell him to do today.” The therapist asks the child to guess.

When the eyes are acquired each player says: “Cootie looks at his Mom’s (or Dad’s or Teacher’s) face when she tells him what to do.” If the player has already acquired the antenna than that can be added now.

When the antenna is acquired and added each player says: “Cootie listens very carefully so that he/she can repeat what she heard” as they attach the antenna to the head.

When the proboscis is acquired each player says: “Cootie tells his/her Mom (Dad, Teacher) what they are going to listen to today” as they add the proboscis to Cootie. The therapist can encourage the child to guess what that might be.

As noted above, each leg represents a skill or affirmation, depending on the child’s needs. Here are some examples:

• Leg 1: Cootie says, “I don’t want to brush my teeth but I will.”

• Leg 2: Cootie tells himself: “I wish I didn’t have to go to bed, but I will.”

• Leg 3: Cootie says: “I am going to listen the first time again!”

• Leg 4: Cootie tells himself: “Listening the first time is easy today.”

• Leg 5: Cootie says: “I had a good day. I listened the first time.”

• Leg 6: Cooties tells himself: “I am good at listening the first time.”

Again, after each Cootie is completed, the story is retold, repeating each statement as the appropriate body part is pointed to.

Welcome to the Autism Store!

Play therapy’s greatest virtue is perhaps in its breadth of application. The process of allowing children (and adults!) to express themselves through the language of play can be tremendously useful in a variety of situations. It can be used to teach discipline and good behavior, lift spirits and mend the emotional wounds caused by trauma or grief, and help a patient work through anxiety and depression. Play therapy’s ability to foster expression and improve social and emotional competence is particularly beneficial to children with autism. Many therapists use play-based treatments for Autism and other Pervasive Developmental Disorders and research suggests a high level of success.

Keeping in mind that every specific situation requires it’s own very specific tools, ChildTherapyToys.com has created The Autism Store–a one-stop shop with the most valuable and fun tools available for play therapy with autistic children. The store boasts a huge variety of books and games, sensory toys, creative materials, and more, all designed to help a child connect and engage through the power of play. The products offered have been expertly curated and are available at affordable prices. Stop by and discover what your therapy room might be missing!   

Playing Favorites: the best toys for child-centered play therapy

Our business is toys. More specifically, toys for play and child therapy. Surprisingly, there has been very little research done on which toys are best suited for child therapy. A recent study published in the International Journal of Play Therapy sought to determine which toys are most popular in child-centered play therapy. The researchers divided toys in the playroom into the following categories: Family/Nurturing, Expressive, Pretend/Fantasy, and Aggressive/Scary.  The most popular items in the Family/Nurturing category were the sandbox, sand tools, kitchen, and the sink. In the Expressive category arts/crafts, paint, water, and the easel were the most frequently used. The Puppet Theater was the item most often used in the Pretend/Fantasy category, along with hats, dress-up clothes, and the doctors kit. The bop bag was the most popular Aggressive/Scary toy. The other top items in this category included big aggressive animals, hammer, and a log.

We’re happy to say that all these items can be found at www.childtherapytoys.com. To read the entire article see the International Journal of Play Therapy, Vol 22(1), Jan 2013, 43-57, or purchase the PDF at http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/pla/22/1/43.

ChildTherapyToys.com news! CTT partners with Childswork/Childsplay

ChildTherapyToys.com is excited to announce that we have partnered with Childswork/Childsplay to distribute all of their products. Childswork/Childsplay is well known for their high quality therapeutic games and workbooks. They also have a fantastic collection of educational DVDs, posters, and pamphlets. And at ChildTherapyToys.com, all of our books and games ship free within the continental US.

The Talking, Feeling, & Doing Game is just one of the many great products from Childswork/Childsplay.