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Play is the universal language of children. It is one of the brain’s favorite ways to learn. And for those who are working to overcome challenges— physical and/or emotional—purposeful and guided playtime opens doors and sparks exciting progress with speech, mobility, and social skills. It is a means to express emotions for individuals who don’t yet have the words. It fosters communication, provides tools for expression, and encourages conversation as well as non-verbal connections. And perhaps most importantly, play therapy empowers young people in the safe and supportive environment of a therapist’s office, school or another healthcare setting.
As a school-based therapist, occupational therapist, speech-language pathologist, or other professionals in the field, you don’t need expensive or fancy toys to help children experience the benefits of play therapy.
Here are some of our favorite play therapy techniques and activities—the types currently sought out by therapy staffing agencies and others looking to fill pediatric occupational therapy and special education jobs.
Sand Tray Therapy
A fun and extremely purposeful take on art therapy, this method continues to be much loved by therapists and their clients. It’s helpful for expressing complex feelings and emotions, as well as processing the meanings behind them. The child plays at creating a scene in a tray full of sand using miniature animals, figures, and small objects. Soft sandbox sand and even colored sand works just fine. While he or she chooses decorations for the scene, you may observe, asks questions, listen and help process why certain miniatures were chosen. Specific certifications are available for professionals interested in Sand Tray Therapy and are strongly encouraged for those seeking special education and therapist jobs where the practice is used.
Balloons of Anger
Regulating emotions is an essential life skill and one that presents challenges for certain individuals. The Balloons of Anger activity teaches children to understand anger and how to release it appropriately. To begin, blow up a balloon and tie it off while explaining that it represents the body and the air inside represents anger. This is a good time to ask the child whether the anger (air) can get out of the balloon and what happens when anger gets stuck inside of a person. Next, ask the child to pop the balloon by stomping on it. Where does the anger (air) go? Likening the pop to an aggressive act shows that like the air, anger can explode onto anything and anyone nearby. Discuss whether this seems like a safe way to let anger out? For the second part of the activity, blow up another balloon without tying off the end. Let the air out in small increments to demonstrate and explain ways in which anger can be let out in smaller, safer ways without harming those around. Bonus: kids love the sound air makes slowly coming out of the balloon!
Return to the Classics
Oftentimes, children find the simplest toys most engaging. Think tops, jack-in-the-boxes and wind-up toys. Remember, if it spins, jumps, twirls or pops open, your client will probably need to ask for help starting it up again. This gives you an opportunity to elicit communication consistent with the child’s goals, but flexible enough to suit their abilities. For severely autistic children, this may be simply making eye contact and holding out the toy. For others, the goal may be signing or saying “go” or “help.” If a child is already saying a few words, you may work on increasing the variety of words or length and complexity of phrases.
Tell Me Anything Puppets
Puppets provide a fun and safe way for children to express themselves. They are great mediums for projecting feelings and thoughts—providing insight and resolution in many situations. Ready-made puppets are an essential part of any well-rounded play therapy environment. Be sure to provide friendly (think fairy tales and cute animals) and frightening (think sharks, dinosaurs and dragons with teeth) choices. You can also help children make their own therapy puppets to look like themselves or family members using paper towel or toilet paper rolls.
Focus on Feathers
Balancing a peacock feather on the tip of a finger or the palm of the hand is both fun and challenging. With practice, almost anyone can do it, as long as they remember to keep looking at the “eye”—the brightly colored top part of the feather. This requires prolonged eye contact with a single point, focus and control—all of which this activity helps develop. As a physical therapist, you can up the ante by telling students to keep their feet in one place to further increase physical awareness and control. This activity offers a great opportunity for students to build confidence through success and also works well in a group or school therapy setting where each child must stay focused on their own feather in order to keep it upright.
Clay/Play Dough Hide and Seek
It’s no secret that pushing, rolling, and forming clay or play dough encourages fine motor skill development! As a bonus, so many children simply enjoy the way it feels—making it a popular and effective activity. Try forming a ball and pushing five pennies into the clay. Be sure the pennies are hidden. Reshape the clay into a ball and have your client dig out the pennies. Remember, to get the full benefit, the person must use his or her fingers rather than flattening the ball with a whole hand. This play therapy activity can also be done in groups of two where partners create their balls, hide their coins, and then trade balls to do the digging.
Here is a great take on the telephone game many of us played as children. It works best in a group setting and focuses on imitation, recall, and turn-taking. Students get into a circle and must whisper-sing to or gently tap out a selected rhythm to the next person. Rhythm-based play therapy techniques like this can be helpful for treating fluency and rate of speech by providing a structured and predictable foundation for verbal responses. Additional benefits include positive peer interaction and cooperation.
Plato said: “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. Nowhere is this truer than in a therapy setting where the goal is healing, discovery, and development.” These, and so many other games and activities, can be easily tailored to the abilities of your clients as well as their treatment goals.
And no matter where they lead, we hope these play therapy ideas help you create an atmosphere of acceptance and growth.