Ways to Support Your Children’s Mental Health using Therapeutic Play, including Techniques & Activity Ideas
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The act of play can be a great therapeutic tool for children, and not just those with complex needs.
Play therapy can help any child act out or work through pain, confusion, worries, fears and anything traumatic.
It can help them to talk openly about things they would otherwise find difficult in a more formal setting; Sitting in front of somebody and talking with direct eye contact can be daunting, and as a result they’re less likely to open up.
Playing stops the conversation feeling formal and there’s no constant eye contact which can feel intimidating for kids.
What is Play Therapy?
The Association for Play Therapy defines play therapy as:
It’s been used by psychiatrists since the 1930s, but is thought to have been around for hundreds of years before this.
The method is used by many therapeutic models now, as it helps adults to get onto the child’s level so they can open up.
Therapeutic play can be as simple as playing on the floor with some hand puppets or dolls, but can also be more planned; Creating arts and crafts, or role plays where they can put themselves in other’s positions.
Games can include throwing the ball to each other and saying something that makes them happy when catching the ball.
Using dolls and plush animals these can be comforting, or you can do role play with them of real-life scenarios.
This is great when a child has undergone a medical procedure, or is about to, and is worried about it. It can also be helpful when a loved one is unwell which may be worrying the child.
Magic Wand Play
You could make a magic wand together and ask the child what their three wishes would be. It’s likely one wish will relate to a real-life problem they have. This can help them to verbalise their wants, dreams and what they want to change.
Running around popping the bubbles can be a great stress reliever.
Building something and then knocking it down, or throwing a ball at it to knock it down can help to release anger and frustration.
Blocks can also help with communication.
If you each have the same amount of blocks, but are hidden from view from each other, you can take it in turns to direct each other to build identical constructions.
Kinetic sand, playdough, clay, water, paints and anything that involves using one of your five senses can be useful.
Children can express themselves and feel more relaxed by doing sensory play.
Telling stories where characters go through issues your child is going through can help them to act out their worries, and explore them with various scenarios.
This can be in the form of puppets, dolls or soft toys, the child and adult dressing up to act out scenes, or even drawing a story book.
Adults can offer storyline ideas to help the character fix the problem, which the child is more likely to internalise through play.
The child may then process this after play and apply the advice to their own problems.
Use an old magazine and get the child to tear out pages, scrunch them up and throw them into the bin.
This method can help children throw away angry feelings.
Arts & Crafts
Art therapy is also a great tool for children.
Colours can represent feelings and emotions, and there’s lots of resources online to encourage children to draw important things going on for them.
This could be as simple as a template of a mirror and asking them to draw what they see when they look in a mirror, or asking them to draw what’s important to them.
This can then open a discussion about the picture and help the adult to understand how the child is feeling.
Asking the child to draw their family is great, because the way each person is drawn can reveal the child’s feelings towards them at that time.
Play Therapy Ideas
Reading may not feel like play, but we play with voices, characters and our imaginations which can resonate with our inner feelings.
I’ve been reading with my son every night for eight years since he was four months old.
As well as reading helping educationally, it can also be relaxing and therapeutic for children.
When my son’s going through certain issues, I will find a children’s book that could resonate with him.
If he can identify with the character’s issue, it helps him to feel like it’s a ‘normal’ feeling. These books usually show different ways to cope with, or resolve the issue.
When we lost my nan a couple of years ago I bought a great story book about death (Badger’s Parting Gift) and it helped him come to terms with his grief.
I’ve always been conscious to teach him to respect his own and other people’s bodies, so found books like My Underpants Rule that talks about keeping private parts private. These also help children to notice if any adults are acting inappropriately so they can tell you.
These are books that explain abuse in an age-appropriate way, that teach children how to manage these issues if they arise.
I’ve also used books about friendships, bullying, anger and lots aimed at increasing child self-esteem.
We have even read books about divorced families to help him understand his own family set up which were brilliant.
I have added my favourites to my Amazon lists*, so to see what’s worked for us take a look.
Make Your Own Stress Ball / Shaker
This can be made using a balloon, flour and ribbon or string. Simply fill the balloon with flour and tie up with the string.
Alternatively use an old jam jar and some rice.
They can also decorate the balloons / jar with colouring pens.
Encourage them to squeeze/shake it whenever they feel scared, angry, worried or wanting comfort.
You could make puppets using lolly sticks and card, or use soft toys/dolls if you don’t have puppets.
Make a puppet show using towels and chair, or anything you want!
Create a story together, and make the child’s character based upon one of their problems or them in general.
Make a Time Line
Get a large piece of paper and draw a long line. Together look at significant dates that could be included.
They can describe what happened that was important to them, the date and a drawing that represents it.
Adults can help by adding their own memories of significant things that happened, talk about them and how they felt at the time.
This could include moving house, holidays, getting a pet, divorce, changing schools and so much more.
Instead of paper, you can hang string and use pegs to clip on memories as they come to light.
Paint or Draw
Pick an idea from any of the useful resources from this post and get them to paint, sketch or sculpt.
They could sketch their dream home, or draw a hand and list on each finger who they would talk to for support.
Topics about what makes them feel safe/loved/happy/sad/angry/scared could be the themes of the craft sessions.
Taking part too with your own feelings and life stories can encourage children to feel relaxed enough to participate.
They also don’t feel like they’re being watched, so the pressure’s off and they can just create.
Play Therapy Useful Links
Positive Psychology have a helpful post with 50 Play Therapy Techniques.
The Association for Play Therapists have a resource guide for parents and carers to use at home.
Noah’s Ark Centre have some great therapeutic play tutorial videos.
I have written posts that may also be useful, including:
No payment was received for this post. All opinions are honest and my own.
Contains Amazon affiliate links, meaning a small commission may be made if items are bought through the links.