Twelve Effective Play Therapy & Child Therapy Games
A game is a structured activity that is usually undertaken for enjoyment. Richard Gardner popularized the use of games in child therapy. While he was a psycho-dynamically oriented therapist he understood the value of introducing some structure into therapy with children, and the activities he introduced, such as The Mutual Story Telling Technique and The Talking, Feeling, and Doing Game, capitalize on a child’s natural inclination to play and to learn and communicate through play. Games not only provide a structure for clients, but also serve as a vehicle for the therapist to begin communicating and interacting with the client. Through game play a therapeutic alliance can be built, opening the possibility of working with the client in other ways and building up the child’s ability to successfully navigate their environment. Many children need to approach therapy cautiously, and the therapist’s use of games can be adjusted to respect this need and meet the client where they are currently functioning. For example, a simple game like Candy Land for a regressed child may be played, while a better functioning child might go directly to a game like Bridge Over Worried Waters to help develop strategies for dealing with their anxiety. A game like the Talking, Feeling, Doing Game can be used to work at a more unconscious level. These types of activities are tools to be used in any type of child therapy.
There is no objective way to determine what games are “best” for an individual clinician. The choice of games will depend on the setting, therapeutic orientation, and population being served. Generally, it is helpful to have a variety of game types. For example, card games, board games, and stacking games. It is also useful to have games that cover a variety of challenges, topics, and age groups. This post focuses exclusively on games developed for counseling and therapy. The games selected for this post have stood the test of time and continue to be among the most popular games used by child clinicians. The order of discussion is random and no attempt was made to rank the games.
The first game up is the classic Talking, Feeling, and Doing Game. It is the best know board game specifically aimed for use in child therapy. Items used in the game, and the structure of the game, are familiar to most children. There is a board, spinner, chips, pawns, dice, and three sets of cards. Children and young adolescents will usually enjoy this game. There are three types of cards in The Talking, Feeling, and Doing Game: Feeling Cards, Doing Cards, and Talking Cards. The child rolls the dice and then moves the pawn the number spaces indicated on the dice. Once the child lands on a space they either follow thedirections written on the space or respond to a card that corresponds to the color of the space. Gardner designed the game with a view toward better understanding the child’s psychological processes. Children typically are not capable of fully talking about what is troubling them. Playing a game is a non-threatening way for clinicians to explore what might be going on with a child. Playing this game adds a playful element to therapy which most children will enjoy. In developing the game Gardner wrote both low anxiety and high anxiety cards. Several supplemental decks have been developed that can be used with the board game, or as stand alone card games. Topics covered include grief, divorce, anger, shyness, conflict, good behavior, and teasing.
Totika is a game similar to Jenga. In fact, Jenga can be modified by numbering the blocks and using those numbers as a prompt for questions. In the game of Totika a block is removed from the tower. The colors on the blocks correspond to colors on the Question Deck cards. The color on the block serves as a prompt to identify which question should be selected on the card and responded to. Decks available for the Totika game: Self-Esteem Cards (included with the game), Ice Breaker Cards, Divorce Cards, Jr. Principles, Values, and Beliefs, Life Skills Question Deck, Teen-Adult Principles, Values, and Beliefs, Anger, and Bullying. Children ages 8 and up will enjoy Totika.
The Social and Emotional Competence Game (by the author) is focused on specific aspects of functioning and behavior. The game is a useful introduction for children just starting in therapy and can be played multiple times at different stages in therapy. The game can also be played in small groups and with siblings and is suitable for children and early adolescence. The design of The Social and Emotional Competence Game is premised on the assumption that children who are able to initiate and maintain relationships, cooperate with others, empathize, and communicate effectively are more likely to experience success at home, at school, and with their peers. Social and emotional competence refers to the capacity to recognize and manage emotions, solve problems effectively, and establish and maintain relationships with others. It is these skills that serve to protect our children from a host of difficulties including behavior problems, increased emotional distress, academic failure, delinquency, and substance abuse. The Social and Emotional Competence Game is designed to give counselors and teachers another tool to teach social and emotional skills. The Social and Emotional Competence Game is a fun way to teach empathy, communication skills, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, self-management, and responsible decision-making. Like the Talking, Feeling, and Doing Game, The Social and Emotional Competence Game consists of elements that are familiar to most children: a board, dice, pawns, chips, and a spinner. The object of the game is to have the most chips when time is up. Cards can be pre-arranged prior to a session to focus on specific issues. additional decks of cards are available to cover Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, and ADHD.
The Feeling Playing Cards are a complete deck with traditional card values marked on them (numbers 2 thru 10, Jack, King, Queen, Ace). The cards are illustrated with a variety of feelings faces created by illustrator Jim Borgman. The deck can be used to play any card game and includes instructions for Go Feelings (Go Fish), Frustrated (Old Maid), Concentration, Bingo Feeing-O, Crazy 8s, Snap, Beggar My Neighbor, Twenty-One, Slapjack, and Rummy.
The Who Are You? Thumball is a great icebreaker for individual therapy, groups, families, and workshops. Thumball is easy to throw and catch indoors since it is a soft stuffed ball. It can be used to start and end a session, or at any time during a session or meeting. Game play is simple. The ball may be thrown, rolled, or passed to the next person. The recipient looks under their thumb and reacts to the word or phrase. Each panel has a different word or phrase and the thumball has 32 panels. The Who Are You Thumball includes phrases such as: favorite toy or game, what makes you mad, and happiest memory.
Go Fish: Anchor Your Stress was developed for children in elementary school. Game play is based on the Go Fish card game, which is familiar to many children. This game teaches players about stress and anxiety and helps them deal with anxiety-provoking situations. It also provides practical thinking skills that include self-talk, coping mechanisms, and relaxation techniques. There are two decks of 50 cards; one for grades 1-3, and grades 4-5. The game differs from classic go fish in that players must answer a question before they can accept a requested card. Instead of numbers on the cards they have fun fish names and pictures. A rules sheet and facilitator guidelines included. There are 12 additional games in this series.
The Ungame and Ungame Cards were not developed for counseling so I’m deviating a little here by including them in this post. The Ungame Board Game and the Ungame Card sets are widely used in counseling and therapy and are suitable for all ages. Non-competitive games, such as The Ungame, are designed specifically to foster communication. The Ungame is available as a board game, and as a separate card games for Kids, Teens, and Families. The Ungame is ideal for a therapy session as the length of play can be predetermined at the start of the game. If there are only fifteen minutes left in the session the game can still be played and the session can still be quite productive. In addition, playing the Ungame fosters skills such as sharing, interacting, and listening. The Ungame board game includes two levels of “general cards,” a board, pawns, and a die. Level one cards tend to be light-hearted and non-threatening, and Level two cards tend to require more thought and self-revelation. Level 2 cards ask questions about feelings, values, and memories. The Ungame card games also consist of level one and level two cards and may be used with the board game. Simply substitute the general cards that come with the game with one of the card decks. The card game includes Choice, Question and Comment cards, which are also spaces on the board game, so these cards should be removed when using them with the board game. The board game is easy to play. Players take turns rolling the die, count spaces and then respond to the prompt on the space they land on. If they land on an Ungame space, they pick up a card, read it out loud, and respond. If they land on a Question space they may ask any player any question they like. If they land on a Comment space, they may make a comment about anything they like.
The Stop, Relax, and Think board game is another classic and nearly as old as the Talking, Feeling, and Doing board game. The Stop, Relax, and Think Board Game is suitable for children ages 6 through 12. I've used this game for over twenty years and it continues to be popular with my clients. While playing this board game, active, impulsive children learn impulse control, relaxation skills, how to express their feelings and how to problem-solve. The game includes a game board, 50 tokens, 1 6-sided die, 1 10-sided die, 6 turtle game pieces and 2 card decks. The two decks consist of Feeling cards and Thinking cards. In addition, there are spaces where players need to practice stopping and practice relaxing (e.g., imagine big puffy clouds, or take 3 deep breathes).
The Mad Dragon Anger Control Card Game is his fast-paced therapeutic card game for children ages 6 to 12 years-old. The game is played the same way Uno is played. Participants learn how to control their anger in the moment and practice 12 effective anger management techniques. Participants also begin to understand what anger feels and looks like, how to avoid anger-provoking situations, express and understand their feelings, and identify anger cues. The game comes with 100 high-quality 3 x 4 cards, instructions, and tips for taming anger.
Bridge Over Worried Waters helps children learn strategies for handling anxiety. It is designed to support treatment of anxiety disorders in children ages 6-13 years old. The game incorporates relaxation, positive self-talk, and other coping behaviors into a game format. To start the game, players place a Worried Waters raging river sheet in front of them and are dealt Solution Cards and Problem cards. Players read aloud one of the Problem cards. Players then decide on an appropriate Solution card to use as a positive strategy to address the anxiety in the situation. There are three types of solution cards:
▪ Self-Talk Cards−challenge self-defeating thoughts by replacing negative thoughts with positive, optimistic thoughts.
▪ Relaxation Cards−calm down by using deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and meditation.
▪ Coping Cards−distract by diverting attention away from anxious feelings to fun or effortful activities.
When the situation has been successfully solved with one of the Solution cards, the player then tosses the Problem card into the “Worried Waters” and the Solution card is used to create the foundation or top of a bridge. The object of the game is to build a bridge that carries the player across the “Worried Waters” to the safety of the other bank by successfully using the techniques they have learned in the Solution cards. Players actually build a bridge using the two types of Solution cards for supports and the roadway. The support cards stay upright using stands provided with the game. There are both competitive and cooperative versions for 2-5 players.
The Conflict Resolution Thumball is a unique tool to help groups and teams learn how to resolve conflicts. This thumball is six inches across and contains a wide variety of prompts and questions. Game play is simple. The ball may be thrown, rolled, or passed to the next person. The recipient looks under their thumb and reacts to the word or phrase. Each panel has a different word or phrase and the thumball has 32 panels. Examples of prompts include: How can you be part of the solution? What behaviors are unproductive? Describe your initial reaction to the conflict.
The Yes I Can Handle My Anger game is an activity designed to help participants understand and appreciate various aspects of being angry. There are three types of cards designed to help participants identify triggers for anger, identify positive and negative behaviors associated with anger, and identify thoughts associated with anger. Developing anger management skills is aided by discussion and role playing during the game. This activity was developed by the author and is suitable for ages 6 to Adult, 2 to 6 players.