Category Archive Play in Therapy

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

How to Help Kids Deal with Their Feelings

Imagine that you’re at work. Your boss asks you to do something extra, and he wants it to be ready by the end of the day. You mean to take care of it right away, but things start coming up throughout the course of the day and you forget. As soon as you get ready to go home, your boss comes to you and asks for the finished piece of work. Oh no, you completely forgot! You try explaining to your boss that things came up, things that couldn’t be helped.

He interrupts you. In a loud, angry voice he shouts, “I’m not interested in your excuses! What I’m interested in is you getting it done! What am I paying you for?!” As you open your moth, he says, “Save it,” and walks off to the elevator.

You finish gathering your things and leave the office. On the way home you meet a friend. You’re so upset that you find yourself telling her about what just happened.

picture courtesy of Pixabay

Your friend tries to “help” you in eight different ways. And as this example from “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish asks, as you read each response, tune in to your immediate “gut” reaction:

Denial of Feelings

“There’s no reason to be so upset. It’s foolish to feel that way. You’re probably just tired and blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Surely it’s not as bad as you make it out to be. Come on, smile…”

The Philosophical Response

“Look, life is like that. Things don’t always turn out the way we want. You have to learn to take it in stride. In this world, nothing is perfect.”


“You know what I think you should do? Tomorrow morning go straight to your boss’s office and say, ‘Look, I was wrong.’ Then sit down and finish your work, and don’t get trapped by those little things that come up. And if you’re smart and you want to keep that job of yours, you better make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”


“What exactly did you have to do that could have possibly caused you to forget a special request from your boss? Didn’t you realize he’d be angry if you didn’t do it? Has this ever happened before? Why didn’t you follow him when he got mad and left so you could explain again?”

Defense of the Other Person

“I can understand your boss’s reaction. He’s probably under a lot of pressure. You’re lucky he doesn’t lose his temper more often.”


“Oh, you poor thing. That is terrible! I feel so awful for you, I could cry.”

Amateur Psychoanalysis

“Has it ever occurred to you that the real reason you’re so upset by this is because your employer represents a father figure in your life? As a child you probably worried about not pleasing your father, and when your boss scolded you it brought back your early fears of rejection. Would you say that’s true?”

Empathic Response

“Boy, that sounds like a rough experience. To be yelled at like that in front of those other people, especially after having been under so much pressure, must have been pretty hard to take!”

What was your “gut” reaction?

Okay, so what do you think? What was your “gut” reaction after reading each of the different types of responses your friend gave you? Did you leave your friend feeling better or worse? Heard or unheard? Like your friend had your back or not so much?

Maybe you’re thinking Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish were being a little extreme. But were they? Though the situation might be different, I can recall so many times when I’ve responded to my own kids in each and every one of these ways!

Fortunately, one of these responses is more helpful than the others. Whether you’re listening to your child tell you about how awful it felt to have to go in from recess today or how terrible it felt when their science teacher unwittingly singled them out when they called upon them in class or even just listening to a friend talk about their rough day at work, using an empathic response will always prove most helpful.

The Language of Empathy

An empathic response demonstrates that you’re really trying to tune into the feelings of the other person. Kids (and adults) can usually help themselves if they have a listening ear and an empathic response. Kids don’t always need advice or pity, and they’re probably not going to be ready for you to defend the person that hurt their feelings when they first come to you after something as such has happened. And denying their feelings is going to affect them for the worse, whether it be in the short-term or long-term (or both).

picture courtesy of Pixabay

Unfortunately, the language of empathy doesn’t come so naturally to us. Most of us grew up having our feelings denied, often unintentionally by well meaning people. As “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” delves into, to learn a new language of acceptance, we have to learn and practice its methods. It might not sound natural to you when you first start trying to use an empathic response, but keep with it… It’s well worth it.

More important than any words we do use is our attitude when we respond. “If our attitude is not one of compassion, then whatever we say will be experienced by the child as phony or manipulative. It’s when our words are infused with our real feelings of empathy that they speak directly to a child’s heart.”

Stay tuned in, I’ll be giving you some helpful tips on communicating with your children in future posts. And if you’re interested in learning more yourself, I highly recommend the book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. You can find a link here.

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

An Interactive Study Skills Activity for Teens with ADHD

I have worked with a lot of kids and teens with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) who have a really hard time in school. Whether they have combination type (difficulty focusing/paying attention and hyperactivity/fidgeting) or inattentive type ADHD, I learned quickly that just reading over a list of study skills for these kids to try was hardly effective. Teaching study skills, especially to kids with ADHD, requires more than providing them with a list and reading over it with them, then hoping for the best. You have to get creative, and you have to make learning more interactive.

I came up with this activity for that very reason. When I would teach study skills to a teen sitting in my office who was struggling in school, I could literally see the boredom in their faces and the lack of focus in their eyes. I would lose them within mere minutes. It was hardly effective. Just as teachers often have to make learning more interactive for all their students, I had to come up with a way to make learning study skills interactive for kids who were already struggling with their schoolwork due to ADHD symptoms.

Let’s Get On to the Activity…

GOAL: Help students learn helpful study skill tips and choose which strategies would work best for them.

“PLAYERS”: Student + a counselor, teacher, or parent

AGES: Middle school through college aged students

ACTIVITY: You can actually divide this activity into three separate activities. This is what I frequently do, as let’s face it, giving anyone a whole bunch of any material to learn at once isn’t always effective. Click on the links for the printable pdf forms of the packets and cards.

Materials – Activity #1:

Materials – Activity #2:

Materials – Activity #3:

Materials – All Activities:

Before the activity, laminate (optional) and cut one copy of the Study Skill Cards for that particular activity. Cut apart each section/block on the Categories sheet; glue each block onto separate envelopes. Each block should be designated its own separate envelope:

  • “Tried it, but it’s not good for me”
  • “Already doing it, and it works”
  • “I’m interested in trying this”
  • “I’ll commit to trying it this week”


Both student and counselor (or teacher or parent) each get a packet for the particular activity you’ll be doing. Each person also receives an uncut copy of the Study Skill Cards page. Each player needs two highlighters of different colors. The laminated, cut study skill cards can be placed between the student and counselor.

The student draws a card form the pile in between them. They then read the study tip. The counselor can also choose to take turns drawing cards from the pile if she wants, but it’s important to keep the student as focused an involved as possible. Don’t “just read” to them.

Next to the study skill tip is a number in parentheses. This number corresponds to the number matching on the packet for the particular topic. For some cards, a more thorough explanation may be found in the packet whereas the card generally holds only a brief description of the strategy.

The student, upon reading the card, determines which envelope they want to place the card in. For example, they might place the “Copy the notes. (4)” card in the “I’m interested in trying this” envelope. The student and counselor then, using a designated color highlighter for this category, highlights the study skill tip on their Study Skills Card page so that they both can remember that the tip is something the student may be interested in trying. If the student chooses to place a card in the “I’ll commit to trying it this week” envelope, the student and counselor would use the other colored highlighter to mark those tips on their individual Study Skill Cards pages.

Encourage the student to commit to trying 1-3 skills in the upcoming week, particularly if they don’t already have very effective study habits. Take note that some strategies are better tried separately and not together with another skill tip (for example, “start with the hardest” and “start with the easiest” are probably best not tried during the same week).

After all (or a majority) of the cards are drawn and designated to their appropriate category, spend the remainder of the time discussing the week’s commitments and forming short-term goals. The student then can take their cards sheet and packet with them to help remind them of the skills and their commitment(s).

For the skills highlighted and designated into the category of “I’m interested in trying this,” keep the Study Skill Cards sheet handy for that student and refer back to it as necessary in the future.

The individually cut skill cards and envelopes can be saved to use with other students.

To all the students out there, happy studying!

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

Separation & Loss Jenga for Kids (free printables included)

Losing a parent or caregiver is difficult for any child, whether the loss is through death, separation, or removal from their home. Working with these children, they are often found to be struggling with grief and adjustment issues that might show up as a significant change in mood or acting out behaviors. Working with children who have been temporarily separated or sometimes permanently removed from their home can sometimes prove particularly difficult when trying to find creative ways to help them work their way through the loss of their parent or caregiver who has been a significant part of their lives for some time, often since birth.

Losing someone is never easy. While I certainly am not wanting to downplay the loss any child feels when a parent or caregiver dies, children who are separated from their homes, whether temporarily or permanently, face a unique challenge in itself. The child knows their parent didn’t die, so why can’t they still be with them? In cases where there has been neglect or abuse, a child may especially have difficulty understanding an array of confusing feelings… “I love my mom, but I didn’t like how she hurt me. But I feel guilty for not being with her but it’s kind of nice that I don’t have to worry so much or be so scared.”

In some cases, children aren’t even particularly sure why they’ve been separated from their parents or caregivers at all. They may not be given much information or they may not even realize that their parent’s neglect or other inappropriate behavior was ever wrong in the first place. From these kids’ perspectives, they have a really hard time understanding why or even how their lives seemed to suddenly be turned upside down. And sometimes, depending on the age of the child, it isn’t appropriate to offer a lot of details; regardless, it still doesn’t make up for the intense hurt and pain they feel from being separated from the only home they ever knew.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Child-centered play therapy, I’ve found, is especially helpful for these children when they are particularly young, but I’ve found that a more directive approach is often needed for middle and older elementary children and pre-teens. Seeking out ideas for techniques to work with these children has continued to result in dead ends. With the exception of a few specific techniques out there on the internet and in books for children who have lost their parent or caregiver not by death but by separation, therapists frequently need to adapt general grief activities for these vulnerable children. While this is certainly not a major problem, I began creating some of my own games, art, and other play activities myself.

The Idea Behind Separation & Loss Jenga

I came up with the idea of creating a Jenga game to help kids who have been separated from their parents or caregivers not long ago. The Jenga game has been a popular therapy tool for many therapists for years, as it can be easily adapted for a multitude of therapeutic purposes just by gluing question strips onto the individual blocks or marking the blocks with various colors and creating corresponding card decks filled with questions to ask or prompts to give children for anything from identifying feelings to learning and practicing social skills.
Coming up with questions for the individual Jenga blocks came easier than I anticipated. There are so many thoughts and feelings in these children’s minds when they’ve been separated from someone they love; pulling these thoughts and feelings out by using traditional methods of talk therapy only tend to work well for some kids (and usually these are the older ones). But give kids an activity or game, and suddenly the same things that a therapist has been trying to help the child express becomes less threatening for that child. There is a lot of psychology behind why and how play (such as playing games or doing other activities) works in the healing of children. Play is a child’s language.  It helps them express what they cannot express in words, whether it be because they don’t yet have the language or because they have been more reluctant or it has been too difficult to talk about such painful feelings.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Though I created the game with the idea of being used in therapy between a child and therapist, it can also be played in the child’s new home with their current caregiver(s). Either way, when the therapist or caregiver chooses a question block, they can read the question out loud to the child for him or her to answer or if you feel comfortable in self-disclosing a separation or loss (even if it was through the death of someone you once knew), this can be done also. Regardless of how you adapt the game, just make sure the child you’re playing with knows the rules and what you’re doing before you play. The child may not respond well if they find out after you draw your first question block and direct the question to them if they didn’t know ahead of time that this was what you had planned to do.
It’s also important to validate the child’s answers when he responds to a question. If the child discloses that he feels sad, for example, that he is no longer living with his abusive mother, it will not help for you to say something like, “What do you mean you feel sad? She did nothing but hurt you!” Just. Don’t. Really, don’t.
Even if you think the child’s answer is “wrong” (which by the way, there are no “wrong” answers in this game), validate what they’re telling you because what they’re saying is very real to them. For the earlier example, you could say something like, “It can feel sad when you’re away from a person you love and care about.” Then. Stop. Really. Don’t try to put a “but” at the end of that sentence. Just leave it there. Trust me, not validating something like this isn’t going to help build your relationship with the child. At all. This isn’t the time to refute the child’s beliefs. Please leave that up to after you know more about the child and they are further along in their healing process and have built more trust in you.
(There are no “wrong” ways to feel anyway, regardless of how we might think they “should” be feeling; it’s not up to us to tell anyone how they should or shouldn’t feel. Don’t refute a feeling, even if you’ve known the child for a really long time and you have a good relationship. Give the child permission to feel the way they’re feeling and validate those feelings, even if you disagree or can’t totally understand why anyone could ever feel such a way. Empathize.)
By the way, it’s important to let the child know before you begin playing, that they should only share what they feel comfortable sharing. If they look like they’re struggling to answer a particular question, especially, give them a pass or allow them to answer another question instead. I don’t like forcing children to rush through any healing process. This will also help build your relationship with the child and plant the seed that you’re someone that isn’t going to push him any faster than he is able or willing to go, and that helps to build trust in your relationship.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Creating Your Own Separation & Loss Jenga Game

To create your own game, simply click below and print the Separation & Loss question strips. After you print the questions, I recommend laminating the page for durability. Then simply cut out your questions, and glue each individual question onto a Jenga block. The blocks that are left over can be used as “free pass” blocks, blocks that allow the player a turn without answering a question or they can be rapport (relationship) building blocks.

I find “free pass” blocks to be helpful over utilizing each and every block for a question, as it seems to make kids more comfortable and feel less overwhelmed. Rapport, or relationship, building blocks are ones in which you can use questions such as those found below, to lighten the mood and discuss something a little more fun and less heavy. The topic of losing or being separated from someone you love can be pretty sensitive, let’s cut the child a break! I personally use some of the rapport (relationship) building questions AND a few “free pass” blocks.”

In regards to the rapport building questions I have included in this post, you obviously wouldn’t use all of the strips for this particular game or you wouldn’t have many blocks left for the separation and loss questions. You can pick and choose which of both sets of questions you would like to use. Or you might also decide to glue two questions onto each Jenga block, with one side having a separation and loss question and the other side including a rapport building question. This is what I choose to do. This way, if a child does feel particularly uncomfortable about answering a separation and loss question, there’s a “back up” question they can choose to answer instead.

Separation & Loss Jenga Question Strips

Relationship Building Jenga Question Strips

Enjoy playing!

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

The Worry Worm Game

Children with anxiety sometimes have a hard time opening up about what they’re worried or anxious about. Enter the worry worms. Worry worms are simply construction (or cardstock) paper worms that look like… well, little worms. I use them in play therapy, but you can easily make your own worms at home and play the worry worm game.

The Game

Worry worms are pretty easy to make. Simply draw or trace a worm onto brown construction paper (or cardstock paper works well too). Make several worms, and cut each of them out. Wa-la! Worry worms! I laminate my worms, simply because this allows me to keep them durable for multiple children to play with.

Next I hide these little guys (the worms) around the room for the child to find. For each worry worm the child finds, they are asked to tell one worried thought they have or have had.

Simple right?

It looks like a game of hide-and-seek to them, but let me tell you what really happens when you play the worry worm game:

  • The child is identifying their worried feelings. This is a huge thing. The mastery of this skill is a major foundation to helping children learn how to cope and regulate their emotions.
  • The child is able to begin tolerating the idea and practice of sharing uncomfortable thoughts out loud because they are motivated by the challenge, reward, and fun of finding the hidden worms.
  • The game itself offers a titrated set of exposures to anxiety producing content that is completed while remaining grounded in the safety of the worm prop.
Have fun playing the worry worm game! Do you have ideas or strategies that you use to help kids talk about their feelings? Please feel free to share in the comments. I’m always looking for new ideas to use in the playroom!


ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

“The Real Game of Life:” A Printable Life Skills Game for Teens

Life skills don’t come particularly easily to everyone. Some teens and young adults, especially those with special needs, have quite a bit of difficulty learning some of the skills they need as they transition into adulthood.

I created the following game – “The Real Game of Life” – for teens to help teach some of the basic life skills that many people take for granted, all the while reinforcing good decision making skills (because, hey, in the real game of life, we’re all forced to make decisions). The game is meant for at least two players, though a couple others may join to play the game too. It is helpful for at least one player to be someone who knows the basic life skills that the cards address, or at least have someone close by on the sidelines in case there are any questions, as well as to judge whether the answers given are adequate or correct.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The Real Game of Life


Materials needed to make “The Real Game of Life” include:
  • Printable “The Real Game of Life” cards, laminated for durability and cut apart
  • Twister game mat
  • 1-2 beanbags
  • Masking tape, optional
Here’s how to prepare and play the game:
Print “The Real Game of Life” cards and laminate and cut each of the cards apart. Then find a Twister game mat. You may have an old game of Twister at home somewhere that no one has played for several years; if not, you can still find the game affordably priced at most department stores. After attaining the Twister game mat, lay the mat out flat on the floor.
Next you will need to place one card on each circle of the game mat, face down. The extra game cards should be placed in a separate pile, easily accessible but away from the game mat. Then assign each column of circles with a point value; if you wish, you can label the columns with their point values on index cards. For instance, column one of the game mat might be worth one point; column two can be worth two points; and so on. Another option is to assign each colored circle with a different point value, with a range of possible scores from one to five. (Obviously, if you choose this option, you’ll want to somehow label the various circles with the points a player can earn if they land on that circle.)
Next, designate a line away from the mat from which to throw the beanbag from. One beanbag is sufficient for the game, though if you happen to have more beanbags, you can give each player his own to use. Designating the line with a line of masking tape could prove beneficial.

Game Play

Decide which player will go first. Each player then takes turns throwing a beanbag onto the mat, aiming for a color circle with a card placed on top of it. If the player lands on a circle with a card, he reads and answers the question card aloud. If the beanbag lands on a white area, the player loses his opportunity to answer a question and earn points until his next turn.
If the player’s answer is adequate or correct, based on the therapist’s opinion (or the opinion of another person knowledgable about the life skills addressed), and requires little or no help, he earns the number of points designated to tht column (or circle) in which his beanbag landed. Then the card is subsequently removed from the game mat. If the player’s answer is not thought to be correct, he is to turn the game card back over so it can be answered later when someone lands on that circle.
If a beanbag lands on a circle that has already had its card removed, no question is asked nor any points earned for that turn, and it then becomes the next player’s turn.
If a player reads the question he draws from the mat aloud and decides that he cannot answer it adequately, he has three opportunities per game to lay the card back onto its designated circle and instead choose from the separate deck of game cards. If that question is answered correctly, the player earns the same number of points for which he would have earned had he answered the original question he landed on from the game mat.
The game ends once all the questions from the mat have been answered. The player with the most points at the end is declared the winner.
For a printable pdf version of “The Real Game of Life’s” instructions, as well as for the printable game questions, look and click below.
Hope you enjoy the game!

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

What is Play Therapy?

“Play therapy is based on the fact that play is the child’s natural medium of self expression. It is an opportunity which is given to the child to ‘play out’ his feelings and problems just as, in certain types of adult therapy, an individual ‘talks out’ his difficulties.”  – Virginia Axline, “Play Therapy”

Sigmund Freud believed he could understand children by watching them play. He was right. According to the Association for Play Therapy’s website, play is the child’s language. Play:
  • Is fun; it’s enjoyable.
  • Elevates our spirits; it brightens our outlook on life.
  • Expands self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization, and self-efficacy.
  • Relieves stress and boredom.
  • Helps us connect to people in a positive way.
  • Stimulates creative thinking and exploration.
  • Regulates our emotions.
  • Boosts our ego.
  • Allows us to practice skills and roles needed for survival.
  • Fosters learning and development.

Photo courtesy of

Play therapy is the child’s mode of communication, for sharing his world, his inner thoughts and feelings, and the meanings that he makes of his experiences of the world. It’s the child’s opportunity to communicate what he can’t as easily put into words. It is child-to-self communication, similar to the way that many adults go over and over a topic that’s bothering them when working with a therapist – in ways that they won’t when thinking about it alone, even if they’re doing it “all the time.” Specially trained mental health professionals use play therapy to help kids express what’s troubling them when they may not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and how they’re feeling. It builds on the natural way that kids learn about themselves and their relationships with the world around them.
The Association for Play Therapy defines play therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychological difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”
In adult therapy, the counselor’s listening and empathic responses help the client work through their problems and gain insight. In play therapy (particularly Child-Centered Play Therapy, or CCPT), with the counselor’s attentive tracking and empathic responses, kids work all the way through their own repetitive, unproductive loops to reach new understandings of their experience, and new decisions of who they want to be and how they want to behave.
Play therapy is used to help kids cope with different emotions and find solutions to problems. By confronting their problems in this setting, kids are able to find healthier solutions.

Who Benefits from Play Therapy?

Everyone can benefit from play therapy, including teenagers and adults! It is especially appropriate for children between the ages of 3 and 12. Play therapy is identified as the treatment of choice in mental health, school, agency, developmental, hospital, residential, and recreational settings with clients of all ages, according to the Association for Play Therapy. As is the case with most therapy modalities used in treating children, it is most effective when a parent/caregiver is also actively involved in the child’s treatment; kids and families heal faster when they work together. The therapist will decide how and when to involve some or all of the child’s family members. At minimum, the therapist will want to communicate regularly with the child’s caregivers to develop an appropriate treatment plan, as well as to identify and monitor progress.

Photo courtesy of

What Issues and Concerns Does Play Therapy Help?

Play therapy is often utilized as the primary intervention or as an adjunctive therapy for multiple social, emotional, and behavioral disorders, including (but not limited to):
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Depressive disorders
  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Oppositional Defiant and Conduct Disorders
  • Anger management
  • Trauma
  • Grief and loss
  • Divorce and family dissolution
  • Academic and/or learning difficulties
  • Social developmental difficulties

How Long is a Play Therapy Session?

Play therapy sessions generally last for 30-50 minutes. For most school-aged children, I frequently allow for 45 minutes per session, once a week. The length of a session is dependent, however, not only on the age of the child, but additional factors as well, such as the child’s attention span and developmental level.
On average, it may take approximately 20 sessions of play therapy before treatment is deemed to be complete. However, this also varies from child to child. Some children require fewer sessions, while more serious or ongoing issues may require more. I ask parents and caregivers to be patient; it may seem sometimes as though all we’re doing is “playing,” but in reality, the child is hard at work.

Photo courtesy of

Who Can Provide Play Therapy?

While many trained clinicians sometimes utilize play techniques in their sessions, the practice of true play therapy requires extensive specialized education, training, and experience. A licensed mental health professional with a Master’s or Doctorate degree must receive advanced, specialized training, experience, and supervision in order to be credentialed by the Association for Play Therapy as a Registered Play Therapist (RPT), Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor (RPT-S), or School-Based Registered Play Therapist (SB-RPT).
I am currently in the process of becoming a Registered Play Therapist (and have been for some time now). This means that I am permitted to practice play therapy while completing my training and required hours of experience while under the supervision of a RPT-S. If you’re interested in play therapy for your child (or even for yourself!), please contact Creative Resilience Counseling at 304-292-4050 or by contacting me on the website’s Contact page. I look forward to working with you and your child!
For more information about play therapy, check out the Association for Play Therapy’s website!
ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

Batman in the Playroom: Using Superheroes to Heal

What if I told you that Batman is my security guard, my protector, my hero?  My superhero?  Would you think I was crazy?  Or perhaps that maybe I was joking? I’m speaking only truth.  He helps me learn new ways of looking at things.  He helps me solve the problems I face.  And he shields me from the villains that might be lurking around in the shadows.

Villains?  Yes.  Villains.  You know, the ones outside of my cozy little therapy room?  The villains.  The bully who picks on me.  The man who lives down the street and scares me and gives me goosebumps every time I pass by on my bike in front of his house.  My mom, who hits me until she blacks out.   Those villains.  The villains we all encounter in some way at different points in our lives in the real world.  The ones who frighten us.  The ones who seem a lot more powerful than us.  The villains. 

But don’t worry about me because I’ve got Batman to protect me.  And Superman, the Incredible Hulk, and Wonder Woman too.  They get me through it all.  To you, they might look like just toys, but to me, they’re like my best friends, and best of all, they teach me how I can be a superhero too…

Superhero Child

Play and Children

I don’t think that there’s any question that children love to play.  Spend fifteen minutes with a child, and you will likely catch a glimpse into an entirely different world, one that is magical and, truthfully, a lot more fun.  What could a child possibly love more than play?!  Well, there actually is something…. They really love it when a grown-up joins in and plays with them!

It turns out that play has even more benefits than just being fun. It actually has a purpose!

“In their play, children repeat everything that has made a great impression on them in real life, and that in doing so, they abstract the strength of the impression and make themselves a master of the situation.” -Sigmund Freud.

Play, especially fantasy play, is a safe way for children to express their emotions, to figure out the confusing things that they’re experiencing, and sometimes to even distance themselves from what are otherwise very painful situations. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who contributed a great deal in the field of developmental psychology, regarded fantasy play as a window into a child’s under’s understanding of their current reality, of which they’re able to “experiment with competencies and understandings beyond the constraints of their intellect and experience.”

Maybe this will help: As grown-ups, we often use metaphors to help us understand things (concepts) more completely and to help us gain insight into the many situations we encounter in our day to day lives.  A metaphor is simply a figure of speech containing an implied comparison, one in which a word or phrase is applied to an object (or action) to which it isn’t literally applicable. “All the world’s a stage” is likely a metaphor that you have heard.

What metaphors do for us, fantasy does for a child.  Most of us have probably watched a young child as she transforms her building blocks into a fast and exciting train. Or perhaps you’ve seen the family cat magically imagined to become a terrifying tiger in the jungle! Metaphors help us, as humans, generate various possible solutions to the problems we face.  They help to provide those “light bulb” moments of insight.  This is what play does for children!

Calling All Superheroes!

Enter Batman.  Superman and the Incredible Hulk too.  Invite all the superheroes.  And don’t forget the villains!

The Joker

Yep. They’re all invited to my play therapy room.  They come so they can help teach children how to their own superhero and how to identify the superheroes in their own lives.  (Not all heroes wear capes, after all.)  They teach kids how to use their superpowers to defeat the villains they may encounter. They help kids work through their own adversity, and they do it all in a safe, non-threatening, and playful way.

You see, within each of us (children included) lies a number of superpowers that we often don’t know are even there.  One such superpower is strength.  Inner strength.  Superheroes are able to help teach children that.  Superheroes have the power to heal the hearts that have been broken and the spirits that have shattered.  Superheroes help the child being bullied in the school hallways.  They help teach children how to solve problems and look for solutions. They teach courage to the child who has to go to court to testify against his abuser.  They give children the opportunity to learn that they too can fight any villain they encounter throughout life – that good really can overcome evil.

Why Superheroes?

Calling All Superheroes!There’s something about superheroes that many kids can relate to, whether they’re in therapy or not.  Here are some things about superheroes that I myself never realized until I started exploring using superhero therapy:

  • The superhero has often experienced some type of early childhood traumatization.
    • Superman was separated from his parents and sent to a completely different planet.
    • Spiderman was adopted and raised by his aunt and uncle.
    • Batman was orphaned after his parents were brutally murdered.
  • Most superheroes grow up without his or her biological parents.
  • The classic American superhero generally comes from outside of the community he or she is called to serve, though he may reside therein.
  • The superhero is outcasted from society in some way.
  • Every superhero was faced with with adversities and failures in their childhood that only continued as they aged on their road to super heroism.  Yet, somehow and in some way, they were able to survive and ultimately rise.
  • The superhero’s motivation is a selfless zeal for justice.
  • When faced with adversities, the superhero finds answers in vigilantism and restoring justice.
  • The superhero, though on a mission of personal vengeance, unites this vengeance with a consuming love of impartial injustice.
  • To do what he (or she) does requires superhuman powers and the inability to suffer fatal injury.

Can you see why some children feel such great connection with superheroes?  Simply put, they can relate to these super figures.  The children I see in therapy are frequently those who, just like their superhero friends, have also faced significant adversities and challenges in their young lives. Some  have faced traumatic events; some have trouble coping with anxiety or have been beaten down with depression.  There are kids who have been outcasted by their peers at school and others who have suffered at the hands (or hurtful, hateful words) of a bully.  And there are children who feel invisible to the world around them and may even be behaving in ways in attempt to find someone who cares enough to pay attention.

Regardless of the challenge, regardless of the adversities these children have endured, it can be guaranteed that there’s a superhero out there who has faced something similar.

When superheroes and children “meet,” kids are suddenly given an ally in the world; they find a friend.  They realize that they’re not alone. There’s finally someone to validate how they feel.  Children become empowered by the new knowledge that they too can overcome, that even they have superpowers. And most importantly, they learn that they can be a superhero too.  And isn’t that something we hope all children have the opportunity to realize?

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

My Favorite “Non-Therapeutic” Games… Perfection

Perfection game photoPlaying games in therapy is one of my most favorite things to do in my profession as a therapist.  Children especially enjoy game play, as they also like having a willing opponent in which to play games.  In my practice, I use specialty therapeutic games, which are games that are specifically created and designed to address particular mental health issues and challenges (e.g., impulse control, positive thinking, etc.), as well as traditional board and card games that you can purchase at a department store (e.g., UNO, CandyLand, etc.).  I call this latter group of games “non-therapeutic” because they were not specifically designed to be used as therapeutic techniques in mental health.  The truth is that regardless of whether a game is specifically designed with a therapeutic purpose in mind or not, ANY game can be made to have therapeutic value in my playroom.

I’ve explored various techniques that I use with the games Jenga, Find It, and Sorry! in previous posts.  In this post I’m going to show you the therapeutic value of the classic game Perfection with children who have difficulty with focus, attention, and concentration and those who need to develop more effective problem-solving skills and appropriate coping strategies.  Perfection is an excellent game to help with all these things!

How to Play Perfection

The object of the game Perfection is to fit all the shapes into their matching holes in the game tray.  Pictured in this post is the travel edition of Perfection, which includes 16 shapes, but the original game actually has 25 shapes that you have to fit.

To set the game up, the player spreads the shape pieces next to the game tray so that he or she can easily access the pieces.  It helps if all of the handles are facing up, though if you’re looking for the added challenge, leave the shapes as they are.  Then the player sets the timer (on the game tray) so that they have 60 seconds of time to complete their task (for the travel edition of this game, the timer will be set to 30 seconds as there are fewer shape pieces).

Next the player simply presses down on the game unit’s pop-up tray and starts the timer.  The player then has to quickly fit the shapes into their matching holes.  If he or she finishes before the timer runs out, they should quickly turn the timer off; their turn is over and they have successfully completed their task (they win!).  If he or she DOES NOT finish before the timer runs out, the tray will pop up and scatter the shapes all over (and nearly scare you both to death in the process!).

How to  Make Perfection Therapeutic

Perfection is played no differently in therapy than how it is played regularly.  When I first introduce the game to a child, I teach them how to play and let them play two or three times without any intervention from me.  During this independent game play, I observe the child’s behaviors:  Does the child become easily frustrated?  How does the child handle the stress and frustration of trying to beat the timer?  Is this method effective for them?  How well are they able to concentrate and focus?  Are they easily distracted?  More likely than not, you will find that most kids get in such a hurry to beat the timer that they actually decrease their efficiency of successfully completing the task due to their inability to remain calm and focus on the task itself.

After the observation phase, I discuss my observations with the child.  I then prompt him or her to brainstorm ways to improve, offering suggestions such as slowing down, remaining calm, using deep breathing techniques, and staying focused.  I then role play these new techniques with the child while they play the game again (and sometimes, again and again).

Soon you (and the child) will see visible improvement in their efficiency in completing the game’s task.  The goal, whether achieved that day or a few sessions down the road, is for the child to be able to utilize effective and appropriate coping and problem solving skills during game play, as well as in real life situations that he or she may encounter.  For this reason, it is important to process and even role play these new skills and how they can be utilized in various life situations, such as when taking a test in school.  It’s remarkable how easily kids will remember their new skills all because they played the game Perfection!


ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

My Favorite “Non-Therapeutic” Games… Find It

Find It GameI love using games in therapy, and kids love playing games in therapy!  Last week I posted about the use of the Jenga game as a therapeutic intervention during counseling sessions.  It’s an excellent resource for just about any topic or skill that you’re trying to teach to kids, adolescents, and adults alike.  I use a number of games in therapy sessions, both therapeutic and “non-therapeutic.”  The difference between the two is what their intent and purpose was when the game makers created them.  “Non-therapeutic” games are simply those that you can find at your local department store in the game aisle, like Candy Land, Jenga, and Operation, but in my experience, ANY game, regardless of its intent during creation, can be made therapeutic.  Today’s game can be found in both therapy resource catalogs AND the game aisle.

Find It as a Therapeutic Intervention

Find It, like Jenga, is another one of my favorite “non-therapeutic” games to use as a therapeutic intervention with children and adolescents.  Find It is a classic I Spy game that comes in a nice sturdy cylindrical container filled with miscellaneous small objects to find (e.g., a rubber band, an eraser, a feather, etc.) that are hidden in a colorful array of beads, pebbles, or dried rice (depending on which version of Find It that you choose).  I primarily use the game with children and teens that I’m treating for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or who have other issues in which they have difficulty with focus and attention.  I use the game to help improve their concentration and focus, as well as to informally assess their distress tolerance.  The object of the game is simple:  Find as many objects from an included list as you can.  You can do this activity timed or take as long as you need.

The first time I give a child the Find It game during session, I collect baseline data by setting a time limit (for example, 10 or 15 minutes) and assess how many objects they can find within that given time frame.  The game itself includes a small notepad checklist, so we mark each item off as it is found.  I write down the time limit I give the child (whether it was 10 or 15 minutes) and the number of objects found, and then I put the information in the child’s file so I can access it in future sessions.

How Often to Use Find It in Session

We play the game intermittently; the next time we play the game is generally a few sessions after I’ve collected the initial baseline data.  The sessions in between are spent doing other focus improving activities in order to help the child develop his or her skills.  When we play the game again, I give the child the same time limit as before.  Again the child is asked to perform the same task:  Find as many objects as possible before time is up.  The objects are never in the same place as they were initially, as each movement of the container shakes and jumbles the objects around.  I record the data afterward, just as I did the first time the child played.  This time I’m looking to assess whether the child’s scores (number of objects found in a given time) have improved as a result of our working on their focus, concentration, and attention span.

Find It as a Tool to Improve Distress Tolerance

Find It also allows me to see how a child tolerates the distress and frustration that comes with sometimes having difficulty finding the small objects.  During game play, if a child is becoming noticeably distressed, I teach coping and self-regulation methods that they can use to slow down and bring their focus back to the game again.  Between sessions, we will work on improving the child’s distress tolerance and learning effective coping skills to help handle frustration.

How Long to Use the Find It Game

I generally give the child the Find It game and assess their focus once every few sessions until I see that their scores have significantly improved and/or their distress tolerance is handled appropriately on a consistent basis.  Once I see that the child has improved, we put the game away, though the child usually ends up getting it out at the beginning or end of future sessions as a transition activity.


ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

My Favorite “Non-Therapeutic” Games… Jenga

Jenga photoGames are wonderful to use in therapy, especially with kids!  I utilize a number of games in therapy sessions, both therapeutic and “non-therapeutic,” the difference being what their intent and purpose was when the game makers created them.  “Non-therapeutic” games are those that you can find at your local department store and find in the game aisle, like Scrabble, Monopoly, and Battleship.  In my experience, ANY game, regardless of its intent during creation, can be therapeutic.  I’ve taken many, many “non-therapeutic” games and turned them into awesome therapeutic interventions in therapy.  The results are always amazing.  Kids love that they’re playing a game, and they don’t even mind that I may have changed it up a little.  My next few posts will be about some of my most favorite “non-therapeutic” games to play in therapy.

Therapeutic Jenga

Jenga is a gem!  I have used Jenga hundreds of times as a therapeutic intervention.  The game can be used in so many ways and with practically any topic you think of.  Additionally, I’ve found that I can use Jenga with any age group:  children, adolescents, and even adults!

When I first started using Jenga, I would write various tasks and questions based on the skill I was trying to teach on the individual wooden blocks.  This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it didn’t take long before I had spent a small fortune on Jenga games.  If you walk into my office, you’ll find several Jenga games, each covering different topics and for different age groups, all created before I eventually realized that it was significantly more cost effective to just purchase one Jenga game, color code the blocks with stickers or markers, and create prompt and task cards to use instead.  You can create your own Therapeutic Jenga any way you wish, but if you plan to use the game for several different skill teachings, I’d advise the latter method.

Therapeutic Jenga is played by following the game’s original game instructions, regardless of what topic or skill is being taught.  Simply color code your individual blocks with various colored stickers or by using different colored markers prior to play.  Have color coded task/prompt and/or question cards prepared as well.  During game play, a task card is drawn according to the color code on the block that is plucked from the tower.  The person who picks the block is the one who answers or completes the question/prompt.  Just for fun, I intentionally leave a few of the blocks blank (with no color code), which are used as free passes, meaning there’s no question/prompt to complete – the kids and teens especially love when they choose one of these!

What therapeutic skills can be taught using Therapeutic Jenga?

Among other topics, I’ve used Therapeutic Jenga for rapport building, reinforcing positive relationship skills, social skills, teaching emotion identification and expression, communication techniques, anxiety reduction, impulse control, and even to teach all ages how to dispute irrational self-talk.  I’m yet to witness even one person complain about not wanting to play Therapeutic Jenga.  It’s a game that is always met with an excited and receptive attitude!

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