Play therapy playrooms are as unique as play therapists! However, there are a few play therapy toy categories that many play therapists try to make sure are represented in their rooms. These categories will vary according to the therapeutic orientation of the play therapist, the population served, budget, office space, and other factors. Despite these differences, however, there are some general guidelines that can help play therapists from all walks of the profession.
Play therapy is a unique and powerful form of therapeutic intervention that provides a safe and nurturing space for individuals, particularly children, to express their emotions, heal from past traumas, and develop important life skills. At the heart of play therapy is a diverse array of toys and tools designed to encourage creative and emotional expression.
As Garry Landreth wrote, “Toys are children’s words, and play is their language” (Landreth, 2002, p. 132). Because we want children to express themselves fully, it makes sense that we need a variety of toys to increase their “vocabulary.”
Some general play therapy toys:
- Creative Items
Without a theoretical framework or other guide to follow, selecting playroom toys can seem like an unorganized process. It can also feel never-ending. Without a framework, when does one know when they have “enough?” (To be honest, some of us never feel quite done, but that is another blog post–likely on sand tray miniatures specifically.)
A theoretically oriented list of play therapy toy categories might look like this (child-centered play therapy):
- Nurturing: Babies, bottles, blankets, stuffies
- Aggressive: swords, bobo bag, toy swords, snakes, sharks
- Real Life: Firetruck, food, cash register, dollhouse, school
- Expressive arts: Paints, paper, dress-up, mirror
It might also look like this (Adlerian play therapy):
- Family/nurturing toys
- Scary toys
- Aggressive toys
- Expressive toys
- Pretend/Fantasy toys
You likely noticed some overlap between these lists. Other lists might include items that specifically invite touch and feeding (attachment play therapy) or expression of aggressive energy (Gestalt play therapy). No matter which theory guides you, it is important to also consider including toys in the playroom that invite the utilization of the powers of play therapy as well as the various play therapy themes.
If you are working with younger children and/or traumatized children, you might want to make sure you include sensory-based toys. Sensory-based toys may be developmentally appropriate for your client base. They may also be helpful in grounding children and teens who have experienced trauma.
Unique Reflection of YOU
As written above, your playroom is going to be a unique expression of you and the clients you serve. If you are like most of us, no matter what you have in your playroom, you will likely come across a client with an issue that inspires you to purchase or create something new to reflect their particular life experience or family culture.
In addition to the items mentioned above, you might also consider:
Puppet and Animal Figures
Puppets and animal figures are instrumental in externalizing emotions and experiences. These symbolic tools allow clients to project their feelings onto the puppet or animal, engaging in dialogues and role-play scenarios that provide insight into their inner thoughts and emotions. Puppet therapy often helps build rapport between the client and therapist, making it easier for the client to express themselves.
Board Games and Card Games
Board games and card games provide structured play activities that can assist in skill development. These games foster decision-making, problem-solving, and cooperation, all of which are crucial life skills. Therapists can use them to address specific therapeutic goals, such as anger management, social skills, and self-esteem building.
Sand and Water Play
Sand and water play, commonly associated with sand tray therapy and water play therapy, are essential elements of play therapy. A sandbox or water table filled with sand or water, along with a variety of miniature objects, allows clients to create scenes and stories using symbolism. This category offers a non-verbal means of expression and has proven highly effective in addressing trauma, anxiety, and emotional challenges.
Books and Storytelling
Storytelling and the use of related materials like picture books, story cubes, and storytelling cards can encourage clients to create and share their own narratives. These tools enable clients to externalize their experiences and emotions through storytelling, which can be particularly helpful in helping them understand and process complex feelings.
Musical Instruments and Sound Toys
The use of musical instruments and sound toys, such as drums, shakers, xylophones, and more, is a wonderful way to encourage emotional expression and provide an outlet for creative communication. Clients can use these instruments to create their own melodies or rhythms, offering yet another avenue for self-expression and healing.
Play therapy toy categories provide a rich and versatile set of tools and materials to support healing and self-expression within a therapeutic context. Each category serves a distinct purpose, aiding clients of all ages to explore their emotions, develop coping strategies, and navigate their experiences. The selection of toys depends on the unique needs and therapeutic goals of each client, as play therapists carefully assess and adapt their approach to create a safe and effective space for personal growth and emotional healing. These categories exemplify the depth and breadth of play therapy, underscoring its capacity to help individuals express themselves and find healing through the universal language of play.
Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (3rd ed.). New York: Taylor & Francis Books.