Self-expression is a crucial aspect of healing through play, particularly for children, where fun activities release dopamine, providing enjoyment, focus, and the motivation to complete tasks.
Play therapy can be helpful as a treatment for all ages. Therapy games are valuable in supporting older children and adults as they work through events and issues from earlier developmental stages (O’Connor et al., 2016).
As a result, play has the potential to strengthen therapeutic bonds, break down barriers in individual and group sessions, and practice the skills learned in therapy.
This article identifies therapy games that you can use inside and outside treatment to help children and adults heal.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will provide you with detailed insight into positive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and give you the tools to apply it in your therapy or coaching.
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3 Best Therapy Games for Adults & Kids
Mental health professionals use therapy games with clients to have fun and establish a strong therapeutic relationship between therapist and client and amongst group members (Hill, 2016).
While games typically involve some degree of contest between players, play is often unrestricted and unstructured. Yet both have the potential to build engagement and be enjoyable for adults and children (Hill, 2016).
Playing games is incredibly valuable because it is familiar to all groups and all ages, helping clients learn to (Hill, 2016):
- Relax and become more open and less inhibited
- Win and lose gracefully, building on social skills
- Become better at reading social cues and comprehend pragmatic language
- Practice self-control, self-expression, not giving up, communication, and using rules and strategies
- Improve cognitive skills such as planning, organizing information, and developing working memory
While therapy games can be created specifically for the therapy or treatment, they can also be store-bought, ‘real’ games adapted for therapeutic use (O’Connor et al., 2016; Drewes, 2009).
The following are a sample of games that therapists have found valuable, along with potential uses and interpretations (Hill, 2016; O’Connor et al., 2016; Gruzewski & Choi, 2020).
This popular and inexpensive game uses colorful cards that are simpler than a regular deck of playing cards. On each round, the player either adds a card to their hand if they cannot match the number or color of the upper card on the deck or discards one if they can. The aim is to get rid of all their cards.
Uno is a fun game that even young children can play (they can join forces with an adult if they wish), learning about strategies and pattern matching, developing their communication skills, and coping with losing.
Find it on Amazon.
2. Celebrating successes
Often, we focus on the negatives that happen in life, and yet it is crucial that we learn to celebrate our successes.
- Begin by placing five horizontal lines of tape in front of the players.
- Discuss with the group or family the importance of recognizing our wins. Give time for each person to think of and share a recent success and why it was important.
- When individuals share a win, they can jump over the tape and move forward to the next section.
- If the group (or family) is sufficiently small, they can take turns so that they each approach the same line before progressing to the next.
- Once at the end, reward them. It could be a simple certificate, family hug, or a round of applause.
Remind the group that wins can look different for each person, but they are all equally important and deserve focus and attention.
3. Future worries
While we may feel stressed about the present, we are often also anxious about what is yet to happen.
Explain to the individual or group that how we think about the future can cause us to feel anxious and stressed, or calm and controlled.
Explore how it is helpful to identify what is inside and outside our control.
Then, ask them to do the following:
- Take a piece of paper and draw four columns, labeling them tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year.
- Spend a little time thinking about each one and the cause of stress in each time period.
- Next, review the lists and underline (or highlight) anything that can be controlled.
- For each of them, list three things that can be done to take control and reduce stress.
Remind the group that there are no right or wrong answers.
Put everyone’s lists together and discuss how things that appear out of control can sometimes be brought under control or why it is sometimes necessary to accept them as they are.
Top 2 Games for Toddlers
Games can be an excellent opportunity to discuss feelings with young children.
Due to their age, they may need help and support with each of the following games so that they don’t fail (Mehlomakulu, 2012).
1. Chutes and Ladders (Snakes and Ladders)
In this family favorite even with young children, each player rolls a die and moves their piece to see if they go up a ladder or down a slide. Use the ups to discuss things that have left the child feeling happy and the downs to talk about something that has made them feel sad.
This is a game of skill and balance, where pulling the wrong piece from the precarious pile could lead to everything toppling over. While a great chance to foster a sound and fun relationship with young children, it can also be used to talk about what it feels like when things go well and when things go badly.
2 Games for Group Sessions
Games work particularly well in group therapy, where they can serve as icebreakers and opportunities to learn new skills (O’Connor et al., 2016).
The following are a sample of practical group activities and games.
1. Juggling thoughts
This valuable group activity reflects on the importance of mindfulness and staying in the present to avoid distraction from mental chatter (Gruzewski & Choi, 2020):
- Ask the group to stand in a small circle facing one another.
- Hand the nearest person in the circle an object and ask the group to keep passing it from one to another quickly.
- Keep adding objects to the circle.
- Pause after a few minutes and explain that the objects represent mental chatter – the ongoing inner conversations we all experience.
- Begin again, moving objects between people more quickly.
- After a few more minutes, ask them to slow down.
- Explain that mindfulness does just that; it slows down the mental chatter helping us focus.
Discuss within the group what it felt like when the “chatter” was coming fast, how it felt when things slowed down, and how mindfulness could be helpful.
2. Identifying self-talk
Small groups can be a useful and practical environment for exploring the positive and negative messages we tell ourselves (Gruzewski & Choi, 2020).
- Discuss with the group how self-talk can transform our internal dialogue, having either a positive or negative effect, particularly on our self-esteem and mood.
- Give each person ten sticky notes or pieces of paper and a pencil. Ask them to write down an example of self-talk (helpful or unhelpful) on each one.
- While they are doing this task, label three wastebaskets: positive, negative, and neutral.
- Once finished, ask them to share each example of self-talk, crumple it, throw it into the appropriate wastebasket, and explain why it should go there.
- Cycle between each person until all the notes are read aloud.
If preferred, give participants scores for the number of ‘hits’ they get. And if someone misses, they can try again with their next piece of paper.
Discuss common types of self-talk and how becoming more aware could improve how they feel each day within the group.
3 Family and Couples Therapy Games
The following games include one mindfulness activity that can be used to help slow the pace down either before or after games, especially if tensions are running high.
1. Clouds in the sky
This exercise offers a practical approach for mindfulness skills (Gruzewski & Choi, 2020):
- Explain to the couple or family that mindful awareness of our thoughts, emotions, and feelings can help us avoid behaving in ways we later regret.
- Ask them to take a few deep breaths, then picture a deep blue sky.
- Tell them that as other thoughts interrupt this mental image, imagine placing them on a cloud and letting them float by. They can then return to their mental picture of the blue sky.
- Remind the group that these clouds are not who they are; they represent thoughts passing through.
- Keep going for approximately five minutes, gently reminding them to use the clouds to let go of thoughts and return their focus.
After the exercise has finished, ask them to reflect on how knowing that thoughts and emotions are just temporary changes our perspective.
2. Icebreaker questions
When relationships are going through difficult times, it can be tough to begin to talk, even in therapy. These fun icebreaker questions can help lighten the mood and break down barriers (Shuy, 2021):
What funny story have you never told the other person?
What embarrassing story would you like to share?
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Who was your best friend as a child?
3. Trust fall
Trust is vital in any relationship; building a fun activity around it can lead to breakthroughs in communication (Shuy, 2021).
In this exercise, one person stands up straight, closes their eyes, and falls backward. The trust element is that the person behind will catch them safely, but first, it takes courage.
A Look at Board and Online Games
Board games are often undervalued and underutilized in therapeutic play and yet, according to research, can be great icebreakers, help with education, encourage fun, and form stronger connections (O’Connor et al., 2016).
The use of board games in treatment can often be either therapist or client led and helps develop mastery while learning frustration tolerance and coping and strategic skills, improving social communication, and building rapport (O’Connor et al., 2016).
Typical board games and their uses include the following (Hill, 2016; O’Connor et al., 2016; EduKate & Inspire, 2021):
As with the popular TV show, in this board game, players must guess a word or phrase to win a round.
The game helps build therapeutic relationships and is valuable for anyone, especially children, who finds it difficult to express themselves (such as those on the autism spectrum).
Even if players don’t know the words, they are typically able to guess the syllables, and the game encourages flexibility in thinking. Playing without the timer may reduce anxiety and make for a more inclusive game that can help when observing family or group dynamics.
Find it on Amazon.
This easy-to-learn game can be played with children and adults. Players race to acquire sets of cards based on colors, shapes, numbers, and shading, with the winner calling out ‘set’ once done.
The game encourages and develops pattern-matching skills and uses working memory. It is incredibly useful with clients who have attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum traits, and older clients with cognitive difficulties (Hill, 2016).
Find it on Amazon.
3. Virtual sand play
Online play can be particularly beneficial for engaging younger children and creating a fun and relaxing environment.
Children, especially younger ones, usually love playing with sand. This online sand play activity is a great way to build rapport and offer the chance for the child to relax, express themselves, and explore various situations and scenarios. This free tool is excellent for virtual counseling, where the client can share their screen with the therapist giving prompts to direct their play (EduKate & Inspire, 2021).
4. Marble jar
For groups of children of all ages, this wonderful online tool creates a visual representation of marbles being placed in a jar. Marbles can represent acquisition and learning of a wide range of skills, such as participation, coping, acts of kindness, and naming feelings.
10 Helpful Occupational Therapy Games
Occupational therapy games that teach fine motor skills, balance, cognitive, or sensory skills can be valuable for the young, old, and those recovering from treatment.
Most of the games do not require expensive or difficult-to-source equipment (if anything) yet include equipment and materials common in many houses, for example (Gwen, n.d.):
- Jump rope
- Drawing and coloring
- Finger painting
- Nontoxic slime
- Playing with modeling clay
- Blowing bubbles
- Blowing up balloons
- Animal walking
A Note on Video Game Therapy
“Emerging research suggests that commercial, off-the-shelf video games have potential applications in preventive and therapeutic medicine” (Colder Carras et al., 2018, p. 1).
With 40% of the US population playing video games, there is enormous potential to use their obvious draw for therapeutic purposes. It may even be possible to incorporate interventions that promote mental and physical health into existing games (Colder Carras et al., 2018).
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many resources available for therapists planning to use games in therapy for healing through play.
Free resources include:
- Empathy Bingo
This game can be played in group therapy or by an individual on their own and is designed to help players differentiate between empathy and other responses.
- What I Want to Be
Before learning new coping skills and ways to behave, it can be helpful for the child to describe the type of person they want to be (such as well-behaved, happy, and without worries) versus who they don’t want to be (such as angry, worried, and naughty).
- Assertive Message Role-Play
This role-play helps clients learn how assertive messages state their needs, opinions, and ideas honestly and respectfully.
- Nonverbal Mood-Spotting Game
This game is a fun way to engage children or adults in using their nonverbal spotting and communication.
More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:
- Passengers on the Bus Group Activity
The passengers on the bus metaphor is a powerful experiential exercise to help clients practice allowing distressing thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, and urges to emerge while choosing how to act in line with their values.
- Three Funny Things
Individuals write down three funny things at the end of every day (usually for a couple of weeks) and explain why those things happened.
17 Positive CBT Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others through CBT, check out this collection of 17 validated positive CBT tools for practitioners. Use them to help others overcome unhelpful thoughts and feelings and develop more positive behaviors.
A Take-Home Message
Games and play are typically fun for all involved. They provide valuable opportunities for growing relationships individually with the therapist or in group settings, including couples and family therapy.
Such activities break down social barriers. They release chemicals to our body and brain that boost how we feel, putting us in a better place for rethinking problems, obstacles, and challenges and making us more receptive to positive mindsets.
While they may seem the domain of children, games can also offer adults the benefit of having fun and practicing social, communication, and problem-solving skills in a safe and restricted environment where making mistakes has few consequences.
Games and play can come in many different forms: online games, well-known board games, or ones created for a specific therapeutic purpose. Therapists can use them with clients to have fun, develop bonds, reduce inhibition, or increase client confidence as they recognize their ability to address and solve situations.
Healing through play can be performed at any point during treatment, perhaps to add lightness near the end of a difficult session or to lower barriers created by previous hurt. The skilled therapist will find the right time and activity through awareness and practice to meet the client’s needs.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free.
- Colder Carras, M., Van Rooij, A. J., Spruijt-Metz, D., Kvedar, J., Griffiths, M. D., Carabas, Y., & Labrique, A. (2018). Commercial video games as therapy: A new research agenda to unlock the potential of a global pastime. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 8.
- Drewes, A. A. (2009). Blending play therapy with cognitive behavioral therapy: Evidence-based and other effective treatments and techniques. Wiley.
- EduKate & Inspire. (2021, January 3). Free games and tools for virtual counseling. Confident Counselors. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://confidentcounselors.com/2021/01/03/free-games-and-tools-for-virtual-counseling/
- Gruzewski, K., & Choi, A. (2020). Therapy games for teens: 150 activities to improve self-esteem, communication, and coping skills. Rockridge Press.
- Gwen. (n.d.) Learning through play: 56 Occupational therapy activities and tips for kids. Meraki Lane. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://www.merakilane.com/occupational-therapy-activities-and-tips-for-kids/
- Hill, M. D. (2016). Using popular games therapeutically. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 51(2), 22–28.
- Mehlomakulu, C. (2012, September 24). Feelings games. Creativity in Therapy. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://creativityintherapy.com/2012/09/feelings-games/
- O’Connor, K. J., Schaefer, C. E., & Braverman, L. D. (2016). Handbook of play therapy. John Wiley & Sons.
- Shuy, M. (2021, February). 26 Must-try couples therapy exercises and activities. CleverMemo. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://clevermemo.com/blog/en/couples-therapy-exercises-activities/
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What our readers think
I really like the idea of using games to help people heal. I think it’s so important that we find new ways to engage with people and encourage them to be social, which is something that can be difficult for those who are struggling with mental health issues.