Using Superheroes in Play Therapy

family-books-superhero-leadWe all have our superheroes especially because superheroes have the ability to inspire, empower, support and occasionally save us. Sometimes, superheroes help us to save ourselves.

I have already penned some articles about the magical technique of Superhero Therapy, and how the concept of superheroes can be used in different psychotherapeutic approaches to support people who are in distress. However, that exploration was mainly about how we might use superheroes with adults in therapy.

What about using superheroes for children?

Many of the points that stand for adults are true for children. Thinking about superheroes – their lives, adventures, challenges, friends, powers and weaknesses – can provide a range of creative ways of working. This might include problem solving, being kinder to oneself, hearing stories of triumph over adversity, working out what one’s own superpowers are, and finding strength.

The narratives that children tell about superheroes might lead us to understand what they are trying to ‘work through’ (e.g. do they focus on battles, sex and sexuality, people being saved, when things go wrong, when the superhero has to lie about their true identity?). We might also wonder who the child identifies with (sidekick, superhero, police chief, villain), and whether the characters of which they speak represent either feelings, themselves, or other people in their lives.

However, one of the main differences between adult and child therapies is the difference in how playing is used as part of therapy. The organisation Play Therapy UK suggests that around 8/10 children with severe problems, such as emotional or behavioural difficulties, will show positive change after play therapeutic interventions.

Engaging in play, fantasy, and the realm of the imaginary can also make it easier to access and talk about difficult topics. In some ways, this may particularly true for younger people who don’t have the words, experience and knowledge to talk about things directly. Although, being an adult and having more experience is no guarantee that it will be easier to talk about things. Roleplays could be used to help children and their families take different perspectives, and understand each other differently.

Psychodynamic play therapy may simply be allowing a child to play with anything from a box of toys. This could (and probably should) include characters such as superheroes. Commenting on how the child chooses to play, without the therapist actively directing their play, can lead to useful insights about a child’s wellbeing due to the themes and ideas that occur during such play.

Children and young people may also use sandplay – arranging toys and items within the confines of a sandbox, to represent their inner states of mind. The work of Dora Kalff is cited in both the American and British-Irish sandplay organisations – her work is based on Jungian principles that the unconscious will guide the play. Of course, this is not restricted to children and young people, but sandplay is certainly a useful way to reach children particularly.

Filial therapy is one branch of play therapy, which focuses on the relationships. Parents (or caregivers) are seen as the main agents of change, and the sessions are often led by them. The therapist supports the parent in using skills that are similar to nondirective play therapy. The scope for using superheroes here is huge. Superhero narratives can support parents to understand and frame their children’s feelings, or it may be a way for parents and children to find something that they have in common. Using superhero-based toys may also open up a range of potential narratives to parent and child, as described above.

Theraplay®, another type of play work with children, “is a child and family therapy for building and enhancing attachment, self-esteem, trust in others, and joyful engagement”. Play tasks have particular aims, and they are designed to develop particular skillsets whilst being fun for all. Theraplay® involves children playing games – with their families – which tap into challenge, structure, shared engagement and nurturing. Children’s favourite superheroes could be incorporated into how the tasks are explained to the child, or superhero-themed items such as soft toys, bubbles etc. could be used as part of the play.

Attachment-Based Play Therapy (ABPT) is a different (less researched) approach, which focuses on teaching children how to feel and experience emotion. It suggests that children should learn how to be accepting of feelings, become able to ‘attach’ to themselves, and take care of themselves from a position of compassion and kindness. In this way, superheroes could be used during play to teach a child how to express and accept their feelings. Examples could be drawn from how superheroes look after themselves, or what the person would say to their favourite hero if that person was sad or distressed.

In conclusion, superheroes have an important place in work with children and young people. Superheroes can fit pretty much anywhere depending on the person and the therapist. For younger people, superheroes can particularly serve to be role models, relatable characters, characters through which a young person can parallel their own experiences, and of course a way to build a rapport with their therapist. With these insights, perhaps more of us can go forth and prosper with the youngsters with whom we work.

Create Your Own Sensory Balls (aka “Stress Balls”)

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  • Water bottle (the small 8 oz ones are the perfect size)
  • Funnel (optional)
  • 2 Balloons
  • ~1/2 cup filler material (see below)
  • Scissors


Step 1: Fill the Bottle

  • Provide lots of options for sensory substances to select from (corn starch, flour, salt, rice, quinoa, gel, etc.)  My favorite are the soft fillers.
  • Then fill the small bottle half way (a funnel is sometimes helpful).

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Step 2: Blow Up Balloon

  • Blow up the balloon while practicing slow, deep breaths.
  • For children that are working on controlling anger, this is also a good time to teach the “anger-balloon analogy.”
  • One person pinches along the base of the neck (as to not let out the air too soon), while the other secures the balloon to the top of the water bottle.


Step 3: Fill The Balloon

  • Pick up the bottle and flip it upside-down to fill the balloon.
  • Then pinch the balloon’s neck and  remove it from the rim of the bottle.
  • Alternatively, instead of blowing up the balloon and using a water bottle, you could put the funnel directly into the balloon (this is a little difficult if you want a larger ball)

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Step 4: Let the Air Out

  • Pinch the neck and let the air out very slowly.  If you do it too fast then the filling may fly out (especially if you are using a soft material like cornstarch or flour).
  • Squeeze out all of the remaining air.  If there is still air inside when the balloon is tied, the second balloon will not go on correctly.
  • If the ball is not your desired size, you can blow a little more air into the balloon and put it back on the bottle to dump more filler in or out.


Step 5: Secure The Balloon

  • Run your fingers down the neck of the balloon to push down any filling.
  • Then tie off the end of the balloon.  At this point you can be finished if you don’t mind your stress ball looking clearly like a balloon, or use a second balloon to create a rounder/sleeker look and make a rupture less likely.
  • Cut off the balloon’s tail, just above the knot.
  • Cut the neck off balloon 2 (red in the photo below) and stretch out the opening.  Put balloon 1 inside (knot-side first), and wrap balloon 2 around balloon 1.
  • Another method is to cut both ends off of a balloon, which you use to cover the tied-off end of the balloon and create a stripe down the middle. This will hide the knot and give the ball a round shape. Depending on the size of the ball, the stripe may have a tendency to slip off.  I like to double bag the ball no matter what and then add a stripe on top of that if desired.

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Finished Product

  • Round out the ball with your hands and you are finished.
  • Stress balls are great because they can be used in a number of ways to meet the specific needs of a client (developing body awareness, as a sensory activity, mindfulness task, anger management, teaching progressive muscle relaxation, etc.).

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Ursula Unwinds Her Anger: A Mindfulness Book for Children

Kristina Marcelli Sargent is a mental health therapist who works with children in both outpatient and community based settings.  After competing an art degree, Kristina went onto get her MSW and now combines her creative talents with her passion for mental health through her beautifully illustrated books aimed at enhancing socio-emotional development.

Teaching Mindfulness to Children

One of Kristina’s recent passions has been to teach young children mindfulness as a way for children to have some inner peace and inner safety despite their outer life circumstances. Mindfulness, put simply, is awareness in the present moment while noticing thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, feelings, and the surrounding environment in the moment instead of getting caught up in the thoughts and worries of past and future.

Although many people are familiar with this being very helpful for adults, this is also an excellent skill for children to learn too. Awareness is the foundation to all life experiences and skills. When children increase their awareness in the present moment, they can increase attentive skills, better regulate their feelings, make safe choices, and notice and attend others’ feelings. When children notice others’ feelings, beautiful things like empathy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and appropriate assertiveness skills can begin to grow.

Ursula Unwinds Her Anger

“Ursula Unwinds Her Anger” is a story about a dragon who doesn’t feel like she quite fits in with the dolphins she lives with but discovers she has a special talent.  She changes colors with her feelings and uses this skill to teach others about feelings.  The book teaches children mindfulness and relaxation skills such as deep breathing and noticing feelings while also letting them go. It is intended to help children discover inner peace and self acceptance and thus act in peaceful ways.

One of the most important things about dealing with anger is realizing it’s okay to be angry and there are safe ways to express it. In this story, the idea of using visualization and relaxation to “breathe” anger out is introduced as a relaxation technique for angry feelings. This book is accessible for children ages 3-10 and the adults in their lives who care about them.  It introduces a fun way to think about feelings using color and lends itself to endless play and art activities to accompany the story.  

Ursula Unwinds Her Anger available on Amazon

Accompanying Activities: Kristina created a number of engaging activities to accompany the book that add more depth to the reading experience and reinforce the book’s message.  Follow the links below to view instructions and download printables for activities designed to compliment the story.

  • Unwind Your Anger Printable Activity:  This printable Ursula the dragon includes fire for children to write or draw what makes them angry that they would like to breathe out and let go of in their own lives.  Children identify their own feelings along with anger triggers and end the activity with a deep breathing exercise.
  • Feelings Colors Worksheet: After reading the book, see if the child remembers the colors Ursula would turn with her different feelings in the story. Then have the child draw herself in the spaces above Ursula and identify which color she would turn if she turned colors with her feelings too!
  • Printable Feelings Cube: Color, cut, and tape to make your own feelings cube! Then take turns rolling the cube and either acting out the feeling (having the other person guess) or telling a time you felt that way! Another way to play is to tell okay things to do with the feeling that was rolled. For example, “it’s okay to be angry. When I’m angry, I like to take a quiet break.”

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Other Works

Kristina’s first book, Buttons the Brave Blue Kitten, is a story designed to help children (aged ~3-8) develop empathy, the ability to see how someone else is feeling from the other’s perspective.

Buttons the Brave Blue Kitten available on Amazon


Create Your Own Child Therapy Starter Kit

tumblr_mstk51YNXW1s3e1yro2_r1_500 Starting out as a new child therapist is difficult and putting together an office from scratch can be expensive.  Professional “starter kits” are overpriced, limited, and not much better than what you can put together own your own for a fraction of the price.  It is also common for new professions to share offices or travel to multiple locations so I have also included some tips for creating a “portable office.”

Cost-Saving Ideas

  • Once you get “the basics” you can start slowly adding to your toy collection.
  • Play dough is a must have item in your toy kit.  Kids love it and it can fill in the gaps of what you are missing.  If you are lacking something the child can simply mold it out of dough.
  • The best places for toys are dollar stores, yard sales, and thrift shops.  You can also ask friends and family to donate old toys their children have grown out of.
  • Many craft stores (ex. Michael’s Crafts, Hobby Lobby, Joanne’s Fabrics, etc.) have 40-50% off one item coupons weekly.  I pop in every time I am passing by to slowly build my arts and crafts supplies.
  • is your best friend if you are looking for DIY toys and activities to do in sessions.

Portable Ideas

  • Rolling duffel bags make the perfect portable office.  It is easy to pack and transport and has lots of pockets to help keep you organized.
  • I keep my toys in mesh bags so that I can make the most of the space that I have.
  • Keep your art supplies in a soft insulated lunch box.  This will help prevent your crayons from melting if you leave your bag in a hot car.
  • I also have a “go bag” that I bring when I don’t need to set up a full office.  This is great for in-home sessions or the days when I work with teens and don’t need as much.

Sand Tray

  • Kinetic Sand: If you are creating a portable sand tray I encourage you to invest in kinetic sand.  It is pricey so I suggest printing a 50% off coupon from Michael’s or Aaron Brothers.  It is easy to clean up, won’t spill out the sides and is fun to play with.  It molds like wet sand but still keeps some of characteristics of dry sand.
  • The scrapbooking boxes at Michael’s crafts make good portable sand trays.  I have one that is ***inches, and another one that is only *** inches.  The small size isn’t a big issue as long as you get small miniatures to go along with it.
  • Decorate your office with small throw rugs.  Clients can dump bins of miniatures onto them and clean-up only takes a few seconds.

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Using Games in Therapy

Games are an engaging way to build the therapeutic relationship while assessing a child’s strengths and areas where there is room for growth.  Playing games as they were intended to be played can teach you a lot about a child’s functioning in multiple areas, and adding a therapeutic twist can make games highly adaptable to many clinical issues (ex. feelings, CBT, social skills, etc.).  Below are some suggestions for how you can use games in your own practice.

Purpose of Playing Games in Therapy:

  • Rapport Building: Games are a fun way to begin building rapport with clients.  How the child plays can tell you a lot about their functioning and engaging in an activity can take some of the perceived pressure off and help increase comfort and disclosure.  You can also see how they are at multi-tasking/holding a conversation while playing.
  • Frustration Tolerance: How often does the client become frustrated and how do they react and regulate their emotions when they do?  How do they respond to falling behind or losing?  Do they give up or push through?  Are they able to verbalize their emotions?  Do they become aggressive?
  • Decision-Making: Are they able to quickly make decisions and adapt their strategy as needed? Did they demonstrate impulsivity? Are they confident in their choices or appear insecure?  How much reassurance from you do they seek?  Are they able to look at the whole picture or do they think of moves one at a time?
  • Problem-Solving: Can they identify what their options are?  Are they quick to ask for help or able to use their problem-solving skills without much direction?  Do they show flexibility when things don’t go their way and easily move onto other strategies?  How effective was their problem-solving?
  • Response to Rules: At the start of therapy, I usually let the client dictate the rules and do not interfere if they change them.  Do they follow the set game rules or make up their own?  How often do they change them?  Do they ever permit you to win?  Later on in therapy I may state that we will play by the game’s rules, which I enforce, to see how they react or teach appropriate social skills/sportsmanship.
  • Provides Opportunities For Positive Reinforcement, Redirection and Limit-Setting:  How do they respond?  Does behavior improve?  How much redirection do they need?
  • Social Skills: Games are perfect for teaching social skills, conflict resolution, and good sports-personship.  They are highly effective when played in group therapy and give the therapist tons of opportunities to model, reinforce good behavior, facilitate positive interactions, etc.

Creating a Therapeutic Twist:

  • Create a Color Code: This is a simple way to modify games to fit specific therapeutic issues.  Many games already have colorful pieces, and if they don’t you can easily add multi colored stickers.  Then write out a code in list form (ex. every time you land on red describe a time you were angry).
  • Write up Cards: You could also use a color code with multi-colored stacks of cards.  Having more questions allows you to address more specific issues.  You could forget the color code and just play the game normally and have a client answer a question before each turn.
  • Alter the Board/Pieces:  You could also write questions or tasks directly onto the game board or pieces.

Create Your Own Games:

  • Bare Books has inexpensive blank game boards, books, puzzles, etc. that you can use to create your own therapeutic games.  A professional looking blank board game is just $3.95.  They have flat rate shipping so I suggest getting together with a couple people to place your orders.

Buying Therapeutic Games:

  • Games made specifically for therapy can be great, though are often expensive.

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Family Therapy Balloon Activities

tumblr_mumdhrpnIb1s3e1yro1_500 Introducing activities into your family therapy sessions can help make the process more engaging while creating a warm/fun environment, and breaking down concepts to be more developmentally appropriate for children.  These simple activities can bring out sides of family members they may not always be shown at home, encourage playful and healthy interaction, build rapport, and allow the therapist to role model, redirect and provide positive reinforcement.

Balloons are a cheap/accessible item that can easily spice up a family session, and be then be used to continue work at home.  The following activities promote team-work, group cohesion, attunement, communication, problem-solving, conflict-management, etc.  They can be used to both assess family functioning and teach new skills.  Notice patterns that come up, how they negotiate or resolve conflicts, who leads, etc.  After each activity process with the family how it went, what they noticed, what they liked/disliked, what they need to work on, etc.  Families can also do these fun games at home.

  • Juggling Issues: In a family session it is common for the topic of discussion to snowball as family members bring up multiple subjects at once.  Have each family members blow up balloons and write an issue on each one.  The family then stands in a circle and bats a balloon around without letting it touch the ground.  Add the rest of the balloon, one at a time, to demonstrate how ineffective it is to juggle so many issues at once.  Afterwards the family decides together which issue to tackle during that session.
  • Balloon Pass: Have the family/group stand in a circle and make up (or have them make up) ways to pass a balloon around (ex. using only elbows, feet, etc.).  Have them hold hands in a circle and try to keep the balloon from touching the ground as they bat it around without letting go.
  • Busy Balloons: Have family/group members partner up and call out different body parts that they must hold the balloon up with (ex. noses, elbows, etc.)  If there is an odd number of people than family members can take turns being the person calling out body parts.
  • Balloon Waddle: Each person holds a blown-up balloon between their legs.  The family/group must come up with a way together to get across the room without anyone dropping the balloon (ex. jumping, waddling, rolling, etc.).  Once one slips then everyone must get together to re-strategize and start over.  You could also modify this to complete with partners or as a relay.

If you have any balloon activities you use in therapy, please share your thoughts in the comments.

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