Adoption and Fostering

Building Trusting Relationships – 5 Therapeutic Play Activities that parents can use at home

  1. Simple collaborative art

Child drawing

How to Introduce it – Keep paper and crayons/colored pencils around so they are easily accessible. The trick to these activities is that they should seem spontaneous and informal. You may have been waiting for the perfect moment all week to try these out; but to your child, it will seem like you just came up with a fun doodle game out of nowhere.


How to do it – Draw a line anywhere on a piece of blank paper and slide it over casually to your child, hand them a crayon and gesture to the paper. Maybe even give a choice of colors, saying ‘purple or green?’ this gives them less of an opportunity to decline. Depending on the age of the child they may understand that you mean to just draw one line each at a time or they may begin scribbling or making a picture, or they may scrunch up the paper and throw it at you……Whatever happens, you follow their lead.

With the turn taking game of one line each, you can gradually make your lines closer to their lines or even join up with their lines and watch what their next move is. If they start to back away on the paper, give them space, making your next line further away. If they cross out your lines, you could be playful and cross out one of their lines. Or make nurturing, protective marks around what they have drawn to contain the emotions. Go with your intuition on this.

Child wanted to do his own picture all by himself with caregiver watching

child's drawing

If they start to make a picture, try working  on it too. If they are scribbling angrily, you can validate this feeling by doing the same right beside them. If they tear the paper up, try once more and then let it go for another time. If they scrunch it up and throw it at you, this could be a great opportunity for a spontaneously fun paper ball fight! (Be careful about this one, in cases where the child has a history of physical abuse, they may be triggered by things being thrown at them, even in fun)

These games can also be adapted for more than two people. Sometimes this can be more successful with foster siblings involved, sometimes other issues come up. Whatever happens, be curious about and respectful of the child’s reactions as these directly reflect their feelings.

Collaborative art is a great starting place to invite and validate these feelings and to reach out to your child in a safe, no-pressure way.

Examples of turn taking with single marks (shows different stages of  trusting relationships)

IMG_20181016_145401 IMG_20181016_145350


2. Telling your child’s story with metaphors

 How to Introduce it – The easiest way is if you want to or have already established, a bed time routine where a story is included. For younger children, you can invite them to sit down with you for a story anytime they appear in a calmer mood. If the child is an adolescent with good enough reading skills, you can even give them the story to read on their own and later ask if they want to draw the pictures together.

How to do it – Write an age appropriate story that is based on how your child arrived in your home or on a difficulty your child is currently experiencing (like being anxious in crowds or scared of the dark). You will be switching out all the people with animals. If your child has a favorite animal or stuffy, make that your child’s character and make your family a different family of animals. If it is a blended family for example, step children, foster or adoptive children, then make each of these people different animals from each other. Set the scene for your story in a home that would be suitable for such animals. If you choose a family of rabbits, for example, they would live in a cozy burrow and maybe your child is a field mouse.

Make the theme very simple for your first story. The new arrival is a different animal that has to live in a home that they are not used to and maybe feel a bit afraid or uncomfortable in that home. The other animals can have some feelings too, maybe they are excited or worried that the new animal will not like them. You can describe how the family of animals prepare for the new arrival, maybe cleaning the home, choosing items they might like (maybe getting it wrong because they are a different animal) or switching rooms so the new animal gets the softest bed etc. (acts of nurturing or at least, good intentions)

You can elaborate on the descriptive elements but keep the plot and themes quite simple for the child’s age. The story can involve the family trying to do something fun and maybe part of it was not so fun for the new child. Then it turned out better than they thought because they found a commonality after all.

Your story definitely doesn’t have to end happily ever after but it should have a hopeful ending. If your child has an issue with any part of the story as you are reading it, or later on. This is a great opportunity to ask them what changes they would like and revise the story together. (This is a story about the child’s experience so try not to get too attached to all your hard work!)

child's drawing 2

Please note:

 The following example story is designed for a child, adopted or fostered at an older age by a heterosexual couple with two biological children. Please apply genders, ages, number of adults and children to represent your own family. Change animals and setting to ones that will most interest your child.

If your child was or is very young, you can leave out a lot of the negative feelings and just emphasize the love and acceptance piece.

Example Story:

……It was springtime and all the buds were starting to show on the flowers, the birds were singing and happily making their nests…….All this happiness was kind of annoying to little squirrel. She wished the birds would just stop singing and the sun would stop shining so much.

In fact, sometimes it made her so angry that she threw acorns at trees just to make herself feel better. If squirrel admitted it though, she actually felt scared because she was soon moving to a new home and she didn’t know if she would even like it. She had been told that she would be living with a family of birds, which meant that she would have to climb all the way up to the highest tree every day to get to the bird’s nest. She was worried that she would forget which tree the nest was in and then she might have no home at all! She was also scared the birds would fly away and leave her all alone in the nest! Lastly, she was definitely not okay with the thought of eating mushed up worms!

bird in a tree squirrel crying

Moving day had arrived! The family of birds were so excited that little squirrel was coming to live with them (forever) Mrs. (or mommy) Bird had been storing some acorns because she had heard that squirrels really liked to eat acorns. Mr. (or daddy) Bird had told brother and sister bird to be very nice to little squirrel because he knew that she might feel a bit sad to start with. Brother and sister bird had squished in together so that there was now lots of extra room in the nest for little squirrel. It was finally time to move in but by the time old Mrs. owl had shown little squirrel to her new nest, she was nearly in tears.

Everyone was a little nervous but the bird family greeted little squirrel and told her she was most welcome in their home. That night little squirrel had a hard time sleeping, she had liked the acorns Mrs. bird gave her but didn’t want to say thank you and she did have a very soft bed but she didn’t know why brother and sister bird were sleeping so far away from her!

In the morning, Mrs. Bird brought worms for brother and sister bird and more acorns for little squirrel, she asked if little squirrel wanted to try some worms and little squirrel said shyly, ‘maybe later’.

After breakfast brother and sister bird wanted to play hide and seek and little squirrel thought that sounded fun so the three of them set off into the forest. Little squirrel wasn’t sure if the birds knew the same rules she did so they decided to talk about the rules first before starting.

Rule number 1: Once you are hiding in position, no flying or scurrying away! Rule number 2: If you are the seeker, you can’t climb up or fly up to a high tree to get a ‘bird’s eye view’! That’s cheating! The birds thought it was cool that Little squirrel called it a ‘bird’s eye view’ even though she was a squirrel. Rule number 3: Count really loudly!

Once the rules were agreed, the two birds and little squirrel had a great day together, starting with hide and seek and then making up some fun, new games together that none of them had played before.

Little squirrel heard Mr. Bird calling them back to the nest for dinner. Brother bird shyly gave his new sister squirrel a hug and sister bird said maybe Little squirrel could try some worms for her dinner. Little squirrel thought for a minute, ‘hmm, maybe’ and then she saw an acorn fall from a tree and picked it up, ‘but maybe tomorrow’ and they all laughed.  The End


3. Exploring Questions using make believe

How to Introduce it – This works best while engaged in another activity. Driving to school, going for a walk, eating dinner, brushing teeth etc. Use spontaneously and curiously, without any expectations.

How to do it – Asking questions about how your child is feeling, what they think about something or what they did today can often be met with resistance, blank stares or a feeling of intrusion. Using fun, made up scenarios can help your child let down their guard and not consciously have to connect to their feelings. Although their answers can tell you a lot about how they are feeling as well as build safety and connection. Be prepared to have a creative answer of your own to each question you ask….you can ask one or two more qualifying questions afterwards if the child is responding well but don’t overdo it.

Here are a few examples:

  1. ‘What animal do you chose to be today?’ As you are dropping them off to school or getting ready in the morning.

If they answer, you can say ‘oh, good choice, what is your favorite thing about that animal?’ or you can put a feeling to it and ask if they are a happy ‘crocodile’ or ‘is that crocodile kind of angry today?’ etc. ‘That’s ok to be angry, the crocodile must be careful not bite anyone though. Maybe he will be a happy crocodile tomorrow?’

If they don’t have an answer or they ask you for yours then you can tell them your chosen animal and why. ‘ I think I’m going to be an armadillo……and you can make it silly with a funny voice/face or a more serious answer. ‘ I feel like a bear today because I like how much they get to sleep in the winter and I’m so tired. They can also be a bit grumpy and so can I but they take really good care of their cubs and always keep them safe’

This question works with any category that the child may have an interest in and some knowledge about ….cars, dinosaurs, food etc.

  1. If you could have any super power what would you want to have?
  2. Would you like to live in a cottage in the countryside or a mansion in the city? Some of these will allow you to build some stories around but follow the child’s lead on this. If they stare at you and say ‘why’ or you are weird. Just shrug it off with a smile and say you were just curious.

Some of these questions will simply be a conversation opener, help the child to relax and let them know that you want to know things about them and won’t judge the answers. Some of the questions may lead you to get a lot of insight into your child’s thoughts. For example, if they choose a tiny bug and say it has to hide in corners so nobody can see it or squish it, this tells you the child is feeling vulnerable and unsafe. Or if they say they would love to be a tiger (or other powerful, magnificent animal) and then say but they could never be that animal and choose a toad instead; it implies they may have a lowered sense of self-worth.


4. Family Game Night with a Twist

board game 1    board game 2         board game 3

How to introduce it – For this one your child will need to be willing to play a board game with you so it may take time to be able to use this technique. If your child turns their nose up at family game night, you can introduce them more casually and spontaneously. Most games, including board games can be adapted to be more therapeutic. Winning, losing and taking turns can all be triggers for children so be mindful of how your child is doing. You can choose games that don’t have a clear winner or loser to start with and just focus on the turn taking piece. Here are a few suggestions below:

Feelings Twister

Stick ‘Feelings’ words over the colors and practice making the expressions of happy, sad, angry and calm when you land on those colors. Ask your child which colors should match which feelings. For myself, I would choose red for angry, blue for sad, green for calm and yellow for happy but your child may very well have a different idea. If your child is triggered by close proximity and touch, then try taking four turns each with only one person on the mat at a time.


Write out or draw a picture of the titles and pick them out of a hat. These can be accomplishments like ‘winning a trophy’ ‘getting an A on a test’ or ‘winning a race’ or disappointments like ‘loosing your shoe’ ‘hurting your hand’ or ‘having an argument with a friend’. If you look at the titles together before you play then you will both have a better chance of guessing correctly which always feels good!

Truth or Dare board game

You can use a basic board game with a dice or spinner and something to use as counter pieces. Make your own cards beforehand. You can decide to assign truth to odd numbers and dare to even numbers or you can place stickers along the board game that say either truth or dare. Truth cards can be things like….. ‘What are you most afraid of?’ or ‘name something that you love about yourself’ ‘what are you proud of?’ etc. Dare cards could say……. ‘Turn to the person on your left and give them three compliments’ or ‘do a silly dance for 10 seconds’ ‘wear a funny hat or make a funny face for the rest of the game’ Don’t  make the requirements too difficult or embarrassing and keep them age appropriate. You may need to explain what a compliment is and give an example.

5. Home-made seasonal calendars

child drawing 3calender

Holidays and special occasions are often a difficult time for children in foster or adoptive homes. There may have previously been a lot of uncertainty and disappointment around the holidays and there will certainly be new and unfamiliar traditions. Making a calendar is a great way to help your child prepare for what is to come. When things are predictable, they feel safer and are less likely to cause your child anxiety. You can even create and plan for some new traditions with your child.


Start out with talking about your main traditions and plan out where these will go on the calendar. If it’s for Christmas, it might be when you will be getting and decorating your tree or putting up your lights. You might be planning to do some Christmas baking, shopping for family members or making some home-made gifts. Maybe you will do a walk around the neighborhood to see the Christmas lights and then have some hot chocolate at home afterwards. Also, make sure to talk about what Christmas Eve and Christmas day will look like so your child will know what to expect and it will be more enjoyable for everyone.

Keep it simple and don’t overload yourself with a huge wish list. Remember, the holidays are stressful for everyone so less is more. The important part is talking about the plan first and then letting your child make as much of the calendar as they are able. Egg cartons are great for this, your child can draw and cut out a small picture on cardstock for each door with a number on the front for the date. You can put whatever you want inside each section. It could be a recipe or shopping list for gingerbread houses, or a small wrapped chocolate in each one. Whatever works for your family. If  your child gets overwhelmed around the holidays, consider doing a smaller countdown for getting ready for Thanksgiving, Halloween and Easter as well.


Sorry, I couldn’t resist and no I have never attempted making any of these but if you and your child enjoy making crafts you might want to give one a try. The website is

calender ideas


6. Bonus support

If you would like a bit more guidance bringing these types of activities into your home; I should let you know that Springfield Kids Play Therapy hosts Family ‘Play’shops on the first Sunday of every month, 1.30-3 pm. Anybody can join but space is limited to a small number of families. You can register by clicking the link on the homepage and the cost is just $25 per family.

If you have any concerns, please do contact me before you come and we can discuss any additional information you think I should know about your child. If your child gets triggered by crowds or strangers etc; it is also possible to arrange an individual Family ‘Play’shop. This is often referred to as Filial Play therapy.

My role in this type of therapy is to encourage the relationship between a caregiver and child by facilitating play activities that build trust and attachment. Alternatively, if you would like to use the space and my support for a supervised access or a transitional visit then an individual ‘Play’shop could also be appropriate for this.


Thanks for reading and I hope this was helpful!

Kind Regards,

Vicky Wallace, Play and Expressive Arts Therapist


#112-1890 Cooper Rd (Orchard Plaza)

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