I often fantasise about my ideal clinic room. As a clinical child psychologist, I’m passionate about using play and hands-on activities when working therapeutically with children and their families. My ideal clinic room is one that has a wet play area, complete with a sink and an easel, as well as a carpeted area with lots of space for floor play and enough comfortable chairs to allow for family work. I can envisage the dolls houses and bookshelf I’ll have too.
In reality though, like many therapists, I work at a number of clinics across my week. The rooms I use are shared with others and storage space is limited. Many of the other therapists I know are in a more challenging position. For example, many school psychologists travel to different schools, often working in less than ideal rooms and needing to frequently move their materials.
I use lots of playful activities to make therapeutic concepts meaningful for children. I know this approach works best with kids though this means that I need to have craft materials and toys on hand, which can be a challenge. Continuing to advocate for appropriate clinical space is essential and I have no intention of giving up my pleasant preoccupation of daydreaming about the perfect clinic room, however I’m also a realist. I recognise that for many of us having materials that we can easily pack and transport is essential. We need materials that encourage play and creativity, though can be used in the rooms we find ourselves in.
With that in mind, here is what I pack in my travelling toolkit –
I try to have paper and cardboard in a range of colours as a basic. This can get heavy so it’s better to keep a few sheets of each colour and replenish as needed rather than carry a lot.
A roll of paper is also lots of fun. You can spread it across the floor or hang it on the wall. Children often enjoy this and it adds variety when engaged in drawing activities.
Other basics are markers, crayons, pencils, scissors (one child pair and a sharper pair for me) and glue (a glue stick for paper and card and a small bottle of craft glue for fabric etc).
Water colour paint is easy to transport and can be safely used in carpeted rooms.
Some cellophane, tissue paper, foam sheets and felt are great to have in your kit for crafting. Again you don’t need lots, instead have a range of colours and replenish as needed.
A small whiteboard with whiteboard markers is often fun for drawing.
Playdoh is one of my favourite resources as it can be used in an endless number of ways. I include a rolling pin and a dough knife as it’s often helpful to have something to shape the dough with.
Air drying clay is a wonderful medium and a small packet of it is easily transported in an air tight container. Children can use it to make a broad range of items, including figures and symbols. For example, a child may like to make a plaque with a quote they find particularly helpful.
A soft cloth ball is one of my most frequently used items. It can be safely thrown around while playing and can be used in therapeutic activities.
Blutac is a great thing to keep on hand. Sticking some paper on the wall can create a target you can throw a soft ball at or a large poster that all of the family can contribute to.
Googly eyes and pom poms in a variety of shapes and sizes are a great inclusion as they mean you can readily make puppets or little characters.
Ice-lolly sticks take up little space and make a great puppet base. Having a mix of sizes and colours allows you the greatest flexibility and many children will also enjoy building boxes, towers, or mobiles with them.
Glitter is wonderful for decorating or using as magic dust.
Stickers can be useful both for craft and as rewards. For craft I try choosing stickers such as different emotion faces that lend themselves to the nature of the work we might be doing. For rewards try choosing a broader selection and including some that you can write on so you can personalise them.
Bubbles are so versatile and even older children love them. Try using them to help children learn to breathe or for getting them up out of their seats stomping on them to show you what it looks like when they are angry.
Small boxes are good for making worry boxes or using in sorting activities. I try to have a few different shapes and sizes and also have some templates printed on card that children can use to make their own box.
Paper bags are so easy to store and are also great for sorting activities. I use them to make puppets too and sometimes give them to children to carry their crafts home in.
A stack of paper cups is another option that takes up little room yet can be used in lots of ways. You can use the cups as bowling pins, turn them into dolls for role play or use them for a simple game in which you toss a small ball or coin into the cups.
Wooden pegs are helpful too. You can turn them into animal characters or use them to group things that the child has drawn or written.
Wool or ribbon is useful too. For example, you might make a medal and need something to hang it around a child’s neck.
Cardboard tubes are great for turning into figures or making items such as a shrink ray or telescope.
A permanent marker is something that I keep in my own pencil case. We use it to draw faces on puppets and the like.
Pre-printed activities on card can be useful too. In addition to boxes the child can fold together I often include door hangers they can cut out and decorate, animal pictures that can be cut and stuck on icy pole sticks for puppets and the like.
A packet of wipes is a great way to clean up markers, paint, and glitter easily. These are also good for cleaning messy fingers.
In addition to craft materials it is essential to include some play materials. Obviously the more space you can have the more you can include. Here however are the toys I would see as the most helpful
A set of animals is a great way to encourage some imaginative play. Make sure your set has animals in a range of sizes and include some that might be grouped into families. Include some that are generally perceived as dangerous.
I also like to have a set of family figures and furniture even when I can’t have a dolls house. Again having enough figures is important and I would usually include some dining room, kitchen, living room and bedroom furniture.
Lego or Duplo is also a great idea as it can be good for eliciting some play as well as entertaining children if you are speaking with their parents.
A tub of kinetic sand provides a great sensory experience and is easier to clean up in a carpeted space than regular sand.
For older children having some games is a great idea. My favourites are Jenga, Uno, and Connect 4. You can look for travel sizes if you are particularly short on space.
Commercially available therapy cards can also be useful, such as feelings or strengths cards. St Luke’s Innovative Resources have a great range, though there may be other sets that you find particularly useful depending on the population you work with, or you could make your own.
In addition to being careful about what I pack I also find that I need to be careful about how I pack up my materials. Deep boxes tend to leave me digging for resources and often the materials at the bottom get neglected and forgotten. Similarly while clear tubs are helpful for me, I am careful about where I place these, particularly with those children who tend to be impulsive and want to touch everything they see. A small suitcase often works well with the various compartments providing some sense of order. Working in such a small space also means being very organised and putting things back where they belong is essential.
I’m always adding little bits and pieces to my toolbox, depending on what I have available from home or what I see when I’m out shopping. Sometimes these bits and pieces become essentials and continue to be included and at other times I use them for a while and then replace them with something different. Having different craft materials helps me to be creative in my approach.
Talking with others about what they use is always inspiring too so chat with other therapists and share your ideas. Working out of a box or bag challenges you to bring your creativity to the fore so think carefully, pack your gear, and make the most of it.
Dr Fiona Zandt and Dr Suzanne Barrett are both Clinical Psychologists, each with over 15 years’ experience working with children and families in a range of public and private settings. Together, they facilitate training workshops for therapists working with children and authored the book, Creative Ways to Help Children Manage BIG Feelings: A Therapists’ Guide to Working with Preschool and Primary Children, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Further details can be found at the Child Psychology Workshops Website.
*Please note our articles are aimed at provided ideas for qualified professionals and are not a substitute for appropriate training and ongoing supervision.