2 Games for Play Therapy Success

Game play not only relieves stress and boredom, but can help us connect with and explore our own and others feelings, thoughts, values, and attitudes. Here are two games for play therapy success…

This post was contributed by Gary Yorke, Ph.D.


All types of games, from readily available games like Checkers and Candy Land, to games specifically developed for counseling and play therapy, can help clinicians engage clients of all ages in their sessions. Today, we’re going to explore two types of games: cooperative games and non-competitive games. Cooperative and non-competitive games are ideal for children, adolescents, and families, and are often used by therapists, counselors, and teachers. Non-competitive games have no winners or losers and typically involve more discussion and disclosure, while cooperative games require social skills and effective communication to achieve success. Both cooperative and non-competitive games facilitate engagement in the session by encouraging sharing, turn taking, communication, collaboration, and self-disclosure.

Cooperative Games

The value of cooperative games was demonstrated in a study by Bay-Hintz and Wilson (2005). They studied the use of cooperative games in a preschool class. Cooperative games were played for thirty-minutes per day in one group, and competitive games were played in the other. Two other groups played cooperative games for part of the study, and competitive games for part of the study. In all conditions where cooperative games were introduced, cooperative behavior during free play increased. Cooperative behavior decreased during periods where competitive games were played. The games used in this study included group games like cooperative musical chairs, Bambino Dino, and There’s a Growly in the Garden.

The Mountaineering Game is a great example of a cooperative game and was authored by the same game designer as Bambino Dino and There’s a Growling in the Garden. The goal of the Mountaineering game is  reach the top of the mountain. Participants must work together to move the single pawn from the bottom of the mountain to the top. For an added challenge, game participants can also try to work their way back to the base of the mountain.  The rules of the game compel the players to talk and work together. There are two types of cards, mover cards and equipment cards. At the beginning of the game players must decide how to distribute the cards. Neither player has enough mover and equipment cards to get the pawn to the top of the mountain. Since players take turns moving the pawn, each move affects what the other players can do. As the pawn travels up the mountain it can become stuck and players have to work together to move the pawn off various obstacles. This is a fun game to play with siblings and gives the therapist an opportunity to witness how they work together. Cooperation games can also be sent home for family members to play together during the week.

 Non-Competitive Games

One of the most popular non-competitive games ever published is The Ungame. The Ungame is designed to foster communication and is ideal for a therapy session as the length of play can be predetermined at the start of the game. If there are only fifteen minutes left in the session, the game can still be played and the session can still be quite productive. In addition, playing the Ungame fosters skills such as sharing, interacting, and listening. The Ungame includes two levels of cards. Level 1 cards are typically non-threatening and ideal for building cohesion in a group and rapport between the players. They facilitate discussion and learning how to express oneself. Level 2 cards tend to evoke more emotional and in depth responses and are better used once clients have begun to feel comfortable.

There are some fun ways to use the Ungame cards outside of the game. For example, Getting to Know You – Hide & Seek with Ungame cards. The therapist chooses which deck is going to be played with, and hands a portion of the deck to the child. Better readers can be given more cards, while weak or young readers are only given a few cards. The therapist may choose to stack the deck prior to the session. The therapist chooses three cards he’d like the child to answer and the child chooses 3 cards they would like the therapist to answer. The child hides her cards first, then the therapist hides their cards. Child and therapist then take turns looking for the cards. When a card is located it is responded to.

Another fun game with Ungame cards is Getting to Know You – Rock, Paper, Scissors. Follow the same procedure as above, but instead of choosing 3 cards, each participant goes through their stack and identifies a few questions they would like to ask. Next, play Rock, Paper, Scissors. Whoever wins the round gets to pose the question.

An important note: Whenever a counselor or therapist uses a game such as the Ungame that involves self-disclosure they need to decide in advance how they are going to respond to personal questions, while maintaining boundaries, and building trust. For example, a teen client may draw a question card and ask, “When did you first have sex?” An appropriate answer might be, “Therapists don’t discuss their sex lives with their clients. We usually recommend that sex be discussed with close friends or parents. Is there anyone that you feel comfortable talking to about sex?”


Play is necessary for healthy and adaptive  development and playing games is a fun and enjoyable activity that engages children and adults. Game play not only relieves stress and boredom, but can help us connect with and explore our own and others feelings, thoughts, values, and attitudes.

With so many games and game options, I want to know… how do you incorporate games with your clients? Leave a comment below!


Gary G. F. Yorke, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and has been in private practice in Austin, Texas for over 20 years. He and his wife co-founded Austin Behavioral Health Center which provides play therapy and assessment services to children and adolescents. Dr. Yorke is also president and founder of childtherapytoys.com, an internet based store for child clinicians. He is creator of My First Therapy Game, The Social and Emotional Competence Game, The Social and Emotional Competence Card Game, and author of My Medication Workbook. He has presented workshops on storytelling, ADHD, child therapy, assessment, Bipolar Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and the use of games in child and play therapy.


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