October 25, 2016

A treasure box is a container that has items that a child can choose at the end of the therapy session. The pediatrician usually has one. Ours has lollipops and one doctor gives out stickers. Typically, dentists give out  some non-sugary toys or stickers. Your child’s teacher might have one. Most schools seem to have some sort of prize cabinet that they are using for good behavior.

What’s in Your Playroom?

If you are setting up a play therapy space, you probably have a good idea about the types of toys that you will need. If you are a non-directive play therapist, this would include aggressive toys, real-life toys and expressive/creative toys. For directive therapists, you probably have some favorite games, workbooks, or specific art supplies. You might be considering whether you should have something available for kids at the end of a play therapy session.

Does a treasure box belong in play therapy?

As a child-centered play therapist, I avoided the treasure box like the plague for my whole career. To me, treasure boxes were designed to try to entice children to like you. The idea being that they could associate the play experience with something wonderful and therefore, be more inclined to come to therapy. But my training told me that it didn’t really matter if they “liked me” or at least my motivation for providing therapy was not to be liked.

Child Centered Play Therapy Point of View

Most child centered play therapists quote Garry Landreth (The Art of The Relationship) when explaining why they do not give a child a gift, prize, or object at the end of a therapy session in a fashion similar to his own words

[otw_shortcode_quote border=”bordered” border_style=”bordered” background_color_class=”otw-silver-background” background_color=”FFD866″ background_pattern_url=”www.jentaylorplaytherapy.com ” color=”0090B3″ css_class=”Brand”]What a child carries away in his heart is infinitely more important that anything the child can hold in his hand. What is held in the hand can be lost.What is held in the heart can never be lost- Garry Landreth[/otw_shortcode_quote]

The Treasure Box As A Transitional Object

I participated in a training course in Synergetic Play Therapy and was introduced to the idea of the treasure box as a transitional object. Here, the idea being that each session of therapy has its own termination. The child will always be guaranteed something to take with them at the end of the session to represent the work and the relationship formed on that particular day.

An Alternative View That Still Values The Relationship

Treasure Box Jewels

The founder of Synergetic Play Therapy, Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S, explains that the treasure box is filled specifically with stones (the only difference being the colors) that metaphorically represent the treasure of the child.  She describes jewels similar to those pictured. The rationale for that is that kids need a transition object that reinforces the therapy session.


[otw_shortcode_quote border=”bordered” border_style=”bordered” background_color_class=”otw-silver-background” background_color=”FFD866″ background_pattern_url=”www.jentaylorplaytherapy.com” color=”0090B3″]I don’t have certainty that I will see the child again because things happen (there’s a move, an abrupt ending, etc). I want every session to be it’s own process in and of itself. Each session is its own completion cycle. And no matter what happens in the session, every kid gets the same message which is you’re important, you’re valuable and you’re worthy. -Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-[/otw_shortcode_quote]

For The Kids Who Want To Take Toys Home-

A treasure box seems like a reasonable solution to that problem. Often, children will ask to bring a specific toy home with them from the playroom.  When children want to take things home in therapy or have difficulty ending the session, having a treasure box can help ease the transition out of the therapy room. It can be offered as an alternative to the toy they want to take home.  Many play therapists report using gemstones, beautiful rocks, or affirmation cards for this purpose. Some also use stickers or candy.

For The Therapist To Reinforce Limits

However, child centered play therapists often view the use of the treasure box for this purpose as a missed opportunity to reinforce limits and return the responsibility about how to end the session back to the child. The use of a treasure box is viewed, by some, as a manipulation of the relationship between the therapist and the child.

To assume that the child needs some sort of object to end the session takes away from the therapist’s belief in the child’s ability to lead the session all the way to termination. The play therapist that can patiently allow a child to end the session on their own reinforces their belief in the child’s ability to solve his/her own problems.

Play Therapists That Use A Treasure Box Weigh In

A dozen play therapists from around the world explain why they decided TO include a treasure box in their play therapy space-

 If you mean prizes, I see nothing wrong with that. Carissa Boncardo, Counselor (New York, New York)

 I use a little heart shaped glassy ‘worry’ stone in an organza gift bag with a little note inside. The note reads, ‘hang this worry stone in its bag on the door handle of someone you love. That way the big people will know you a have worry you need to ‘Rethink’ (my practice is called Rethink with Play Therapy). Everyone gets one when they finish therapy. Tea Cee, Counselor, RPT (Ireland)

I have a treasure box. I feel it is a nice parting item for the child. I believe it leaves them with a positive send off, a memento of the work they are doing. Some may use the small toy to help them remember what was shared and discovered in session.  Christa Kay Clarke, MA, LPC, NCC, RPT (Greenwood Village, CO)

I have a treasure chest. It is not connected to behavior. It is my hope that if they see the item they chose it will remind them of our work together and encourage them to continue the work. Connie Denise, LCSW, RPT (Moorehead, KY)

 I usually let kids take a sticker after session to help transition (love the smelly ones!). Gabrielle Dworkin, LMHC, RPT (Lincoln, RI)

I have a treasure box but don’t keep extrinsic treasures in it. It is actually a locked box that children can open and then ponder what treasures are locked inside of them. Theresa Coyne Fraser, PhD Candidate, (University of South Wales, Cardiff)

I have a few rotating options -I usually have candy; a few kids really want some sort of toy or sticker. It’s never based on what they do. But I have seen many kids really want to take something home from my office, and having stickers or silly toys has met a need in them. I think it helps some kids hold onto the good feelings of being in this space with me. Kit Fuller, Clinical Director (Ann Arbor, MI)

I have a sticker box that is open to all of my clients, some take for their siblings. It is just there, some don’t want any and others want many. This makes for good conversations too. Laura Kirchhofer (Kokomo, IN) 

First I would acknowledge the idea of giving a child some reward or prize etc is definitely a directive approach. I am directive play therapist and I have both a sticker box and marble chest. They are not earned but are provided for coming and sharing time with me. Since most school aged kids choose the marbles we talk about at the end of the session how the marble can reflect their work they did today and their special uniqueness and it is my way to thank them for this special time. When children do it the first time we talk about getting a jar or something to place their marbles in and how no ones jar will be alike- again recognizing their individual uniqueness. I have been doing this for over 24 years and it is amazing to run into kids – sometimes now adults- who remember the marbles and the special feelings associated with them – years later. Jamie Lynn Langley  (Murfreesboro, TN)

Since I started 30 years ago I have always given a small piece of candy at the end of the session. Candy was not frowned upon back then. I still do it, it means different things to different kids. For some it is nurturing for others it is “special”. I’ve had parents say, “sometimes I think they only come for the candy,” To which I respond “whatever gets them in the door.” Stephen Lott, Psy.D (Pensacola, FL)

I have a baskets that a client makes full of smiles. Everyone is given the option to take a smile. The kids love it and may take one for a friend or sibling. I also give stones as a transitional object and use it for many children. It could be a worry stone, a stone to represent a strategy or just a nice way to transition out of the playroom. In no way are these stones used as a reward. The play and the relationship is a mutual gift that I believe me and my clients cherish.  Tammi Van Holander, LCSW, RPT (Ardmore, PN)

I use a treasure chest. The kids don’t focus on it at all. Some don’t even choose to use it. It helps with the transition out of therapy, which is why I use it. I’ve never had an issue. Francesa Vargas, Psy.D LP, RPT

Play Therapists That Don’t Use a Treasure Box Weigh In

Eleven more play therapists explain why they decided NOT to use a treasure box in their play therapy space.

Maybe it’s just me but I don’t believe in rewarding clients for attending the session. I believe that having the safe place to process experiences and feelings is all the reward they need.  My wondering would be who does the prize box really benefit? If the therapist feels good for giving the prize then the box is for the therapist’s benefit and makes it about them when it should always be about the client. Ana Ashton, MA, LPC, RPT (Toledo, OH)

If you mean a prize box-no thanks for me. I want a child to be focused on the benefit of their time in the playroom. I know some children would be focused on “When are we finished?” and “Where is my prize?”  Cathy Canfield (Alexandria, VA)

In his book, Play Therapy-The Art of the Relationship, Landreth says that rewards inhibit children’s behaviors in play therapy and that they’re not as likely to express aggressive behaviors, make a mess, etc. A small prize at the end of a session cannot compare to the gift of being attuned to a child during a session. Pam Dyson, MA, LPC-S, RPT-S (Dallas, TX)

Time spent with you is their prize which no one can take away from them.  Sandra Emmet (Northampton, United Kingdom)

I don’t do a treasure box, I want the child to be accepted as they are. Katie Holland (Arkansas)

I never use any type of treasure box. The same goes for any type of food or drink in the therapy room. I feel that the therapeutic relationship is unique and that gifts, as small as they may be, open up a whole new “can of worms”. The child can associate me to a teacher or parent who uses rewards (often times inappropriately), may think that they have to behave in a certain way to “earn” something from the gift box by coming to their therapy sessions or in the worse case scenario, the gift itself may remind children who have been violated of their abuser who gifted them in order to do something “special” . Vana Lambrou, Child Psychologist (Montreal, Quebec)

I don’t give prizes, stickers, etc., because I feel like it implies a reward for some behavior or deed, and I want the child to feel that they’re accepted with me no matter what. Lynn McLean, LCSW-S, RPT-S (Houston, TX) 

When I first started as a play therapist I used a treasure box at the end of the session. Some but not all of the children would get overly focused on getting their prize at the end of the session and it seemed distracting. There were times when a child could not make up their mind and would spend too much time trying to decide what they wanted. There were times when they would beg for more than one item (good opportunity for limit setting but end of session and I’m trying to transition them out of the room). For me I learned it was better not to use the treasure chest. Jane Ogden (Bradenton, FL)

I have an empty wood “treasure box” that the child decorates at the beginning of treatment, and then at the end of each session, they pick a flat foam shape or a piece of paper and we write down something that they got from the session and put it in the treasure box. When counseling is finished, they take it home as a keepsake of the good work they did.Kate Pinsonneault, Registered Clinical Counselor (Comox, British Columbia)

I have a treasure box I keep kids paintings in and then kids will ask what their prize is when they leave, some even reference past therapists who gave them toys each time they left but I just say coming to therapy is gift enough and that the toys I have are special and stay in the playroom. Erika Saldivar, M.Ed, LPC-S (McKinney, TX)

Garry Landreth says in essence your relationship with the child is their prize. I use to do prizes but stopped several years ago. It gets complicated with allergies and if one sibling gets one prize and another sibling wants the same prize but I might be out. Heather Hartman Stephenson (Logan, UT)

Final Thoughts

So, in the end, the answer to the question, “Should you have a treasure box in your play therapy office?” really depends on what type of play therapist you are.  There is no right or wrong answer. (As is the case with most questions that start with should).

I encourage you to consider the rationale for having or not having a treasure box and know that the decision might change over the course of your career.  I definitely started out as a “should not” and have evolved into a “I do right now.”

My Personal Experience

It is not so that I will be liked and it is not to help ease the transition out of therapy.  It really is because I have a similar turquoise stone that was given to me in a play therapy training experience (actually by the 2016 Association for Play Therapy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Sue Bratton).   When I see it in my desk drawer, I remember the relationship that I formed with her in that brief encounter and the way that I felt as a student at that time.  Excited and inspired to bring play therapy to my community!

My transitional object from Sue Bratton, The University of North Texas in 2010

At Jen Taylor Play Therapy:

If I can give a beautiful stone or seashell to a child and they remember their therapy experience with the some degree of positive emotion, then I find it valuable.  Unlike Lisa Dion, who offers one choice of stone to every person, I have decided to offer three: beautiful marble jewels, colorful “warm fuzzies” and unique sea shells as the transitional objects from my office.

They each represent a different need (to have physical comfort, to feel beautiful, and to be unique).  They are not a prize and I do not even mention them to kids.  They are sitting on a table near the exit and if a child asks, they are free to choose one  per session.

The treasure box used at Jen Taylor Play Therapy Services

What are your thoughts about the use of a treasure box in play therapy? Please share!

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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