The Secret Sauce to Use Art Confidently in Play Therapy

Using a neuroscience and attachment-informed framework to confidently and effectively integrate art into play therapy with children and adolescents.

Using art in play therapy is a staple in most play therapist’s toolbox.


Art is an excellent way for children and adolescents to access the therapeutic powers of play for healing.

Is it possible to use art “wrong” in play therapy?

I prefer to think about that question this way –

How can you use art to get the most benefit for your clients and maintain a safe therapeutic art-making space?

After all, that’s the goal when using play therapy with your clients, right? Learning how to use art confidently to get the most benefit for your child and adolescent clients in play therapy. First and foremost, you need a framework that’s grounded in theory and informed by research. This ensures your toolbox full of tools using various art activities/interventions are grounded in theory and informed by research. You can use art to access the therapeutic powers of play as one of your tools. This requires you to use a theoretical framework to access those therapeutic powers of play effectively. That’s why I LOVE using a neuroscience and attachment theory-informed framework. I created the Be 5 Framework to ground the integration of various play therapy interventions, including art. Truth be told - I LOVE using art with my adult clients as well. Once you have a good framework to use, then you can focus on what and how you’re using art in your play therapy sessions. There are three questions I’m asked frequently during play therapy trainings and supervision/consultation meetings I facilitate.

In this article, I’ll share information about the Be 5 Framework. I’ll also discuss the three questions I’m asked all the time about how to use art confidently and effectively with child and adolescent clients. I think about these four elements as the secret sauce for confidently and effectively using art with your clients. Let’s get started.

What is the Be 5 Framework?

The Be 5 Framework encompasses five things you need to think about when using a variety of play therapy interventions. First of all, this framework is really about a way of being during sessions with your clients to create and maintain a safe therapeutic space. This way of being allows you to tap into your resonance circuits (Daniel Siegel) for important information to guide treatment. Being attuned with your clients in their sessions also allows you to understand your clients’ treatment needs in sessions so they can get better. This includes the pacing of sessions, recognizing what’s going on in sessions, and processing information with your clients.

using art in play therapy grounded in theory and informed by research

Here’s another way to consider this question about what is the Be 5 Framework. You’ve taken a variety of play therapy training. Each of those trainings may or may not have included information about the theoretical model underlying what you’re being taught. Most play therapy training includes activities. Fast forward to your office. You’re back in your office using a lot of different play therapy activities you’ve learned over time. How are you grounding those activities in a framework and theory model to make sure you’re getting maximum results for your clients? When I pondered this question myself, I realized that across a variety of play therapy models there are some overlapping principles. I also recognized that using an attachment and neuroscience lens was a great way to tie everything together, and guide my decision-making about what play therapy interventions to use in sessions.

In a nutshell, here’s the Be 5 Framework:

  • Be Fully Present – your full intentional presence in the session creating safety and accessing your resonance circuits to read your clients’ cues

  • Be Accepting with appropriate limits when needed

  • Be Playful through accessing the therapeutic powers of play

  • Be Curious by using curiosity for exploration and being non-judgemental to maintain free & protected space

  • Be Aware of your body language, body positioning (space), theory being used for the activity, and what language is used by you and your clients

If you want to learn more about the Be 5 Framework, click here for the free pdf: Yes! I want this

How Do You Introduce the Art-making Process to Your Clients?

Another question I’m asked all the time is - “How do I introduce the art activity?” This brings us back to identifying what theory model you plan to use with your clients. If you’re using Child Centered Play Therapy then you don’t introduce an art prompt. When using more directive prompts with art, then ask yourself what you want to accomplish and how does that line up with your theory? Here’s an example. If you’re using a CBT focus then you can invite your clients to draw their emotions about a particular event or experience. Keep in mind you’re asking your clients to symbolically represent an emotional experience. Use a curiosity mindset to observe how your clients engage in the art making process and how (or if) your clients represent their emotions about that experience. This gives you lots of information about your clients, especially when you’re fully present tapping into your resonance circuits. You can then use this art prompt to help your clients connect the emotions-thinking-behaviors triangle.

Generally speaking, engagement in the therapeutic art-making process begins with an invitation. This invitation to create art gives your clients permission to choose to engage or not engage. Your clients need to feel free to decline the art prompt. This sense of empowerment helps to build and maintain safety within the sessions. Your ability to create and maintain a free & protected space for your clients is a critical first step for client participation.

art is projective modality, access conscious and unconscious, symbolism in art

How Do You Therapeutically Hold the Art-making Process?

Therapeutically holding the art-making process requires an understanding that this is a projective modality. This means your clients will access conscious and unconscious experiences and symbolically represent them in their art. A foundational principle for the therapeutic process across most theoretical models is this: Given a free & protected space your clients will naturally move toward healing and wholeness. Creating and maintaining a safe space is the first task of therapy. Your job is to create a safe space and trust that your clients can access the therapeutic powers of play when they feel safe. This facilitates your clients’ ability to access the therapeutic powers of play. Your ability to therapeutically hold all the symbolic possibilities requires you to recognize your own personal biases and limitations. You don’t want your biases and limitations to interfere with the therapeutic process.

Since art and play therapy are projective modalities, holding all the possibilities of what your clients are working through is important. These possibilities include all the various themes and meanings of those themes in the playroom. You can use the Be 5 Framework to allow these possibilities to unfold as you witness the art-making process throughout the play therapy process. As you witness themes and symbolic representations, as well as conscious explanations by your clients, take note of changes and recurrences. Notice themes in your client’s art and play as well as any changes over time.

I find even when using a directive prompt I need to allow for the client to complete the activity in whatever way meets the child’s needs. Everything gives you great information. There’s no wrong way to complete art. This is because, at its core, the activity is designed to help your clients process whatever they need to work through at that moment.

Generally speaking, the important thing to remember here is that significant themes repeat throughout sessions. It’s rare that a key theme will only reveal itself once. So be weary of making quick judgments. Those usually wreck havoc on the projective process for your clients. Your job is to be aware of your own emotions, judgments, and biases to ensure these aren’t projected onto your clients. Using the Be 5 Framework will help you to remain attuned to your client and aware of your internal responses.

How Do You Explore Your Clients’ Art Projects in Play Therapy Sessions?

An important thing to keep in mind as you’re exploring with your clients what they’ve created is maintaining the free & protected space. Be fully present and aware in session so you can be the container and the witness with the child. When examining what your clients created it’s important to use curiosity and invitation when framing questions. For example, when exploring what your clients created, be mindful of what you say and how. You can use invitation by asking your clients to share as much or as little as they’d like to share about their art project. Be respectful of your clients’ wishes if they have nothing to say. You need to trust the process if this is that case. Trust that your clients are getting what they need through access to the therapeutic powers of play in a free & protected space.

Art can access the therapeutic powers of play so be mindful of what therapeutic aspects you want to use to facilitate the healing process. Are you addressing fears to challenge cognitive distortions and facilitate counterconditioning? Are you allowing your clients to access their unconscious for a deeper exploration of factors contributing to their emotional distress? Are you using the art prompt to explore relationships? Your art prompt will access a variety of therapeutic powers of play using a theoretical framework. How you phrase your questions will likely be guided by your theoretical model within the context of the therapeutic relationship. I generally suggest staying in the metaphor with your clients. This allows psychological distance for your clients to use symbolism to explore and process what may or may not be conscious to them. Also, don’t name something unless your client first names it. You might not name it correctly. That can create feelings of insecurity for your clients. It can also shift the focus from them to you. 

therapeutic powers of play using art

Finally, unless your play therapy model dictates, don't add or suggest what needs to be in your clients’ art. You want to be very careful about allowing your clients to use their art for healing and not insert yourself into their art-making process. Once you begin to direct what “should” go into their art then you risk interjecting yourself into their healing process. This can interfere with their healing process and possibly create an unsafe space. Or, your clients may shift into trying to please you with their art process rather than using it for their own healing. You can invite them to use creative problem solving if they would like to add something or take away anything after you explore what they’ve created. This allows your clients to decide how to best use the art-making process for healing.


  • Using neuroscience and attachment theory can use a framework that creates a safe space for your clients. It can also help you better understand your clients and how to facilitate the change process.

  • Be mindful of how you introduce and hold the art-making process.

  • Think about how the art-making process accesses the therapeutic powers of play. Trust that your clients can access those healing elements of play as you hold that space for them.

  • You’re allowing for lots of possibilities in the art making process. Ultimately it’s their healing journey, so trust the process.

  • Exploration of your client’s art projects needs to allow for freedom of expression as you create and maintain a therapeutic space. This allows for their ability to engage in that process in a deeply meaningful way.

Want to learn how to use art therapeutically in the play therapy process?

Check out two of my trainings that teach you how to use art therapeutically in play therapy.

  • Integrating Art into Play Therapy with Children & Teens is a Live Webinar on September 17, 2022.

  • Expressive Arts in Play Therapy with Adolescents is a self-paced, recorded course focused on using expressive arts to address critical developmental tasks for teens to overcome their mental health challenges.

Click here to learn more:  Yes! I definitely want to learn more!

Want a free copy of the Be 5 Framework pdf? Click here for a free copy:  Yes! I want a copy!

Categories: Art in Play Therapy, Play Therapy