Julie our children’s worker writes…

We have been using Theraplay at Scottish Adoption since 2010 and quite simply it works!

It’s really useful in the early days of placement to help build attachment with your child.

It helps your child experience some of those interactions with a primary carer that they may have never got the chance to do or there was too much stress around for their brain to process completely the first time round. Interactions that they need to build healthy developmental foundations.

Our experience is that it’s never too late to have these early experiences with your child; we have lots of teenagers that we use theraplay with as well as little ones.

Whilst we are happy to work with families using theraplay, the principle of theraplay is play so you can try games at home, make up new games. The most important thing is to have fun. When a child really belly chuckles, it tells us that they are feeling really relaxed and safe and it also releases endorphins that flood their brain helping ease the impact of cortisol (a stress hormone that most of our children have in higher than normal levels). There is nothing quite like hearing the belly chuckle of a child to bring a smile to your face.

Favourite games for those early days are:

Caring for hurts

This is an important game in terms of nurture and building into the wiring of the brain the emotional idea for the child that this adult takes care of me. It is an activity that can be built into your daily routine e.g. after bath times. I have also used it to calm children at other times of the day as it connects the child back to you.

Encourage your child to show you their hurts (any wee bumps or scratch they might have) and rub some cream on them (I generally use E45 cream as it has little scent and is less likely to cause a sensory reaction). If your child struggles to show you hurts then help them find them. Sometimes when we first play this with children they can’t tolerate having cream rubbed in but if you gently came back to the game then they do learn to take the care. You will know you are successful when they start stripping off their clothes to find more and more hurts for you to care for.

Cotton ball hunt

This is a game that supports a child to develop permanence – the sensory awareness that things exist when they can’t be seen, in a child that hasn’t experienced loss, change of carers etc. this would normally have developed by about the age of four. Hide and seek, peep bo etc can also be used to promote the development of permanence but the additional bonus of this game is that encourages close physical contact. You can take great delight in finding the cotton balls promoting the experience of shared joy – so it has the additional capacity to support the building/deepening of attachment.

Encourage child to close their eyes and hide cotton wool ball balls on the child for them to find. If they won’t allow this, support child to hide cotton wool ball on parent, or get child to close eyes and parent to hide the cotton wool ball on themselves for the child to find. Some children might not be able to close their eyes at first, you can still hide the cotton balls though. Remember to show great joy when they find the cotton ball.

Blow over

This is a game that supports attachment. It is about establishing a connection with your child that is positive and fun. It is about being able to delight in each other and enjoy each other. There is also a physical closeness and eye contact which further re-enforces attachment at an earlier developmental age.
Sit facing each other and the parent blows child over so that they fall back, if you have wooden floors, make sure they are safe by putting a cushion behind their heads. Once they get the game then you can do soft blows, strong blows and you can even let them blow you over. We get great belly chuckles with this one in our groups.

Pop cheeks

This game is an engagement game and is used to promote eye contact at close physical proximity. It mirrors the eye contact that naturally happens with young babies when feeding, changing nappies etc. when we naturally place our faces in close proximity with a baby’s so that they can focus on us. It’s harder to find ways of doing this with an older child but this game allows that. Many families change the game, painting faces, decorating hair; the concept to hold onto is that you want to have eye contact at a distance of about six inches.

Sit your child in front of you and encourage them to maintain eye contact, if they resist this, please don’t force it. With gentle encouragement and practice they will be able to tolerate being close in time. When they are facing you see if they can blow up their cheeks to be popped (use the heel of your hands to pop their cheeks – small fingers can be quite sore on cheeks we’ve learned) they can also pop your cheeks. This is another game that brings giggles.


This is a game that mimics what we do with babies, from very young babies to older children, where we have close physical proximity and the parent and child mimic each other’s sounds and movements. It builds a connection between parent and child, which strengthens the attachment. Babies mimic adult faces from about 6 hours old so a really important one if your child missed out on this opportunity of close facial observation at an early age.

Parent to face child and then ask them to copy movements they make, e.g. poke tongue out, pat your head, pull your ear, pat your nose etc. Once your child has mastered copying you then you can let your child lead the game, set boundaries as to how long etc.

Beep Honk

This is another engagement game that promotes eye contact and intimacy, again imitating those earlier interactions that should happen naturally, but your child may have missed out and they certainly haven’t had the opportunity to do this with you.

Parent to sit child in front of them and make noises that relate to pats of their face e.g. touch nose and say honk, squeeze ear and say squeak, children are normally quite enthralled with it and then as they develop intimacy they will seek to play the game on you and are likely to pull their face in close to yours.

Songs and Rhymes

All songs and rhymes are great – favourites of mine include;

  • Row Row Row your Boat – turn the child to face you so you have good eye contact as you row
  • This Old Man came over the Hill – great for building intimacy as it pulls the child’s face in close to yours – a great favourite amongst our teenagers as well
  • Hokey Kokey – great for regulation and good fun
  • We are going on a Bear Hunt – great for regulation and then the wonder of being safely home.
  • Motor Boat Motor Boat – regulation and learning to stop, a tricky thing to learn!