I hate most therapy games. This is likely something I should not admit as a therapist, but I’ve said it now: most therapy games are terrible. From FEELINGS Jenga to FEELINGS Candyland to the UnGame- they are simply bad games. As a gamer, they offend my sensibilities. After one too many rounds of Candyland in my internship, I swore I would never play it again and refuse to own the game. A good therapy game, in my opinion, has the following characteristics:
- Interesting and non-standard. Jenga out, Exploding Kittens in! I want something novel the client thinks is awesome.
- A good game even without the therapy component- I have to play most of my therapy games at least 3 times a week. I better like the game or I will not be as engaged as I should be as a therapist.
- Throw-able. I have to be able to manipulate the outcome of the game if I want to. I don’t always want to, but sometimes I need to know how a kid responds to losing, so I need to be able to get the child to lose.
- Teachable in less than 5 minutes. I don’t have all session to teach the rules.
- Require thought and strategy on a high level. I want to see how the child thinks.
- Cause stress or lead to a discussion about stress and coping skills naturally. Not the forced “I wrote feelings words on every Jenga block” but natural discussion.
With all that in mind, I present to you the perfect therapy games: Exploding Kittens. If you have not heard of this wonderful game, go forth and watch this video about how to play now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAkRKuv5Rts
This game hits all my criteria perfectly. It is interesting. The name alone gets most kids intrigued and willing to play. You can ‘throw’ the game by not playing a defuse for yourself. I can usually win if I want to and can throw the game without the child I’m working with being aware. It is teachable in less than five minutes-see video above for proof- and I’ve taught it to savvy kids in less than three.
The game requires thought and strategy; most kids pretty quickly figure out that more cards in their hand are better and build up a large-ish hand. They might figure what cards work best in combination- a see the future might need to be followed up by a shuffle or a skip. They will quickly come up with ideas for how to win- but the game can be tricky and their ideas may not work. The game is fundamentally unfair at times- I might get 3 exploding kittens in a row my first three draws- and thus can really frustrate kids who rely on fairness for everything. If you have kid who struggles with HATING unfairness and needing to learn flexible thinking, I’ve paired the book My Day Is Ruined: A Story Teaching Flexible Thinking by Bryan Smith with the game to help kids practice the skill of flexible thinking.
The Exploding Kitten cards can also be used as a chance to talk about what makes the client “explode” with anger. The defuse cards have some things you can suggest as ways for client to calm down. Kitten Therapy is a defuse card, as is Kitten Yoga and Belly Rubs (which I turn into a discussion about if physical contact when client is upset is helpful or not). You can even get clients to practice some of the skills on the defuse cards or make a list of the ones that would help them. Obviously the defuse cards are about cats, but you can always find a human-equivalent for cards like “Chasing a Laser Pointer” (distraction with a fun thing? Movie?)
The game is also very funny and has jokes on most of the cards. I find that my shy clients warm up quickly when looking at the funny cards. Some of the cards can spur natural discussion, such as a card from the expansion “The Shark that Wounds With Words Instead of Teeth.” I always ask kids to tell me about a time they were bullied or other were mean to them. It is great natural chance to explore how mean words affect kids.
Exploding Kittens has become a standard in my therapy toolkit. I love it and the kids I work with do to. Just be careful when ordering- there is a NSFW version that is NOT kid friendly. If you haven’t played Exploding Kittens, give it a try- it is both fun and useful.