Jessica Stone on Play Therapy in the Digital Age

Jessica Stone on Play Therapy in the Digital Age

by Lawrence Rubin
Crossing the digital divide with young clients can lead to great therapeutic strides.


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Crossing the Digital Divide

Lawrence Rubin: Hi, Jessica. Thanks for joining me today. How did you become interested in digital play therapy, which really is cutting-edge and somewhat controversial with children?
Jessica Stone: I kind of straddle a few worlds here. I am a licensed psychologist with a specialty in play therapy. Within it, digital play therapy has become one of those areas of interest over the last 20 years, stemming from experiences with my own kids, who had this whole portion of their world that I didn't really understand, know about, or enter into. It struck me as a little bit ironic and maybe even hypocritical that here I spend my time at work and my energy learning and doing play therapy with children and entering their world, while my own kids have this whole portion of theirs that I was putting no effort into understanding. And so, I kind of had to smack myself upside the head and say, all right, I need to learn more about this. Why is this important to them? Why are they interested in it?

Long story short, I ended up entering into an online game called Runescape that my oldest two (of four children) were both playing at the time. I am no digital native by any means, and I was not very good at these games, but the point was that I was taking interest. I was listening to them. I was asking them questions. We were having conversations about what happened in the game, what quest they were working on; things that were important to them that prior to my entering their world, I couldn't participate in or even understand. I began to see that because this co-play was so impactful with my own children, I needed to incorporate it into my work, which really opened the door to what I have been doing for all these years.
LR: So, you recognized that technology was so important and present in your kids’ life that you would be almost doing a disservice to your young clients if you didn't cross that bridge into their digital world. Tell me, what exactly is digital play therapy?
I am no digital native by any means, and I was not very good at these games, but the point was that I was taking interest
Digital play therapy is a modality that is based in speaking the client’s language through what I call the four C’s, which are competency, culture, comfort, and capability. These are basic elements of therapy in general, but digital play therapy in particular is couched within the broader context of prescriptive play therapy, which taps into what Charles Schaefer calls the therapeutic powers of play. So the point is that there is a foundation for it. It's not just, oh, let’s just jump on this bandwagon and start throwing these digital things into what we’re doing. We as clinicians need to have a very firm and solid foundation in what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it regardless of our theoretical foundation, therapeutic modality, and interventions, or whether the platform is virtual or face-to-face. And as in all therapies, we must ground our interventions in solid case conceptualization and treatment planning.
LR: I know that Charles Schaefer co-founded the Association for Play Therapy and has written extensively on play therapy, but can you tell our readers what he means by the “therapeutic powers of play?”
it's not just, oh, let’s just jump on this bandwagon and start throwing these digital things into what we’re doing
If you can close your eyes for a minute, imagine a graph with four quadrants that represent what he calls the core agents of change. These are facilitating communication, fostering emotional wellness, increasing personal strength, and enhancing social relationships. In turn, each of those quadrants consists of the 20 therapeutic powers of the play. For instance, in the quadrant of “facilitating communication”, we have self-expression, access to the unconscious, direct and indirect teaching. In the quadrant of “enhancing social relationships,” we have the therapeutic relationship, attachment, social competence and empathy, and so on. I think what Dr. Schaefer has done is given us a really amazing foundation from which to then tailor and customize it as fit for whatever our modality and our theoretical foundation would be.
LR: So when working with children, it's important to consider their communication skills, their emotional development, their strengths, and their social connectivity, and then if you choose to work digitally with them using an app, a video game, or even a virtual reality platform, you are doing so from a solid theoretical foundation and justification for that intervention.
JS: Right, and one of the things that I wanted to add was
there are three levels of digital play therapy: at the first level, you are simply open to it, including it in the conversation, and trying to understand why it's important for that client
that there are three levels of digital play therapy. At the first level, you are simply open to it, including it in the conversation, and trying to understand why it's important for that client. The second level would be when someone brings in, for example, a YouTuber that they are interested in, or a game, and they want to show you a video of it, or together you're looking up information about it. So you're using a digital tool, but it's to learn more about it and to share in some aspects of your client’s life. The third level would be all of the above and would also include actually meeting with your client within a game (whether you are with them in the room or virtually) or using an app together. And so, in order to have digital play therapy, you don’t have to be in the Roblox game with them. You could be at level one or level two, talking about it, asking questions about it, or having your client show it to you, or taking a tour of it.

If Not for the Legend of Zelda

LR: And that becomes part of the treatment plan as well. And you may not even know which level you're going to be entering into until you know the child a little better. Can you give an example off the top of your head of a level three experience that you had with a client?
JS: Absolutely, but I’ll sanitize all over the place for obvious reasons. I had a little elementary school age guy who came in to me because he was selectively mute. He didn't speak to any adults, including his teachers. He spoke to his parents, but he didn't speak to any adults outside of his home.

We had this amazingly intricate way of playing the physical game Guess Who, not the digital version. We came up with this whole worksheet with all the different options that he could point to and we were really proud of ourselves for having gotten to that point. But then he wanted to move on and saw that I had a Nintendo Switch sitting on my shelf. He pointed to it, and I said, “Oh, yeah. You know, I have this Switch, and really the main game I have on there is Legends of Zelda.” I listed the other games I had, but the main one that the kids really wanted to play at the time was Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and so he wanted to play it. By the way, I have the “regular” Nintendo Switch, the one with the two removable handset controllers and central viewing screen that both players can see.

We each had a controller, and I said, “But what we have to do now is to figure out how we’re going to communicate, because one of the handsets controls where the person is looking, and the other one controls where the person is walking. So if we’re not communicating, we’re going to go off a cliff, or we’re going to run into an enemy, or, you know, something is going to happen because we’re not explaining to each other what our agendas are, or what our desires are.”

it was a breakthrough that I really don’t know that we would have had it were it not for Legend of Zelda
He also had a tablet that he could type on to communicate so he indicated that he would point because he was the walker, and I would be the looker. As we were playing, we came to this dangerous thing and it became this frenzied moment because we were going to be attacked. All of the sudden, he screams out at me, “Look over there!” While I had never heard his voice before, I didn’t want to make too big of a deal of it.

I was like, okay, play it cool, but inside I was so excited. Out of the corner of my eye, I see his hand fly up over his mouth, like, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I just did that, right? And I said, “Oh, I’m so glad you said that,” and I looked where he told me, averted the danger and we went on. I said, “You really saved us. I’m so happy that you talked to me to tell me that because we would have totally been attacked.” After that pivotal moment, he would chitchat, and there weren’t any communication lapses. It was kind of like, well, the cat is out of the bag, and I didn't make it an unsafe environment for him to do so, and it was a breakthrough that I really don’t know that we would have had it were it not for Legend of Zelda, the two controllers, and the need to communicate with each other. It's amazing.

The 4 C’s of Digital Play Therapy

LR: That was a breathtaking moment. How does it capture those 4 C’s of digital play therapy you referred to earlier on?
JS: The first three—competency, culture, and comfort really culminate with the fourth, which is capability.

Competency is those core skills that derive from our theoretical beliefs, experience, and continued education, regardless of our discipline of practice. It is within the professional. It is what we bring into the therapeutic space.

Culture is very interesting to me and something that we’ve talked about for decades as being important to incorporate into our clinical work. It has blossomed and expanded from religion, race, and place of origin to include other facets of peoples’ experience, like music, food, and interests, and of course their digital involvement.

A while back, I was invited to speak at a PAX convention, which is like Comic Con but for people who enjoy gaming. There were literally thousands of people there, all of whom shared this common experience and who have historically been characterized as “other,” with all the stereotypes that go along with gamers, like spending days in their mother’s basement playing video games.
LR: They don't fit in.
JS: They don’t fit in. And while I don’t want to perpetuate any of those damaging and non-appropriate stereotypes, there I was with thousands and thousands of people and I was the “other.” I’d never felt like the other in my life, but in that moment, it really struck me that it is such a disservice to think of people who have digital interests as “others.” [editquote:it really struck me that it is such a disservice to think of people who have digital interests as “others"

First of all, it is quite hypocritical, because at any given moment, most of us have a device near us. We have a phone we don’t leave our house without. We have our computer, and millions of people play very casual games like Bejeweled or Candy Crush on their device. So, it's quite hypocritical for us to say, “Oh, those people are others,” when really, there are simply different levels of gaming. So, the culture piece is really important to me, and we can’t simply reject portions of our clients’ lives—in this case their digital interests.
LR: If technology is so significant a part of our culture, why is there still a seeming reluctance on the part of some clinicians to incorporate it into therapy, and in this case play therapy with children?
JS: That actually brings us into the next C, which is comfort, the importance of which is that we be genuine and congruent within ourselves, and that's something that I think that a lot of therapists don’t have about technology. I talk to people, and they're like, “I don't know how to get my photos off my phone. I don't know where to find them.” So first, I think it's just basic knowledge and comfort. We know that at the beginning of the pandemic, people were freaking out. They didn't know how to use a platform like Zoom or, you know, whatever it is that they're using. Where do I get the link? How do I get into the app? How do I talk to people? What if they can’t hear me? As therapists, regardless of whether we are working with adults or children, we have a lot of things to think about when we’re in session, including, how does this fit into our case conceptualization and align with our treatment goals?
LR: How do I validate it?
JS: So
when a new anything is added into that therapeutic mix, like technology, it throws everything else off kilter a little bit so that we don’t feel secure, we don’t feel congruent
when a new anything is added into that therapeutic mix, like technology, it throws everything else off kilter a little bit so that we don’t feel secure, we don’t feel congruent, and now we are not only worrying about the logistics, but also whether I am doing the right thing for my client. And so when you package all that together, it's like, oh, I don’t even want to touch that because it’s too risky. It's too scary. In my book, Digital Play Therapy, I refer to this as techno-panic. We can point to so many different points throughout history, such as Socrates saying that the written word was going to destroy the oral word. Radios are going to destroy... TV is going to destroy... Video is going to destroy…
LR: So techno-panic results in people, and perhaps in our case therapists, keeping their distance from technology because of anxiety, worry, and insecurity.
JS: Yes, I’m going to keep my distance, because that has enough in it to scare me but not enough to inform me.

And by the way, the fourth “C” is capability—something to bring the other 3 C’s together. Capability means continually striving and reaching forward throughout one's career to embrace, or at least consider new modalities, concepts, and techniques to discover, explore, and practice.

The Virtual Sandtray: Origins

LR: This conversation reminds me of an experience I had a few years back when I encouraged a fellow play therapist, Deidre Skigen, who had been using the SIMS program as a virtual sandtray, to write an article for Play Therapy magazine. Soon after it was published, a veteran sandtray therapist (and purist) sent in a 32-page paper lambasting the idea of using a simulated sand tray. According to your 4 C’s model, this veteran clinician could probably not check off any of the C’s. With that said, please tell us about your groundbreaking app, the Virtual Sandtray.
JS: Sandtray is amazing and has been around for just about 100 years.
Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld started with the World Technique in the 1920s while working with kids after the war
Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld started with the World Technique in the 1920s while working with kids after the war. She really wanted to understand more about their experience and, in particular, their resilience. She understood that the sand tray is a creative, projective way of working with people either nonverbally or verbally. Traditionally, it's a tray with a blue bottom, and depending on the clinician’s theoretical orientation, can be made in different sizes. It can be populated with various objects and figures, which when placed in the sand create a symbolic representation of the child’s external world, their unconscious conflicts, fantasies, and projections.

It can be freeform, and then it becomes the clinician’s job to understand what that client is expressing. Sometimes people will tell a story and narrate it. Sometimes they won’t. There’re so many things that will depend on where someone’s theoretical foundation is coming from with regard to sand therapies. This is the foundation and fundamental aspect of doing sandtray therapy—your client is creating a world, a microcosm right there with you.
LR: And your Virtual Sandtray app?
JS: In 2011, following a devastating tsunami in Japan, my very good friend and colleague, Dr. Akiko Ohnogi, co-founder of the Japanese Association for Play Therapy put out a plea, “Please send us materials. We have all these people.” She and her therapist-colleagues needed materials to work with people impacted by the tsunami.
no matter what you do, sand is bulky and heavy and will escape whatever you put it in, no matter what, so an alternative was needed

I got together a bunch of stuff, and I sent it over feeling quite proud of myself for contributing to all of this but then thought to myself, how are they going to do sandtray without a sand tray? While sand trays are very popular in the United States and come in many varieties, portable kits are clumsy at best, and how were we going to get all the necessary miniatures to them? No matter what you do, sand is bulky and heavy and will escape whatever you put it in, no matter what, so an alternative was needed.

As it happened, I had received an iPad for Mother’s Day that was pretty cool to have, but it wasn’t getting much use until I thought, “It should be on an iPad.” And then I started thinking about how it could be used by clinicians and interns in hospitals and schools, in crisis situations as well as in traditional therapy spaces, whether in-person or online. A virtual sand tray could be used with immunocompromised people and clients who were traumatized and would be triggered by the sensory contact with the sand. Interestingly, my husband had taught himself to program when he was a teenager. He said enthusiastically, “You know, I’m going to start that project for you.” Being married, I had of course heard that line before, but he proudly proclaimed, “Oh, that sand tray project.” It just bloomed from there.

the Virtual Sandtray started out as a touchscreen app so that you could have the kinesthetic experience of the creation of the tray
Dr. Schaefer invited me to his annual retreat/think tank, so I was able to share my thoughts and receive excellent feedback from my play therapy colleagues. And Drs. Linda Homeyer and Daniel Sweeney, who wrote the definitive book Sand Tray Therapy, offered to beta test it and provide additional feedback. So, I was very fortunate to have such amazingly educated and experienced people giving us information, knowledge, and feedback on our app.

The Virtual Sandtray started out as a touchscreen app so that you could have the kinesthetic experience of the creation of the tray. I also did a lot of research and reading into Dr. Cathy Malchiodi’s art therapy work about the inclusion of digital-art representation and symbolism and I am so proud to say that we have recently partnered with the Lowenfeld Trust, who endorsed our product and the way it has stayed faithful to the basic tenets of her original work with the sandtray.

The Virtual Sandtray: Applications

LR: So what exactly can you do with the Virtual Sandtray app, and what clients is it best suited for?
JS: So, I'll say this as a nutshell and then put it to the side. There are a lot of administrative features that we’ve built in for the therapist which are separate from the actual clinical uses. It is also important to note that the app is atheoretical, as is use of a physical sand tray. The Virtual Sandtray app is like all other materials in the playroom, a tool that is adaptable to the clinician and the client, regardless of presenting issues. It is also useful for any age, as is a physical sand tray.

You can dig in the sand. You can build up the sand. You can paint it, add grass, or water, or cobblestone, or you can have it be sand color. You can place 3D models in it, rotate the tray, and navigate at any angle. Like a physical sand tray, it is three-dimensional in every regard.

a happy-go-lucky scene of rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns can be created against a dark and foreboding background

You can make the models bigger or smaller, turn them around, move them, and knock them over. You can blow them up. You can change the background. A happy-go-lucky scene of rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns can be created against a dark and foreboding background. Congruence between the main scene and the background is relative. You can dig down in the sand, paint the inside of the tray blue so that the bottom of the tray is like water.



11 Year-Old: Safety and Security with Unicorns and Fence, but Danger (Dragons) Lurking


Adult: Castle as Calm Space/Sanctuary


You can create a multidimensionality in the sand so that, for instance, two layers would just be sand, but the third layer is liquid. So, in the happy-go-lucky scene I mentioned above, you can change the liquid layer to lava. So now we have a multilevel, multidimensional depiction of this world for this client. We also have camera filters, so you can make it look like it's snowing, or raining, or you can invert the colors. You can do night vision, like it’s seen by aliens or something like that.

9 Year-Old: Red Dragon Scene- Danger, Missing Scary, Unsafe, Trauma

Therapist Process Tray: Sadness Over Missing out On 4th of July Due To COVID

LR: Jeez.
JS: One of my current favorites is this one called “broken,” and there’s a couple different broken varieties, but if you can imagine a scene where the person has created a scene depicting their family and then they use the camera filter so it appears shattered. This might reflect how that client feels about their family.

By the way, you can save trays and load previously saved trays to work on again. The clinician can review and compare/contrast the in-person with the online sessions. In the secure, encrypted remote mode with a free client version, no personal health information is collected, and there are multiple language and accessibility features and well over 7,000 3D models available.

Sandtray with a VR Twist

LR: In your book, you talk about the virtual reality version of your sandtray app.
In VR with the Virtual Sandtray, you can be either up in what's called God mode, where you're up above the tray, looking down, or you can come down to the level of the sand tray and interact with your creation
In 2016, I started learning more and more about VR. I remember thinking, "Mental health is going to explode with virtual reality." So my husband created a version of the app for virtual reality. In VR with the Virtual Sandtray, you can be either up in what’s called God mode, where you're up above the tray, looking down, or you can come down to the level of the sand tray and interact with your creation. So imagine a child is depicting a theme in which they have been bullied at school, or an adult client is interacting with their spouse and that interaction has been traumatic. Unlike with the Virtual Sandtray app, the client can go right down to the level of the depicted scene to walk and interact within it. It is an entirely different level of immersion. You can certainly crouch down in a traditional tray and become more physically engaged—grab the items and narrate, and move them around and all of that. But in VR, you're staring them in the face. The thing is right there. It's a really powerful, amazing, immersive experience to use the virtual reality version of it, and I’m really proud of that.



Animated Bullies Looking Down on Child Who is Much Smaller/Crying

Bullied Child As He Would Like It To Be—He Is Now Bigger and Talking To Them

VR Version of Sandtray of 11 Year-Old’s Sandtray Scene From Above

LR: Readers may be familiar with the use of virtual reality in cognitive behavioral therapy, in exposure and response prevention. And this isn’t necessarily used for exposure in an anxiety or trauma reduction sense, but it's adding another level of immersion into the play.
VR could be used in an exposure play therapy format by putting a big spider in the tray or scene
VR could be used in an exposure play therapy format by putting a big spider in the tray or scene. I can make that thing enormous, and then it becomes a challenge to the client, who has to ask themselves, “How do I manage that? How do I keep myself safe? How do I titrate toward, or away, or whatever it is?” I use VR in my clinical practice for a variety of reasons. I’ve used it with adult women for empowering them. I’ve used it with all ages for identifying safe places and spaces.

I even have a job simulator. I have a kid whose life is very regimented, and she comes in, and she just destroys the whole office. She chooses the job of being an office worker, and she goes in and dumps the coffee, and throws things, and just makes this huge mess, and it's so cathartic for her to do this with no real-world consequences.


LR: What’s the difference, Jessica, between synchronous and asynchronous telemental health play therapy?
JS: This conversation that we’re having right now is synchronous. We’re both here at the same time, speaking to each other, even though we’re in different locations. If you have synchronous learning, it's the educator and the student in the same place at the same time. Asynchronous is when we were emailing back and forth. Or it may be an online platform where the educator and the student are not in the same realm at the same time. In therapy, it would be the therapist and the client were not in the engagement at the same time. So when we give a client homework, or when they're going to draw something or create something, or make a list, or whatever it is, that would be asynchronous.
LR: In face-to-face (live) play therapy, the clinician has all the goodies right there in the room—the drawing materials, blocks, sand tray, clay, papier mâché, and dollhouse, to name a few. How is this done online in a synchronous format?
JS: There are just so many different things that people are doing, and it's just wonderful. The resilience of human beings is amazing. A lot of clinicians have either identified what the client has on their end and what the therapist has on their own end, and then they can each use their materials when they see each other; for example, they could play Uno. And we’re talking about, like, traditional play materials. If we’re talking about digital, there’s a way to do so many things digitally.

Other clinicians have created play therapy kits that the client can pick up or that get delivered, so both have similar materials in their respective spaces. In a sense, it’s parallel play. I’ve had a couple of clients just say, “Okay, let’s draw a whatever-it-is,” and then on my end, I do it, and on their end, they do it, and then I hold it up and they hold theirs up and we show each other. If you’re doing it digitally, you can screen share. What it boils down to is using the tools and materials that have clinical significance and relevance and that meet the needs of the client and their treatment, and that ties into your therapeutic modality of choice.

And this brings us way back to that fourth “C,” capability, because if we really understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, then we are able to identify those components and find alternate ways to employ them, but if we don’t have them identified, what the hell are we doing?
LR: What you're describing seems parallel to your experience at the PAX conference where there was this alternate mainstream, and you were the “other.” I imagine that there are some therapists out there who fall into this “other” category, as well as those who are curious and in need of training and exposure, and a third group that has already embraced digital play therapy.

As we come to an end, Jessica, can you name five apps that you have found most useful therapeutically with children?
I will say that the Nintendo Switch has been an amazing resource for me in therapy, whether through telehealth or in person, and the same goes for my use of virtual reality platforms
Like you said, the Virtual Sandtray would be my tippy top. I have found a lot of therapeutic value in VR programs, and that, again, can open up a whole ‘nother conversation. I will say that the Nintendo Switch has been an amazing resource for me in therapy, whether through telehealth or in person, and the same goes for my use of virtual reality platforms. Underneath that, Roblox. While I know a lot of people who let out a collective groan about Roblox for a number of reasons, I would ask techno-curious readers to watch YouTube videos. Learn more about it. Play some things yourself. It's not as scary and awful as a lot of people think it is. You have to be savvy and have some digital citizenship.
LR: Digital citizenship.
JS: There’s hundreds and hundreds of options to choose from, different varieties and genres that you can then tailor to your client’s needs and interests. It's like Disneyland, you know, for options. Then we have Uno Freak. I mean, that's really basic. We’re just going to play Uno. Like, you put a card. I put a card. You put a card. I put a card. Draw cards. You know, just really basic, fundamental. I actually like the Uno Freak version of Uno better than the card version.

There’s Board Game Arena, and there’s a couple other board game types, as well, traditional games like chess, checkers, Othello. Battleship is a good one, but there are hundreds of other games that you may never even have heard of that you can explore, and they each have little tutorials to walk you through it. So I would say those are really fundamentals that people could start with. Certainly, if people want to know more about some of the other arenas, then I’m happy to do that. Skribbl is there if you want to play something like Pictionary. You both join. You draw. You guess. You laugh. You engage. You learn a lot about people’s frustration tolerance and their coping skills and styles, as well as their interpersonal skills and styles.
LR: Maybe the greatest takeaway from this conversation, Jessica, is that, while this may be scary and new and even evoke techno-panic in those who are probably prone to techno-panic anyway, it really is worth becoming more aware of, because there’s probably not as much of a divide between digital play therapy and nondigital play therapy as people fear or think. Anyway, the real healing comes in the relationship between the therapist and the client and how we use whatever we have or whatever they bring to help them to get where they're going.
JS: I really would like people to think of it as an "and", not an "or". And that we can take all those fundamentals and use them in really powerful ways, whatever the medium is.

LR: And I think, on that note, we’ll stop. Thanks so much, Jessica, for pointing us to the bridge between the digital and non-digital world of therapy and, in particular, play therapy.

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Jessica Stone Jessica Stone, PhD is a licensed psychologist in the state of Colorado. She has served on a number of boards, including the World Association for Sand Tray Professionals, AutPlay, and the California branch of the Association for Play Therapy. Dr. Stone is an international speaker, clinical supervisor, and registered play therapist. She is the co-creator of The Virtual Sandtray, which has partnered with the Lowenfeld Trust, and is the developer of Digital Play Therapy. Dr. Stone has been featured for her work throughout the virtual world as an innovator, ambassador of play, and stalwart advocate for the use of digital technology in the field of psychology.
Lawrence Rubin Lawrence ‘Larry’ Rubin, PhD, ABPP, is a Florida licensed psychologist, and registered play therapist. He currently teaches in the doctoral program in Psychology at Nova Southeastern University and retired Professor of Counselor Education at St. Thomas University. A board-certified diplomate in clinical child and adolescent psychology, he has published numerous book chapters and edited volumes in psychotherapy and popular culture including the Handbook of Medical Play Therapy and Child Life: Interventions in Clinical and Medical Settings and Diagnosis and Treatment Planning Skills: A Popular Culture Casebook Approach. Larry is the editor at

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe digital play therapy and the virtual sandtray
  • Discuss the various tools and techniques of digital play therapy
  • Create treatment plans that incorporate digital play therapy

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here