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Explaining the Brain – Teaching Trauma Playfully

December 16, 2011
Giant Microbes

TLC Guest Blogger: Cherie L. Spehar, MSW, LCSW, CTS

Expressive Play Therapy serves as a bridge between the important steps we use with TLC’s Trauma Intervention Program and the facilitation and externalization of the feelings those interventions elicit. One of my favorite ways to synergize both is when we reach the point of teaching trauma.

Sometimes, the psychoeducational aspects of trauma work can be daunting. How can we playfully teach such a hard topic?  One of the most helpful approaches is by using Prop Based Interventions (Goodyear-Brown, 2009). PBIs are particularly effective for teaching moments because “children are intrinsically rewarded by the manipulation of props. Attaching difficult therapeutic content to the manipulation of fun props greatly increases the child’s tolerance for approaching the harder subject matter.”

I use many PBI tools in my practice for teaching trauma, but a consistent client favorite is a nifty little group of plush toys from the Giant Microbes line. Using these aids, here is how you can infuse fun when you “Explain Your Brain.

The Props:  Giant Microbes – These endearing plush body cells are relatively inexpensive props to add to your toy tool kit, and they are invaluable for trauma work. You will need two brain cells, one or two nerve cells, and a red blood cell.

The Technique: Create an engaging skit /show, making the following points in your own playful style:

The Trauma Teaching Script:

  1. Show the Brain Cell. Let the child hold it, wiggle it, and explain how it works. Say, “When something bad happens, our brain cells, with all their little wires at the end, start to do this” (wiggle them around), and they start talking.”
  2. Say, “These brain cells tell our nervous system what it thinks it should do to protect us.” Introduce the Nerve Cell, make it walk around, dance. Demonstrate fight/flight/freeze in a fun way.
  3. Then use the Red Blood Cell to explain how our heart begins to race and beat faster. Toss it back and forth with the child, have the child pat it against her heart.
  4. Visually explain what happens to our brains when we are thinking about the bad thing and feeling the big feelings for a long time; hold the Red Blood Cell and Nerve Cell high above your head to demonstrate an “elevated state.”
  5. Next, bring the Brain Cells back and show them getting tangled into a state of nervousness and upset by having the child wrap the ends together, or tying in knots. Use the phrase “what fires together wires together” if they are able to understand.
  6. Teach about tangles sending crisscrossed messages to the rest of the brain and body and how, in your work together, we help unglue/untangle the parts of the brain that got a little stuck so that all parts can talk again and he won’t feel as upset all the time. Have the child actively engage in tangling/untangling the brain cells.

After this PBI, what I love to see is the shift from apprehension to interest, uncertainty to trust, and even the early movement from fear to empowerment. The child begins to experience their body and behavior responses as protective, while then providing a more inviting, reassuring way to enter the world of trauma exploration and healing. In turn, this creates a stronger framework for easing the way through the rest of their journey.


Goodyear-Brown, Paris (2009-09-22). Play Therapy with Traumatized Children (Wiley) (p. 13). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

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