Author Topic: The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra  (Read 6237 times)

Offline playmovictorian

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The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra
« on: August 24, 2010, 23:13:33 »
Family Dialogue by Steven Balmbra ( Norway )

Getting Started

I think that it is most important that conversations using the figures develop in ways uniquely suited to the children and families involved, just as any family therapy conversation would.  The following guidelines should be regarded as suggestion of how figures can be used, and not as a prescription of how they should be used.  The guidelines are largely based on my own practice in the child and adolescent mental health field, but the set is used in different ways in other settings .

I usually take the time to get to know the family before introducing Family Dialogue Set, but I have spoken to some therapists who use it very early on.  I often introduce the set to the family prior to the session and to tell them about it and how it is used, so that they do not feel taken by surprise by all the colourful figures.  I tell them that I usually start the session by concentrating on talking to one of the children, but that I will draw the others into the conversation by and by.  I ask for their co-operation in listening to what the child has to say, even if they do not agree with them, and that I will also be asking for their opinions as we go on.  When I am using the set with adolescents I tell them that we will be using figures that younger children play with, but this is not a game, and I will not be treating them childishly.  I assure them that the the set is also used with adults, and that Playmobil figures are there for their convenience, not because they are toys.  They are like small actors that we can use to understand their situation better.  I usually use Family Dialogue Set with one child at a time, together with their parents, either with or without their brothers and sisters present, depending on what seems best - sometimes I also ask parents what they think.  Some therapists have used Family Dialogue Set in individual sessions with children, but I see its strongest potential in its use with children and adults together, when it can function as a communications bridge.

The child’s age influences how I explain about the set, and how I guide them along and develop the dialogue. When children have  refused I do not like to press them but I have sometimes asked if they will agree to another family member placing figures on their behalf and that they can so if they see things differently. We  can then proceed with a form of circular questioning.

It is helpful to have two therapists in the session, one to lead the conversation, and the other to keep an eye on the reactions of the other family members.  I have a big low table that we can all sit around, and I sit next to the child with the board in front us and the case of figures open and at hand. Parents and siblings have a good view of the board.  I usually keep the 'magic figures' to one side to use when I see them as appropriate.

It is important that the children are not afraid of doing something wrong and do not feel under pressure of achieving something with the figures.  I tell them that this is not a game where somebody wins or loses, and that there are no rules for right or wrong.  I will be asking them questions and helping them as we go along so they do not have to be worried.  I say that think they might find that this turns out to be quite interesting for them, but that it does not matter if it doesn't.   With young children I usually begin with the hexagon board which provides plenty of structure for placing figures.  With adolescents and adults I usually begin with the circle board or the blue board.  Figures can, of course, be placed directly on the table, but using the blue board allows for writing and drawing lines between figures

The Hexagon Board

The hexagon board is a good place to start when working with younger children and when there are important issues concerning belonging.  I begin by asking children to find a figure to represent themselves and place it on the red hexagon at the centre of the board, seeing as they are going to be in the centre of this conversation.  I ask them to find figures to represent their family and people they know well (family members present can choose their own figures) and place them on the board where they want them to stand.

I ask about the people the figures represent as we go along, keeping an open, "not knowing" position.  I try to be aware of interesting or unexpected positions or constellations of figures and I ask children to tell me more about these and may ask for their parents or siblings comments.

I talk to children about where they place the figures, and sometimes ask whether they would like to move or add figures as the conversation develops.  I do not consider using Family Dialogue Set as a form projection of an inner mental reality, but rather as an aide to conversation, so it is not important to me that we stick with the first placements the children make. What matters most for me is the developing dialogue.  Whenever it seems appropriate I draw the others into the conversation and ask about their points of view and opinions.

There are two 'rings' on the hexagon board, where the boarders of the hexagons are thicker.  I do not usually point them out, but children often notice them and use them as boundaries for belonging, closeness and distance.  I try to see if they are using them and be inquisitive about what they stand for.

We talk about things like:

How the figures are place in relation to each other.

Who knows whom, and how they get on together. What they do together.

Which figures belong together.

Who they can turn to with their difficulties.

Who they think understands them, who they can (or want to) talk to.

Who they look up to, have fun with, like.

Who they don't like, or are afraid of and why this is.

Having talked to other users of the set i have become aware that the mental image of how the figures are placed is often strong and lasting.  I think that it is important that that this image does not stick as a representation of how things really are.  To counter this I think it important to include alternative arrangements of the figures.  This can include:

How they think other people see things. (e.g. family, teachers, friends).

How they think things would be if the figures were placed differently.

How the figures would be placed if certain circumstances were different.

How the figures would have been placed in the past  or could be placed in the future.

How they hope things will turn out to be and how they are worried they might turn out.
The Circle Board

 The circle board comprises concentric circles divided into six segments.  It can be used as a network map in same way that Bronfenbrender uses his five segment circle, with the segments to represent social settings like close family, other relatives, work/school, neighbours, friends, team/club members, congregation, professional helpers, etc. (Svedheim 1985, Fyrand 1994, Klebeck & Ogden 1995).  Instead of drawing squares and triangles and then writing names on a sheet of paper, figures representing people can stand on the Circle board and make the network map three dimensional, flexible and more alive.  Since the figures can be moved, the network map is not static, and this opens for the representation of contrasting perspectives and the comparison of different alternatives.

The Circle board is laminated in plastic and can be written or drawn on with the water-based pens that are provided with the set.  The centre area is much larger than on the hexagon board, so that there is room for all the members of a family. This allows the family to be shown as a unit in relation to other systems.

Another way of using the board is to use nearness or distance to the centre as expressions of the depth of feelings.    For example:

The different sectors can represent situations, events, feeling, etc. The figures can be placed according to how the family members see themselves and each other, in specific situations.

I have also used this board to look at how decisions get made in the family.  The sections of the circles represented different alternatives, and the closeness to the centre family members placed figures showed how much they liked or agreed with the alternatives.  Getting family members to show how they think others would place them gives circular feedback.

The coloured discs

The coloured discs included in the set can be placed on the board to represent other groups of people - other families, professional agencies etc.  Figures of the people represented  can stand on the discs, and family members can talk both about  them as members of their group and as individuals.   
The backside of the discs is printed with concentric circles.  When a figure is placed in the middle the person can show the different limits they have for other people by how close they will let their figure be placed.  In individual work, for example, an adolescent might show how they allow another person close physical intimacy but be very wary about how much to trust them.  Using the discs can help them to explore these differences.

The Blue Board

The blue board is laminated in plastic.  It has no pattern and can be written and drawn on with the water-based pens provided, and then wiped clean afterwards.  The can be placed freely, or a pattern can be drwn on the board and the figures placed accordingly.  An example of this is drawing the desks or tables in a classroom.

Genograms drawn up in therapy sessions with parents can be used as the basis of discussions about parental roles and childhood experiences through the generations of their family.  (Finne et al 1994).  It can be helpful to show the genograms to children and talk to them about their backgrounds.  Drawing the genogram on the blue board and supplementing  with figures can bring it much more to life for children than just using the circles and squares to represent important family members. 
Some further ideas about using Family Dialogue Set

Be open for what the child and family are expressing, and give room for their creativity.

Ask the parents for comments when it seems appropriate.

Try and keep the conversation on the children's terms.

Some children appreciate plenty of  space to express things themselves, whilst others like their parents to be quickly  engaged.

Ask the parents if they have seen the child's situation differently than they are expressing it now.  Have them rearrange the figures to show how they have understood the child's world.

Ask the parents to move figures to show how they  would like to see things change.  If they want to include other figures ask them to explain why.

Avoid following a recipe for Family Dialogue Set sessions.  It is important that the conversation develops in its own unique way.

The focus can well leave the figures at times, and perhaps  return to them later.

Parents can set out the figure anew, with themselves in the middle to explain how things are or have been for them.  This can also be done with in a session with all the family in the room.

Clarifying adults perspectives can help in lifting feelings of responsibility and guilt from children.

Parents can use the set to explain to their children things they have discussed previously with the therapists.

Themes may crop up that can be explored further by setting the figures out again to demonstrate specific situations.  For example the playground or classroom can be drawn on the Blue board when talking about school.

Circular questioning can be employed using the figures.  The question "How do you think your sister would place the figures if I asked her?" can make a circular question understandable for children.
The Playmobil Figures


 The Playmobil figures used in this set have a minimum age limit of 3 years because they have parts that can be swallowed.  I tend to play down the importance of how closely the figures are like the people they represent, but for some children it is quite important that they match as well as possible. To help with this, the hair on the adult figures can be removed and swapped but this cannot be done with the child figures).  The faces of the Playmobil figures are as simple as possible.  Beards, glasses etc. can be drawn on with the pens provided, if it is important for the child, and wiped clean afterwards.  Some children say the faces are too happy, so they can draw on a frown, down-turned mouth etc.  The figures are mounted on white plastic counters to help prevent them falling over.  The names or initials of the people the figures represent can written on the base with the pens to help remember who is who.

Male and female figures vary in their hair style and body shape.  The figures are arranged in the tray in rows of women, men, girls and boys so that they are easy to pick out.  It is a good idea to organize the trays after each time the set is used.

The range of figures in family dialogue sets vary according to the availability of figures from the Playmobil factory.

The 'magic' figures

The set includes some 'magic figures'. These may vary according to availability but can include a clown who can make people happy, a good fairy who can grant wishes, a robot that can be controlled to do things, a knight in armour, a fortune teller who can look into the future and a mermaid who can help to change things. These figures are very suitable for solution-focused work  (Furman & Ahola 1992), where children can use them to bring about desired changes.


have used Family Dialogue Set in externalising problems (White & Epston). The plasticine supplied with the set can be used to make monsters or trolls representing externalised problems. The monsters can then be used in combination with the figures to create a drama, grabbing them etc., while we talk about how the problem is affecting the lives of the figures on circle board.  We have talked about how to win over the problem monster, who can help out in this task and how they can help.  The plasticine is soft and malleable, and so the monster can be ritually crushed, and defeated.  (Balmbra 1994, Finne et al. 1994).
Note Sheets

 Note sheets are provided for keeping track of who is who, and for future reference.  Them are laminated in plastic so that they can be written on and cleaned, or they can be photocopied.  The two sides of the note sheets show the boards in alternative orientations.  Make sure the orientation of the note sheet matches the way the board is turned.  As the child places figures on the board put a number in the matching place on the diagram, then write the name of the person by the corresponding number underneath.   If figures are moved, use either an arrow, or write the name again by against a new number. 

The Coloured Counters

There are a number of counters in different colours provided with the set.  They can be placed under figures to indicate an aspect of a person or their role.  For example, ask you can ask children to place one counter under the figure they think is most sad, or has most responsibility or can help them the most with a problem. and then talk to them about why they think that.

The Thought Bubbles

Family members can write words in the thought bubbles to show what they think a person is thinking about.  Questions like "What thought do you think is behind that?" or "What do you think is most on their mind?".   This can help to show the family how they are understanding each other.

The laminated sheet with the 1 to 10 scale can be used to show the degree or strength of a feeling, hope, a preference, responsibility or certainty.  Figures can be placed on the squares beside the numbers and the names for the poles (eg. extremely happy / extremely sad) written at the top and bottom of the columns. 

The coloured discs

The four coloured discs can be used in a social panorama to indicate belong to a particuler group, for example child protection agency.  The side of the discs with circles can illustrate how close a person lets others come to them in matters like emotional attachment, physical intimacy, or confidentality.

The pens

The pens that are provided with the set are water-based, non-permanent overhead pens.    Whiteboard pens can also be used

Karim :)
« Last Edit: August 24, 2010, 23:19:47 by playmovictorian »
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Offline Andy R

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Re: The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra
« Reply #1 on: August 25, 2010, 04:02:26 »
Several years ago I went through a fairly traumatic event and I now use “my” parts of my sets to help me deal.
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Offline Ali Baba

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Re: The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra
« Reply #2 on: August 25, 2010, 09:31:22 »
Very interesting, Karim. That puts our collections in a different light.

Thanks for posting this.
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Offline playmofire

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Re: The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra
« Reply #3 on: August 25, 2010, 09:50:44 »
Thanks for posting this, Karim.  I've only had time to skim through it but I will come back and read it in detail later.

A fire-fighter friend of mine and member of PF in Australia (moomic) has helped provide Playmobil figures to some Catholic sisters who work with abused children in Australia.  The children use the figures to reconstruct events from the past.  The recent droughts in Australia and the loneliness and isolation of the outback and the cattle stations impose great strains and tensions on families and, sadly, child abuse of one sort or another is a problem.
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Offline Coyote

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Re: The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra
« Reply #4 on: August 25, 2010, 12:22:42 »
Thanks so much for posting this- do you have any more info, like a website-

I use playmobil occasionally in child and family therapy- though right now I only have the deep-sea diver in my office, who I often use to discuss the benefits and costs of "emotional armor" we sometimes use (the suit protects him when he's under water but hinders him on land)
This has definitely given me some expanded ideas.
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Offline Wolf Knight

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Re: The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra
« Reply #5 on: August 25, 2010, 12:53:38 »
This is a very interesting approach!
I'll share this with a good friend of mine who, as is a psychologist and works with children with learning disabilities.

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Re: The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra
« Reply #6 on: August 25, 2010, 13:05:58 »
Very cool Karim, thanks for posting this.
It is very meaningful.
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Offline Martin Milner

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Re: The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra
« Reply #7 on: August 25, 2010, 13:28:50 »
Thanks so much for posting this- do you have any more info, like a website-

I use playmobil occasionally in child and family therapy- though right now I only have the deep-sea diver in my office, who I often use to discuss the benefits and costs of "emotional armor" we sometimes use (the suit protects him when he's under water but hinders him on land)
This has definitely given me some expanded ideas.

You could try using an internet search engine  (e.g. Google) using the words "Steven Balmbra". I have found using Internet search engines an excellent way to gain new information on a subject I am interested in. Choose your search words carefully for a more focussed search.

Very interesting Karim. Though he's really using Playmobil in a very stripped down way from what I see, it does show how children can identify with a certain figure, and use the klickies to roleplay and so forth.

I have no children yet, but fully intend to use Playmobil in their development if I am so blessed.
« Last Edit: August 25, 2010, 21:11:06 by Martin Milner »

Offline Tiermann

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Re: The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra
« Reply #8 on: August 25, 2010, 20:11:40 »
Thanks for posting this Karim. Very interesting, with some similarities to art therapy

Offline Sylvia

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Re: The Therapeutic Effects of Playmobil by Steven Balmbra
« Reply #9 on: August 25, 2010, 20:19:03 »

Playmobil seems to be a popular tool with therapists and psychologists, particularly those who work with young children.

Here's another site which might be of interest: