Roly-Poly (a play therapy session)

a Courage Homes play therapy session by Roger Seth

“Even if you get knocked down, you can get up and keep on rolling.”

This was one of the insights shared by a girl at the end of a recent play therapy session.  “What do you actually do in  your ‘Playtime With Father’ group sessions?” people have asked me.  Though not formally licensed as a Play Therapist, I constantly seek to incorporate principles and ideas from the field of creative therapies.  Read on if you’d like to see the Session Plan I drafted ahead of time, followed by an account of What Actually Happened When We Tried It!


Materials Needed:
10-12 rolls of thick packing tape (2 inch or 5 cm width), one per child
Permanent markers (to draw faces on rolls of tape)
Assorted cardboard boxes
1 large sheet of cardboard (to make a slide for the Roly-Polys)
1 Chair (to which to attach the cardboard slide)
Masking Tape or chalk (to mark start/finish lines or “battle stations”)
3 tennis balls (cricket balls)

Announce, “Today we are playing with rolls of tape! We’ll call them ‘Roly-Poly’s.’
We will use these rolls in races, games and stories.”

Give 1 roll of packing tape to each child.
Have her draw a face on the roll using permanent markers, and name it if so desired.
(If a person doesn’t like the face she’s drawn, simply peel that section off the tape, cut it off, and start over.)
After sitting in a circle, each child can introduce her “Roly-Poly” to the other children, showing what face she has drawn and telling its name.

Activity 1: Race
Have the girls line up at one end of a large room behind a “Start” line (marked with masking tape or chalk on the floor). On the count of three, have them roll their Roly- Poly away (like bowling), and see whose crosses a finish line (or reaches the far wall) first.

Do this a few times.
Be sure to announce the winner and have everyone clap for her, each time!

Activity 2: Slide
Have the children construct a long cardboard slide for the Roly-Polys to go down, using the chair as support (i.e. use masking tape to affix the wide cardboard sheet to the back of the chair at a slant). Let them take turns sending their Roly Polys on a fun trip down the slide!

Activity 3: Obstacles
Create small ramps and jumps for the Roly Polys, using cardboard and various sizes of boxes. Take turns seeing whose Roly Poly can jump highest or farthest. You could create a slightly elevated basket, and see if children can get the Roly Poly to jump over a ramp and land in the basket.

Activity 4: Survival
This is an expansion of the “Slide” activity. While 1-3 girls prepare to send their Roly-Polys down the slide, have 1-3 other girls stand to the side, near the opposite end of the room. These will be the “Bad Guys,” armed with 1 tennis ball each. As the Roly-Polys come down the slide and across the room, the Bad Guys can throw their tennis ball to try to knock a Roly-Poly onto its side. If the Roly-Poly reaches the opposite end of the room unharmed, it wins; if the Bad Guy succeeds in knocking out the Roly-Poly, she wins.

Activity 5: Battle
Mark out a circular battlefield by placing small strips of Masking Tape around a perimeter, which will form starting lines for various Roly-Poly’s to enter the fray. Have each child take up her own position around the circle, behind a starting line. On the count of three, everyone should roll their Roly-Poly towards the center, with the goal of knocking over another Roly-Poly. Any Roly-Poly which falls over on its side is “out.” Those that remain upright are “in” to go back to their starting position to do a second (or third or fourth, etc) battle. Continue eliminating Roly-Polys until one is the winner.

Alternate: After initial battle, leave the Roly-Polys wherever they end up within the circle. Then let players take a turn, one at a time, to try to knock over another Roly Poly from wherever their Roly Poly is currently located. (You might try using a rectangular playing space for this version.)

Activity 6: Stories
Sit as a group in a circle. Select one Roly-Poly and begin telling a story about him/her. Then pass it to the next person around the circle, so they can add onto the story. Perhaps the story will include obstacles or challenges he faced (using some of the previous activity situations or props as ideas for the story). Children may introduce additional characters using other Roly-Polys.

Alternates: Have each person peel their Roly-Poly’s face off that section of tape and stick it to a paper. They can then draw pictures around the face or write a new story. Or create one big poster with each of the children’s Roly-Poly faces stuck to the paper. As a group, fill in shapes around the faces and add to the background. The poster can be a reminder of the Play Therapy session.

Invite the children to share what lessons the Roly Polys (and/or the games) can teach us.


The girls really liked the Roly-Polys. Most gave their Roly-Poly a pretend name, though a few used their own names. The games that had a “racing” theme were a big hit. We did the session on our outdoor terrace, which had some bumps between tiles, and the irregularity caused some of the Roly-Polys to veer off in surprising directions, which made the races both more fun and funnier.

We never did Activity 3 (Obstacles), for two reasons: First, I found it a bit difficult to explain to the girls what kind of ramps and jumps to make, and it seemed too distracting to stop and create those at that point. Perhaps in a future session, I would make some ahead-of-time, so that the group can just keep on playing. Second, the girls had so much fun with Activity 2 (Slide) that they didn’t really want to stop. When I added the element of Activity 4 (Survival) with the “Bad Guys” who could throw a ball to try to knock over the Roly-Polys as they came down the slide, this became the most fun activity of all. EVERYONE wanted to take turns throwing the balls, and whenever a Roly-Poly got hit and fell over, we made a big deal out of it. (i.e. I shouted out in a voice like a boxing referee, “Ohhh—smash hit!” or “Ouch—that was a real knock-out!”). I made sure the Bad Guys were standing far enough to the side that it wasn’t that easy for them to knock the Roly-Polys over.

Activity 4 (Survival) naturally led to the next Activity 5 (Battle). Since we switched the movement from one end of the room to the other, and now were in a circle, it took some time for girls to figure out what was happening. Some wanted to start from the very same “battle-station,” so I had to force some to choose a different point from around the circle. By the time we played one round of it, though, they had gotten the hang of it. I had anticipated that most girls would try to get their Roly-Poly to collide with another’s, but instead most tried to roll theirs slightly to AVOID hitting another’s (perhaps to survive). I wondered if it had been a boy’s group, they would have sought collisions more!

When we finally sat in a circle to do Activity 6 (Stories), I took the first turn, as many girls in our group were new and had not previously experienced Group Storytelling. “One day Smiley (the Roly-Poly’s name) went for a spin. She came to a tall mountain (I pointed at the cardboard slide we’d created). ‘I’d like to climb that mountain,’ she said to herself, ‘but I’m not sure I can actually get to the top…’” Then I passed the tape to the next girl.

As the tape traveled around the circle, it wasn’t long before Smiley the Roly-Poly had met a young man and become friends. When she took him home to meet her parents, her mother screamed and yelled at her. Much of the story then revolved around how Smiley tried to make peace with her mother, even after she and the young man got married and moved to a house of their own, against the mother’s wishes.

It turns out that many girls around the circle have verbally abusive, angry mothers, and whenever they talk to them on the phone or meet them in court, it causes them a huge amount of stress.

During our Debrief, we asked girls what lessons we can learn from the Roly-Polys. A common theme that emerged was, “Even if you get knocked down, you can get up and keep on rolling.”

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