After the "work" part of my small groups at the shelter, usually held in "Miss Pat's space," kids get to play--outside in good weather, inside with my toys the rest of the time. My toys fill two roll-around carts in a large room with tables. They're the same toys I've always used with troubled kids because they're effective at promoting different kinds of play.
Some of my toys are "safe" for the anxious new child or one who needs to withdraw because they don't require interaction with me or other kids: coloring books, leggos, dominos, drawing paper and crayons. The kids can keep their distance although they soon learn I'm interested in what they're doing and usually accept my attention.
The next level of toys invite interaction with other kids and/or me: games like Chutes and Ladders,checkers,Candyland,dominos,and playing cards. They allow older kids to play "baby" games with no teasing, to feel more comfortable with other kids or me, and to learn how to win or lose gracefully.
My favorite and most useful toys, however, are those that require intimacy or the revelation of feelings because these kids may not dare to express or even experience their true feelings when they or their mom might suffer because of it: a doctor kit with stethoscope,needles,ear probe and plenty of real bandaids; a dollhouse with dolls of all ages and both genders (promoted as a "family house" so boys will use it); a box of soldiers,jeeps,planes, helicopter,tanks and weapons; a box of firemen with a firetruck and the "stuff" they use, a small children's hospital with treatment furniture, a doctor,"kids",a wheelchair,an ambulance and a police car.
The most traumatized kids, especially if they're "new," usually choose the "safe" toys. As they gain trust in me and the babysitters, however, most eventually progress to toys that reveal or evoke more feelings. Some children show their gains in greater trust and self-awareness during playtime, by a more realistic portrayal of characters in their "stories" or their "ABC" (an exercise that helps older kids change negative or destructive beliefs).
Those who say play therapy is useless have not watched children's play with an eye to their inner life, one that must be brought out if they are to understand that the chaos and cruelty of their homes is not normal or even legal. Covering up feelings only makes them more likely to repeat what they experienced but did not understand when they are grown up.
So I never underestimate the power of play. It is the child's work and maybe even his ticket to a better future.