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Inside/Outside Box

A powerful art-based play therapy technique

Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, RPT-S

In Play Therapy with older children (tweens) and teens, one of the important tenets is helping the child to establish a sense of self — Who am I? Who do I want to become? What are the innate things about me that are loveable and of value?

Too often, girls especially are targeted at a young age through media and savvy marketing to believe that “I am not enough,” “my body is not good enough, skinny enough, pretty enough.” This crushes a young girl’s self-esteem and confidence, placing them in even a more vulnerable, emotionally charged way of existing.

A powerful art-based play therapy intervention called the Inside/Outside Box is focused on helping identify how a child sees themselves, as well as how they think other's perceive them. In this activity, the making of a collage is used as a powerful, symbolic representation of the self.


  • Shoebox (multiple sizes)
  • Glue
  • Scissors
  • Various magazines

The child can choose (or can bring into session) a shoe box with a lid. Instruct the client to cut out different words and/or pictures from magazines that represent how he/she believes others view him/her. Glue them into a collage on the outside of the box and lid.

Explore how other’s perceptions may or may not be true, what the client thinks about and feels while looking at their “outside box”.

On the inside of the box, have the child repeat the process using different magazine pictures and/or words. However, on the inside of the box focus on how the child sees his/her true self and identity.

Ask the client to share what each symbol or word is, along with its personal symbolic meaning. Process any thoughts and feelings that may surface.

Suggested questions:

  • How does it feel to look at the outside of your box in comparison to the inside of the box?
  • What would you change about or add to the outside of your box, if anything?
  • What would you change about or add to the inside of your box, if anything?

Note, this may take several sessions to complete, and you may want to assign this intervention as “homework” for older children and teen clients.

The Inside/Outside Box is a wonderful tool that elicits powerful emotions and helps the tween and/or teen begin to see their whole self, creating a launching pad for blossoming self-esteem and self-worth.

Learn more strategies to help children express emotions with the new workbook, My Many Colors of Me, by Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, RPT-S.

Topic: Children and Adolescent Behavioral | Play Therapy

Tags: Self-Compassion | Self-Esteem

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017 1:52:51 PM | posted by Lisa
This sounds like a great exercise for teens and adults. I can see where it would help with disclosure and even integration of the sense of self.

Monday, January 9, 2017 12:30:13 PM | posted by Patricia Irvin
As a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, I have used this and many other expressive art tasks many times. Purpose: Self-Image, Self-empowerment, Self-leadership, Self-determination, Assertiveness skill development, Communication skill development....

Sunday, January 8, 2017 10:31:04 PM | posted by Christine Barnes
I use this technique often and it works!

Sunday, January 8, 2017 1:51:06 PM | posted by Gwendolyn
Thank you for sharing this activity. I work with adults and will keep this in my repertoire of resources for me and other colleagues who work with teens.