Minecraft: Education Edition - An Engaging Therapeutic Tool
26 Sep 2022
26 Sep 2022
It’s 14-year-old Robert’s* first counselling session with me and we have agreed to play Minecraft together. Robert is recently bereaved and understands that we will be using his sessions in Minecraft to explore his feelings about the bereavement. He’s keen to use the sessions to create a memorial for his family member who died. I’ve created a world just for Robert; an island with enough features – a village, a ravine, and caves – for it to be interesting, but not so big that it feels boundary-less. It’s Robert’s world and only he and I have access to it. Access for Robert is limited to his session times, just like my office would be if we were seeing each other in person…
I ask Robert to find a tree on the island and choose a block from his inventory to represent himself. I say, ‘It’s like making a family tree for you and the people closest to you.’ He instantly gets this idea and starts skimming through his inventory for a block. He selects one and holds it in his hand as he flies high over the island in search of the right kind of tree. ‘Come on,’ he shouts excitedly … and I (as my Minecraft character) follow him as he flies about, scanning the landscape. ‘Here!’ he shouts, as he lands on the biggest tree on the island, with lush green blocks representing its leaves. He places a block at the very top centre of the tree. It’s black with purple specks and it appears to be dripping purple drops. I ask him about the block. He says, ‘This is Crying Obsidian, it’s strong, but it’s crying. I think it’s sad like me, but it won’t be destroyed.’
I ask him if he would like to choose a block for someone else in his life. He chooses one for his mum and places it right next to him on the tree. It’s a transparent glass block. He says, ‘I always know what my mum is thinking, what she’s feeling. She’s see-through, like glass.’ We talk a little about what it’s like for him to know what his mum is thinking and feeling. Then he starts skimming through his inventory again.
He stands there as his character for a long time, still, and with his head bowed, as if concentrating deeply as he searches the inventory. I watch him silently and also glance at him on the video platform to see how he’s doing. He looks like his Minecraft character, head bowed in concentration. After a while, he selects a block and holds it in his hand. ‘I don’t think I can put her on this tree,’ he says quietly. He starts flying again and finds a smaller tree nearby. He places the block carefully on the tree. He tells me it’s his sister, who died, and says, ‘It’s a cake. She really loved cake and it was her birthday a few days before she died.’
Robert suddenly turns his webcam off and finds an invisibility potion from his inventory and makes his character invisible. I say, ‘It’s hard to be seen right now?’ He says, ‘Yes. Do you want to play hide and seek?’ I say, ‘Of course’, and add, ‘It’s going to be really hard for me to find you when you are invisible.’ Robert laughs and I see the little clouds of smoke from the potion that indicate where he is, moving off into the distance.
At the end of the session, Robert comes back to the tree where he placed the block to represent his sister. I say, ‘I wonder if it was hard for you to put a block here for her?’ He’s quiet as he searches for a while in his inventory and finds a flower, which he places on the ground by the tree, and says, ‘Yes, but I’m happy I found a place for her. I’ll make it nice for her here.’
This case study is an extract from an article first published in the December 2021 issue of BACP Children, Young People and Families, published by the British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists. https://www.bacp.co.uk/bacp-journals/bacp-children-young-people-and-families-journal/ BACP 2022© 
When my counselling service moved from face-to-face to online at the start of the pandemic, I was struck with the reality that conducting therapy sessions over an online video platform with children and young people could be very limiting and unengaging for them. I wanted to bring the sessions to life and find a way to connect with them, and that was challenging to do via just a video platform. I thought back to my Master’s thesis that I had written 10 years previously on engaging children in online mental health services and how I had the idea of using Minecraft therapeutically way back then (I had been inspired by playing the game lots with my nieces and nephews when Minecraft was first released). I realised very quickly that playing Minecraft with my young clients was the answer to the problem I was having at the start of COVID-19. So, I began offering to play Minecraft with them and started to develop therapeutic activities within the game. I also connected with other counsellors across the world who use video games in their practice and co-founded a peer supervision group where we could share our learning.
I was quickly bombarded by enquiries from parents who could instantly see that their children would benefit from this form of counselling. I started seeing children and young people in my service who had refused to have counselling previously, but, when offered counselling via Minecraft, were enthusiastic about the prospect of having sessions.
I begin the first session with each child by asking them to create a safe place in the game – this can be anything; a cave, a castle, an underwater base. This means that the child has a safe place to return to at any time they may need to in a session. What a child decides to build and how they go about building it provides me with a great deal of insight into what might be going on with them in their life. Another activity I do is ask the child to create a ‘family tree’ as illustrated in the case study above. I ask them to select a block from their inventory to represent themselves and their family members and then place them in a tree. Which blocks they chose and where they put each block gives me a great deal of insight into their life and what is important to them.
One of the key issues that counsellors worry about is making sure that the children we work with are safe on the platforms we use for therapy. I jumped for joy when Minecraft: Education Edition released its Clubs, Societies and Organisations license last year as it meant that we, non-educators, could also access this amazing resource. Minecraft: Education Edition provides a really safe and secure platform to use as it was designed to be used by children in schools. This gives me peace of mind that the children I work with can’t be befriended by strangers or invited to other servers whilst they are playing with me in their sessions.
Minecraft: Education Edition has a number of features that appeal to me as a counsellor:
Firstly, it’s free and accessible for clients. They simply download Minecraft: Education Edition on their PC, Mac, iPad, or Chromebook and I provide them with their log-in details.
Secondly, Minecraft: Education Edition has developed some useful training resources that are great for counsellors to go through and learn the basics of how to create and save worlds, how to use the controls, how to build, etc. There is also an in-built feature where you can have the key to the controls up on screen – really handy when you aren’t a natural gamer!
Minecraft: Education Edition’s pre-made worlds are a fantastic resource. The Social Emotional subject kits are especially useful for counsellors. I particularly like ‘The Mindful Knight’ world where you can go on a mindful adventure including a breathing exercise levitation spell. ‘CyberSafe: Home Sweet Hmm’ (one of the Digital Citizenship subject kits) is also a great resource to use with children and families to introduce them to important online safety skills.
I’ve also found an island with a village on the Minecraft: Education Edition website which you can download and import into Minecraft: Education Edition: https://education.minecraft.net/en-us/worlds/island-village. I like using island worlds with clients, as they provide a safe space with boundaries. Using Minecraft in this way is like using a sand tray, which is a classic counselling resource where miniature items are placed into a tray containing sand. In sand tray therapy, scenes are created by the client that can symbolise or help them work through their real-life experiences and difficulties. Using armour stands and mob heads (see images above) or non-player characters (NPCs) in Minecraft: Education Edition, the children I work with can create scenes from their life. 
When I started talking to other counsellors about my work using Minecraft therapeutically, I realised how much interest there was in learning about this unique way of working, so I’ve started training other professionals and organisations in how to use Minecraft in their own practice. I have a number of free resources on my website for those interested in learning more: www.elliefinch.co.uk
1 Finch, E. ‘Therapeutic Adventures in Minecraft’ in BACP Children, Young People and Families Journal, December 2021 (pp. 6-11).
2 Finch E. ‘Using Minecraft as a sandtray’ In Stone J. Digital play therapy: a clinician’s guide to comfort and competence. New York: Routledge; 2022 (pp.190-192).
Ellie Finch MA MBACP is a counsellor and social worker who specialises in supporting children and parents. She has developed an innovative online service engaging children in counselling through video games, such as Minecraft. Ellie provides consultancy and training to professionals and organisations who wish to use video games within their own practice. She is being supported by Cambridge Social Ventures at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School to develop her training into a social enterprise with a social impact.