Putting Together a Collection of Figures

There are few purpose-made sets of figures for talking about relationships.  It is not strictly necessary to use figures.  Jim Wilson wrote about using objects such as conkers, stones, pens and blocks to make 'mini-sculptures' in his book Child-Focused Practice (Karnac, London).  Chess pieces can also be used, and can easily be painted different colours to distinguish them from each other.  I also have a set of figures that I made from basic forms from a hobby shop with different coloured pipe cleaners put through them.

Abstract figures or objects are fine for smaller relationship overviews, but things can easily become confusing if they are used to show larger social networks. 

Another way is to gathering a collection of new or used children's toy figures.  A psychologist I know had a fantastic collection of different models of people, animals and fantasy figures that she used in psychodrama.  For making relationship overviews I prefer to use fairly neutral figures as I like to keep the conversations on a fairly realistic level.  Lego and Playmobil figures come in many varieties and can easily be collected. 

Playmobil, in particular, sit well in the hand and place nicely on the table.  They can fall over rather easily and when I have used then I have glued them onto small plastic discs which makes them much more stable. 

The more realistic the figures are the closer they need to match the people they are representing and a comprehensive set with figures that vary in gender, size/age, skin and hair colour can easily be large and unmanageable.

Digital media also represent a possibilty for graphic representations of figures and there is a purpose made set under development.

Purpose-made Sets of Figures

Here are several purpose-made sets of figures and aids for use in conversation.  Some of them are still commercially available.  Follow the links to learn more about them.

Kvebaek Family Sculpture Technique  A set of figures for forming family sculptures was pioneered by the Norwegian family therapist David Kvebaek in the 1970's.  Interestingly, he used them first as a way of discussing family dynamics with his colleagues and then as an aid in family therapy. His work grew from an object relations perspective and the arrangements of figures were initially considered as projections of people's inner social reality with the potential to promote mutual insight among family members. Kvebaek arranged the production of a set of handsome wooden figures for several years and passed it on to Julie Thorsheim in the USA.  The set is still available from her web site.

Family Dialogue Set I developed this set in 1990 to adapt the use of figures to a narrative systemic approach. As it was influenence by the problem systems approach it contained a large number and variety of figures that allowed for the depiction of comprehensive social networks.  Family Dialogue Set used Playmobil figures with an emphasis on developing dialogue and included adaptations for use with a variety of systemic approaches.  It was used widely in Scandinavia but it was expensive to produce and production ended in 2011.

People in my Life is a recent development of the Family Dialogue Set.  It has been developed in two formats, as a digital app (illustrated) and as a boxed set of figures.

The Play of Life was developed in Australia by Dr. Carlos A Raimundo. It also employs Playmobil figures and is based on the principles of Moreno's Psychodrama. Its use is now directed towards organisations and is described in the book Relationship Capital published by Pearson Education, Australia.

Small figures is the website set up by John Barton in New Zealand, who also uses Playmobil figures in psychotherapy, using role reversal and other principles from Moreno's psychodrama.  John can supply figures and he runs an on-line training courses about this way of working.

Communicube and the Communiwell are structures developed by John Casson for placing figures and objects on 5 different levels, in a method that is also based on Moreno's psychodrama.

Types of Relationship Overviews

These are established types of visualising relationships that are ameniable to the use of figures.


One of the best known forms of a relationship overview is the genogram, which illustrates the relationship structure of a family. This is usually drawn on a chart, but there are specialist digital programs like GenoPro. Using figures makes a genogram 3-dimensional, brings it more to life and gives it a greater flexibilty of movement.  Symbols can be added to demark various aspects of life experiences, quality of relationship, shared and contrasting , interests, opinions, difficulties and so on.  Genograms are a rich source of constructive dialogue.

There are several interesting articles written about using genograms in professional consultations, and the book Focused Genograms by Rita DeMaria, Gerald Weels and Larry Hof, published by Brunner-Routledge, is highly recommended.

Family Sculptures

Virginia Satir pioneered the method of family sculpturing formed by and with people in the therapy room.  The Norwegian family therapist David Kvebaek started using figures to make family sculptures as a way of explaining family dynamics to colleagues, but quickly employed them as a method therapy based on object relations theory.  The arrangements of figures were seen as projections inner personal reality that provided insight and encourage constructive discussion among family members.  His questions of "How do you see things now?" "How were things before?" and "How do you see things in the future?" are fundamental to conversations about relationship overviews.

David Kvebaeks work has been followed up by Julie Thorsheim in the USA.  Her website Kvebaek Sculpting has comprehensive information about the family sculpture approach and the Kvebaek figure set came be ordered there.

Social Network Charts

Network maps or charts have also usually been drawn using symbols for women men etc. This work was pioneered by Urie Bronfenbrenner who published a 5-sector circular chart. Each sector represents an area of social relationship - family, relatives, friends, work/school, neighbourhood, professional helpers, and distance from the centre indicated the degree of interpersonal/emotional proximity or distance. There are now a variety of forms of network maps and an extensive literature about working with them.  Network maps but can benefit greatly from being made with figures as they become moveable and more flexible in use.

There is a considerable literature available about working with social network charts and a large variety of forms of chart that have been developed for different settings.  The chart can be drawn on a flip-over sheet, placed on the table and figures can be placed on it to make it 3D and flexible.

Puppets in Conversation

Follow this link to see the Signs of Life: Puppetry, Emotions, Embodiment and Empathy, a fascinating 2-part panel discussion with with Mervyn Millar, Emily Cross, Matthew Longo, Susanne Quadflieg and Joel Smith at the University of London.


Tools and Techniques

For Working with Children, Young People and Families, Volume 1 & 2 

Two editions of the Association for Family Therapy (AFT) magazine Context, numbers 145 and 161, were edited by Michelle Newman Brown and Pete Brown.  They contain a wealth of ideas of using figures, puppets, drawings and objects in therapeutic conversations, closely related to relationship overviews.  A third edition on this topic is under preparation.

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