I am grateful everyday that I am able to say that Play is my job. I have achieved my dream job after 22 years of hard work and dedication.
Play is truly my life work.
Research has long seen play as a vital tool for introducing emotional awareness to children & their families. When supported by a Therapist, it can help unlock emotions, and move children into better self-regulation and resilience. In other words, play is a powerful antidote for children’s mental health
When a child is provided with a therapeutic environment by the play therapist and is given the chance to process a difficult experience through play, the child’s natural developmental capabilities are activated and the ‘stuck’ feelings and memories become ‘unstuck.’ Eugster, K. (2007)
One of my favorite parts of play-based therapy sessions is helping to build the connections for children between their ‘body messages’ (fidgety hands/body, racing/pounding heart, upset stomach, hot ears, pounding head, watery eyes) and their ‘body expressions’ (pacing around the room, punching pillows/people, stomping feet, yelling, swearing, breaking things, slamming doors, curling up into a ball, hiding, crying.)
Expressing feelings leads to understanding feelings, which then leads to a decrease in the intensity of the feelings. Eugster, K. (2007)
Play offers me an important lens into a child’s emotional world.
As I join a child during a play-based therapy session, I am watching their body language. I can often be heard saying some odd things out loud, “you are really wiggly while you build that lego car” or “you keep going around my chair in circles, around & around” or “those action figures are really smashing into each other so hard.” They are simply observations, open-ended statements that provide an opportunity for a child to ‘see themselves’ playing. Sometimes there’s a response, often it’s quiet but I might catch a grin or a shoulder shrug or watch someone build a nest in my pillows and blankets. It all means something. The emotional mystery that’s playing out in front of me draws me in, and begins to build a connection for the child between what their body is doing and how they are feeling.
A wiggly new friend on my couch can mean many different things. Children have the most fantastic way of describing their feelings. “My stomach was all fluffy but I was hot coming here.” Love it. Now we can talk about curious & excited, worried & happy, scared & ok – some of my favorite combinations, used by children to learn about feeling nervous. We talk about what a smart body message that is coming to a new place for the first time. It’s ‘right’ to feel a bit nervous – and it’s ok, your body is giving you the ‘right’ message. Then we talk about how we can make that nervous feeling just a bit smaller…
When I can sit with a child and receive their statements, without judgement, I can help the child begin the process to wellness, growth and change.
If a child is to alter his or her core belief, then the therapist must respond to the child’s cognitive and affective expression differently from the anticipated reaction. Kool, R. (2010)
I have the incredible privilege of sharing a child’s most cherished secret, or toughest challenge, or frustrating habit and even sometimes their greatest joys and successes. My acceptance of their truth, and my curious approach to their moment, without judgement, is the work of play-based therapy.
I joined him as he played with the action figures he had taken off the toy shelf when he arrived in my office one bright sunny morning.
He was lining them up, paying close attention to each side, and making sure the superheroes were placed ‘just so‘. I leaned in closer to him- an invitation to share.
“My brain tells me to balance my sides. If my left hand does it, my right hand has to. Same with my feet.”
“Each side needs to do ‘it’ – what kinds of ‘its’ does your brain tell you to do?” I ask curiously. I am not emotionally invested in the behaviour, which means my reaction is genuine. I want to understand, and I want to help him find as many details as we can. He is busy being SO brave and telling the truth, working past his shame, worry and fear of my reaction- and my job in this moment is stay attuned and authentically connected; in doing so, I can mirror back vital pieces of details back so he ‘unlock’ more of what is truly going on.
We investigate, without judgement and lots of compassion, all the details together, and help him dig deeper and really break down actions and habits that gotten his brain ‘stuck’. He tells me, “If I wave or scratch, both sides need to be even. I need to balance my steps, same number of stairs on each side. I just count.” This detail, and the specificity with which a child can articulate how their brain is working, is what allows me to gently align with a child to initially acknowledge the feelings associated with the behaviours.
Through more play-based therapy sessions (sand-play, figurines, action heroes, drawing, painting, lego, etc.) we explore and investigate together. We start to unlock the once hidden world behind his anxiety and compulsive behaviours. We investigate, without judgement and WITH lots of compassion, all the details together, and help him dig deeper and really break down actions and habits that HAVE gotten his brain ‘stuck’. And we do this together through play.
In Play-Based Therapy, a child meets me where they choose.
Sometimes parents will ask me to ‘work on’ bedtime or homework or anger at the beginning of the session. Once and awhile a family will arrive with a laundry list of ‘behaviours’ they would like addressed; “There was a lot of fighting in our house this week, someone was not a good listener and got in a lot of trouble at school and now says they don’t want to do their homework. He has not had a good week!”
As a parent myself, I can honour the place of anxiety and overwhelm these parents are finding themselves in. Their child is struggling. They want to fix the problem.
But ultimately my work with parents is to help them see beyond their child’s behaviour. So truthfully, once the parents leave, the child always decides where we start. The behaviours will naturally melt away- leaving room for problem solving and connection- once the ‘stuck’ feelings have been ‘unstuck’ through play.
It is an absolute privilege to watch children explore their experiences, anything from starting school, to losing a pet or a loved one, to moving, to parents separating or friends bullying – it’s simply THEIR experience and we sit with all of them equally, openly and curiously.
Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul. – Friedrich Frobel