"We can be sure that all happenings, pleasant and unpleasant, in the child’s life, will have repercussion on her dolls” -Jean Piaget
I have said before that school psychologists wear many hats, above and beyond being “that special ed lady.” The past few weeks I have also worn a wizard hat, a beret, a firefighter hat, a cowgirl hat, and a bridal veil,* all in the spirit of play therapy. I have to say that at times, I can’t believe how lucky I am to get paid for my job.
But what exactly is “Play Therapy” and how can that be therapeutic? Parents sometimes ask, what do we DO in there? Teachers have said, “I don’t see how playing UNO all year can help.”
Play therapy provides an opportunity for children to work through adjustment problems in a supportive, child-driven setting. I don’t set out the teacher doll and the kid doll and a fake gun and say “show me what happened!” I set out the materials and let the child play. If they want to “talk” about what happened, they will, when they feel comfortable. Making them talk about it is the equivalent of an adult sitting down for therapy wanting to talk about their job and the therapist making them talk about their family, because the therapist feels that’s more pressing. What’s pressing for a child is what they will play. You go with it. And then the relationship builds and the child feels supported because you are interested in their world.
Let’s put it this way. Adults find relief in talking about their difficulties with an understanding therapist. Usually children cannot express their thoughts and feelings in words, but can find release through various forms of play. Play therapy can offer a child a unique relationship with an objective and accepting adult who is not in a position to “use” any of his or her disclosures in any way.
Like any other form of therapy, Play Therapy takes time. The first few sessions are rapport-building. I tell the child that he or she will be coming every week to talk with me, and there are a lot of toys s/he can play with. I explain that it seems to help children to have someone that they can talk to and play with all alone. I ask the parents not to “quiz” the child after the session about what they did or what their piece of art means. It is important for the child not feel it necessary to give an accounting of the events that occur in the playroom, because this reinforces that the time is private and will build trust and cooperation. If the child wants to share what s/he did or show a painting s/he made, that’s okay. It’s best to say something like “thank you for sharing what you did/made.”
In the school setting, I work mostly with 11-14 year olds, so the schpeal is different. I have also heard people wonder if play therapy is too babyish for teenagers. Au contraire. While there is more talking involved with middle schoolers, if there is play going on simultaneously, you will get a lot more opening up. In my earlier years as a therapist, I would keep kids in the four-walls and do only drawing or games. I was amazed at how kids, especially boys, opened up when we went on the basketball court or walked around the school. The wonderful side effect is for anxious or hyperactive kids, they get out some energy in a productive way.
Sometimes you have to “sell” the idea of coming to talk with some lady you don’t know about something you are pretty sure you don’t want to talk about in the first place. My schpeal is something like, “This time is “chill time” from your class. It is a chance to take time out of class to talk about anything that is going on, or to just to relax for a while.” I always add, “You’re not in trouble!” because most of my counselees have had the experience that someone coming to get you out of class is probably not because you’re getting the Best Student Award. In general, counseling is not a hard sell if you find a class they hate and suggest you meet during that time.
Oh, and by the way, I highly encourage you to play around on the job today. It is Friday, after all.
*Unrelated to my own pending nuptials. It was an arranged marriage. A child wanted me to marry Barney.
Resources: I like Garry Landreth’s Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship.It is one of the few “Nuts and Bolts” kind of books on how to improve your play therapy techniques. One chapter is dedicated to the “What to do if…” kind of situations. As in, “What do I do if the child steals a toy?” or “What do I do if the child leaves the playroom?” I also like School-Based Play Therapy edited by Drewes, Carey, & Schaefer. It provides some adaptations of play therapy in the school with both individuals and groups.