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Celebrating International Play Therapy Week: Experiences of a Play Therapist

Cary Hamilton

Hello! I’m Cary M. Hamilton, a registered Play Therapist Supervisor in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. I have a group practice of play therapists and I am the Director of Play Therapy at Antioch University. I have been a practicing play therapist for the last 20 years.

Through the three examples in this blog, I hope to bring to life the therapeutic powers of play, and what play therapy feels like for the children I work with.

Today, I saw an eight-year-old boy. His mother flags me down as soon as I see them. Something happened at school today, but he won’t talk about it with her. She asks if I can bring it up with him. I look at my client. He’s got his eyes on his feet, shoulders hunched, and is slightly swaying. “It’s his choice, but I am here for him if he wants to talk or play it out,” I say, nodding to my client.

I think his mom looks a bit unsatisfied with that answer, and I make a mental note to follow-up with her in an email or phone call later.

Sometimes it’s hard for parents to remember that I’m a ‘different adult’ to their child, in part because I don’t put the same pressures on them as they have at home. I also know that I wouldn’t want to feel that my therapist expected me to come in and confess or open up about something if it wasn’t my goal that day.

I always start appointments by reminding children that they can play with the toys in my room in many of the ways they would like. In this appointment, my client starts off just looking at the toys. This is much more reserved than usual. I get the sense that he’s waiting for me to interrogate him. I smile and say, “In here, you get to choose what we do.” He sighs and then heads towards the handcuffs.

Playing cops and robbers is new for him, but I note the element of power and control. I’m arrested and sent to jail multiple times. Each imprisonment comes with a lecture about how I need to be good and follow the rules. My wrists hurt the first time he puts the handcuffs on a bit too tight. “That’s a bit too tight for me,” I say with a neutral voice. He gives me a look of concern and asks if I’m okay while loosening them quickly, and so I see the usual concern and nurturing behaviour I have come to expect of him.

My next client, a seven-year-old, doesn’t seem as bubbly as he usually is. As soon as the playroom door closes, he says that he won’t be able to see his dad today after school. Dad has to travel for work.

“That’s sad. I know you look forward to your time with him.” My face shows that I feel for him. It is sad, and a big change to his expectations. I’m accustomed to the playroom becoming a battleground between carefully lined-up dinosaurs and soldiers when he’s here. It’s easy to see that each side is a parent – his way of demonstrating and processing the current divorce.

Instead of taking out the dinosaurs individually, he dumps the bin onto the ground. They spill everywhere. He looks surprised and then laughs. I make a surprised face and smile. “You dumped them out, and you liked it!”

He starts to shriek with laughter. It’s not pure delight. There’s an edginess, a nervousness in the way he’s laughing. His body is moving a bit more frantically, and he’s pulling out the various bins from the shelf. With each dumping of contents onto the floor, he laughs.

I say, “You dumped them all out.” My tone is neutral. He moves through the room, dumping toys out onto the floor. His laughter stops, and he’s absorbed in this play until he’s emptied the shelves, and he cannot move without stepping on a toy. My smile has faded as well, and I survey the floor with him.

“There’s so much here. It’s hard to move. You don’t know what to do next.” He hesitates and then smiles. Sheepishly, he says, “I’ll clean it up.”

“In here you don’t have to clean up. That’s my job. You can leave them on the floor if you want.” He nods his head. Then he looks at me and says he wishes he could see his dad.

“It’s very sad that you can’t see him whenever you want. You used to be able to see him every day.” For a second, I wonder if he’ll cry. Then, he takes in a deep breath and starts moving the toys away from his feet. He’s making a path, I realise; he’s humming a song. He’s regulating himself. He’s gaining some control over the mess of feelings that are inside now that the room looks how he feels.

When our time ends, he’s cleared a path to the door. He looks proud of himself. I’m proud of him too. We leave the room, all the chaos and jumble of toys still there on the floor. When he comes back next week, the space will be clean, and the floor will be ready to be filled up again – if he chooses.

My final client of the day comes in with a sulky look on her face. She’s six years old and decided in the carpark that she doesn’t like coming to play therapy. She wanted to go to the playground instead. All of my toys are “stupid and boring”. I am also “stupid and boring”.

“I hear ya. It’s hard to be here when you’d rather be somewhere else. How frustrating.” The look on her face tells me this wasn’t the reaction she expected. This is only our fourth session, but her parents had mentioned defiant behaviours at home. They also reported feeling out of options and didn’t like that they had started yelling a lot.

She stares at me for a moment, and I feel like I can see the thoughts running through her head. She’s calculating her next move and then trying to anticipate mine. Poor girl, I think. She’s feeling pretty stuck. Still, I don’t offer her any easy outs. I don’t suggest anything to do or try to convince her that she’ll have fun. We just sit in this irritated, calculating energy. Then, she pushes a doll from the shelf to the ground. “Pushed it right down there,” I comment. She looks more annoyed and then throws a cash register at the ground. “You’re really angry. I can see that. The toys aren’t for breaking. Have you ever punched a Bobo doll? Or squeezed PlayDoh until it oozed out between your fingers?” This also was not what she expected. It stops her. She can’t help it; she’s interested.

We spend the rest of the time squeezing PlayDoh into shapes. She frequently smashes my models with her fist without my permission. She looks at me, waiting. “Smash,” I say with a smile. “That feels good to you.” Autonomy. This client is in a fight for control, and it seems like her parents’ response is to fight her back. In here, however, as long as she doesn’t hurt me, herself, or break any toys, she can be in control. When her anger feels too big, or her hurt too deep, I will hold it for her, that is what being a play therapist is about.

Being with a child in any and all emotions is the task of a play therapist, allowing for and trusting that a child will tell me the story they need to tell me to process.

Being a play therapist is a balance between being your genuine self and shedding the adult ways of viewing the world. If you slip into a different way of being, they will notice. Children are truth-sayers and seers, but that doesn’t mean they understand what they see and feel – which often leaves them confused and lacking the words to express themselves. Play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to promote the understanding and healing of a child’s emotional state by meeting the child in a developmentally appropriate manner, using the natural language of play.

It takes education and supervision to become a play therapist. As you can see, it is much more than ‘just playing’ with a child. There are clinical theories and methods used by each play therapist in therapy to heal and develop resilience in children. This is the way of being with children in order to promote healing authentically, neurodevelopmentally, and psychologically.

Cary Hamilton

Find out more about Cary’s work and the importance of play therapy in protecting children’s mental health using the links below: