Playtime takes away the pain

By Drum Digital
24 May 2014

Moms know that little hearts often show big reactions to everyday things. And while some of these traumatic experiences may not be avoided altogether, you definitely want to do your best helping that little person make it through in one piece. We give you some advice on how play therapy can help in a situation like this.

At the age of four and a half Justin Smith’s* life changed in what must have seemed to him a dramatic and bewildering fashion.

He was moved from his small playgroup of 10 children to Grade 00, where the class size doubled and he suddenly had new responsibilities such as looking after his lunchbox and school bag, and doing his homework.

Then two weeks later his mother had a second baby and they also moved into a new home in Gauteng’s East Rand.

“In a matter of months his whole world was turned completely upside down,” his mother, Ria* , tells us. “He began acting out and became angry and rude. He fought our every decision and began to cry over the simplest things. Everything he used to do easily and happily for four years suddenly went out the window.”

She couldn’t get him to have his breakfast any more or take a bath, and the only way he would go to sleep was by sharing a bed with her and her husband.

Ria became worried about Justin’s behaviour. She also wasn’t getting any sleep between tending to Justin and her newborn.

“I was becoming a banshee with no patience,” she says, laughing about it now.

Then a teacher at his school suggested play therapy.

It took just six sessions for his behaviour to return to normal.

“We’re back to having our awesome relationship,” Ria says. “The play therapist taught me not to sweat the small stuff and her work with Justin helped me get the power back in the relationship. We found our rhythm and routine, and everything is much easier.”

Justin is still very fond of Karen van Zyl, an early childhood development expert and play therapist of Kempton Park, Gauteng, and occasionally goes for a check-up session.

What is play therapy?

A qualified play therapist uses play to find the root of and help children to work through their problems.

During a play therapy session someone such as Justin is helped to understand the “muddled feelings” that accompany a change, Van Zyl says.

“In play children use their imaginations and express themselves symbolically through toys.”

The therapist can let play run its course and evaluate what’s happening, which is a non-directive process, or choose to become involved at some point in a more directive approach.

“Play is one of the most effective ways of producing change in a child,” says Jodi Lord, a trauma counsellor based in Claremont, Cape Town, who specialises in play therapy. “Toys are used like words and become the child’s natural language.”

Commonly used tools in play therapy include toys, arts and craft materials, costumes and props for role-play, sand and water trays, glitter, clay, puzzles, figurines and animals, musical instruments, puppets, books and indoor games such as ring toss and basketball.

Lord says a typical starting-out exercise for her is done using a balloon. “I ask them to write their problems on a balloon.

We then divide the playroom into two parts, like a tennis court, with a piece of string.”

Standing on either side, they hit the balloon back and forth while stating their problems out loud.

“When we’re finished the child is able to pop the balloon and see their problems become smaller. Then I ask them to put the popped balloon into the dustbin. This doesn’t mean the problem has disappeared but it gives the child a great sense of power over their current problems.”

Van Zyl likes to start off sessions with a “sensory experience”. This might involve identifying sounds, tastes and various aromas in jars, and also playing with objects that alter what they see, such as magnifying glasses, telescopes, kaleidoscopes and cardboard tubes, while talking about the memories evoked.

The aim of play therapy, apart from dealing with some specific problems, include achieving better relationship skills, self-esteem and accountability. Play therapy can be helpful in cases of divorce, socialising problems, anger management, anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, learning difficulties, autism and trauma caused by anything from bullying and domestic violence to a hijacking or bereavement.

“Some children respond to a short-term intervention, such as four sessions, but in more complicated cases I’ve worked with children for two years or more,” Van Zyl says.

Sessions are usually held once a week and last from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the age of the child.

Typically play therapists see children as young as three and up to 12 or 13, at which point they’re able to start talking about their problems in normal therapy. Parents don’t sit in on sessions but they receive feedback.

How it works

Play therapy can be effective because children often have difficulty expressing their emotions or even making sense of them and instead start showing behavioural changes.

“Difficult experiences children go through might not enter their minds in a normal manner and can remain ‘stuck’,” Van Zyl explains.

She says in therapy things often come to the surface of their own accord and simply by acting out events, patients’ problems can start to be processed.

“Experiences that have impacted the child in some way show up as play behaviours. For example, a child who’s been in a car accident might play by crashing toy cars together. A child who’s seen his parents argue might use puppets to act out these conflicts seen at home.”

The therapist can intervene by setting up scenarios for which the child can find a satisfactory ending, Van Zyl says. Or they can get involved as characters in the game to explain difficult concepts such as death or to model appropriate behaviour. The child can also at times pretend to be different characters to help develop empathy.

“Play therapy works because the therapist enters the child’s world and makes them feel heard,” Lord says.

*Not their real names.

How the therapy helped Justin

Play therapy helped determine Justin was missing his familiar relationship with his mother and he was beginning to resent her for not spending enough time with him. In one session with Van Zyl Justin was asked to draw a spaceship, which has enough room for only two people and to choose a co-passenger.

He chose his mother, with whom he has the strongest bond, and from there they explored his feelings about her, how strongly he felt about their bond and how he was affected by not getting as much attention as he was used to. They also played a puppet game in which Justin was told to pick a puppet that reminded him of his mom. They then had a conversation about why the puppets might be upset with each other.

Van Zyl suggested Ria put in place a reward system based on positive reinforcement and she also started setting aside one afternoon a week which she spends only with Justin when he gets to decide what happens.

- Tom Raath

Find Love!