“So what do you do for a living?” The mundane, conversation-starter question that all of us have faced and asked others from time to time. The funny thing about answering that question when you are child therapist who practices play therapy, is that many people aren’t sure how to respond. Sometimes I’ll get an “Oh that sounds fun, playing with kids all day,” I smile at this because it is, it certainly is fun. And when I am in these conversations, I continue to smile and nod as the dialogue moves onto weather and other avoid-talking-about-anything-real-with-a-near-stranger topics. But I keep thinking about that word. “Fun.” I think about it because “fun” doesn’t truly acknowledge the healing, growth, resiliency, and capacity for change that I have experienced in the play room. Fun doesn’t explain the sacred space and time where play becomes a window into the subconscious, an opportunity for expressing and exploring underlying emotions, a release and way to process unresolved trauma. Fun doesn’t explain how everyday, it changes me too.
Through play therapy, I have witnessed baby dolls being diapered and feed by children who are re-nurturing themselves, healing from the neglect, they may not consciously, but visercially do remember experiencing in infancy. I have seen and felt the horror of domestic violence as it is played out in the dollhouse by children who need to share their scariest memory with someone who will bear to witness to, validate, and share in the weight of that fear and vulnerability. I have watched as children build Lego towers and walls with guards to protect their safe places from the gun shots and the community violence they experience daily in their own neighborhoods. I have played scribble release games that led children and teens to experience enough comfort to be able to share their previously hidden suicidal thoughts for the first time.
Play therapy is serious healing business.
I have been privileged to be the one to provide the attuned presence as problems are resolved, social skills are learned and stories are rewritten. I have seen the beauty that comes from children releasing their internal world of imagination and realizing it belongs solely to them and cannot be jeopardized by any external force. When children feel safe enough to share their internal light of pure vulnerability through their play, it is an honor to witness and to hold that special space for the magic to happen.
It is such an inspiring thing, watching the walls of inhibition come crumbling down in the playroom. I have even seen adults and parents initially question or scoff at the idea of using play in therapy but then be brought to tears at the beautiful restoration and resiliency that comes to fruition in the play room. I have had tough-guy dads ask if they can make a glitter bottle too. Foster parents smile and celebrate as children act out coping skills and emotions with puppets that previously were ineffective being learned about and expressed verbally. I have seen mothers in shock and delight as their child and his or her siblings work together to build kindness trees and then begin to show empathic behaviors and interactions.
Play therapy works.
Play works because play is a language we all speak. Even if we have become removed from it in our adulthood, at one time, we all spoke it. And it is spoken everywhere. Whether rolling old tires joyfully down the dusty roads of Uganda or rocking a baby doll to sleep in a chilly New York apartment, everyone speaks the primal, human language of play.
But being a play therapist can also be tough. Heavy at times. Like snow falling down softly. I get so caught up in watching it, so inspired, I forget it is actually piling up. And at times I forget that, at the end of the day, I have to go home. I will have to navigate through those unplowed roadways and transition into other areas of my life. Areas of my life where I am not Ms. Sargent the play therapist. I forget I’ll have to go home and find a way to answer the question, “How was your day today?” I will forever be searching for ways to answer that question that offer even a glimpse of truth and meaning and light, but I am never quiet able to.
I once had a child say to me after a therapy session, “Thank you for letting kids come here and do what they need to do.” I was so humbled by this comment. That exactly is what play therapy is about. The sacred space where healing happens at the very hands of the brave children who have always had the capacity for change and growth within them.
And at the end of the day, even after my toys are back where they belong, even after the glitter has been vacuumed up and after the paint has been cleared off the easel, there is an energy still present in the room. A pulsating mixture of resonating emotions that lingers beyond the end of therapy sessions. The room is quiet yet alive with the finger prints of the souls who have come and who have “done what they needed to do.”
And this, well this is something that is hard to explain to someone. This is something that isn’t just “fun.” This, is play therapy.