Play Therapy: The Sacred Space

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“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.

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Lone Wolf: Howls of the Free Spirit

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The midnight moon glow envelops the sleeping forest. Insects and frogs create a steady symphony where hundreds of different sounds become one tune. The cloudless sky, freckled with stars, splays out endlessly in every direction.

All is one in the night and yet one is alone. Alone darting through the trees, her shining fur coat pulsates with her running strides. Her quickening breath becomes a cloud in the cool night air. She comes to a clearing and stops. The stars reflect in her everlastingly black eyes as she lifts her head to the sky. She howls. The moon listens until her voice fades into the crickets’ song. Everything is one and yet one is alone…

As you grow older you learn more about yourself. Probably because you are stuck with yourself all of the time. And the more time you spend with yourself, even if you only engage in a minimal amount of self reflection, the more you realize what makes you tick. And as you learn more about yourself, you learn more about others. You begin to search for a pack like you. People with like value systems, likes and dislikes, ways of understanding the world.

I have found that I, on the other hand, am a loner. Not the hermit, hoarder, haven’t-left-the-house-in-years kind of loner. The kind of loner who can be smiling and surrounded by people yet nevertheless, alone. The kind of loner who realizes she’s a square peg with only circle holes. The kind of loner who can be at a party full of laughter and dancing and yet really it’s just her, just her and the moon.

I’ve always been a free spirit. I was the kid who wanted to grow up and live in the rainforest so I could tie myself to trees before they were bulldozed. I was the kid that questioned instead of followed most social constructs and lost plenty of friends over arguments about them killing spiders. Once when someone gave me a toy doll I pretended she was an orphan I found while traveling the globe.

One could argue that this “lone wolf” identity was something I born with. I do believe I was. I am also a magnet for the messy things in life and I believe that too has changed me. I have been humbled, honored and changed by both my career in social work and opportunities I have had to volunteer both locally and abroad.

Being free spirited is often difficult. Running alone is different than running with a pack. You have to watch your own back. And from time to time, you even have to gaze at your reflection in the water to validate and remind yourself that you still exist. Being a lone wolf can be frustrating, sad, and disheartening at times. Not to mention running from the terror of mediocrity and routine can get quite tiring.

But there is a beauty in being free spirited. There is honor in appreciating the grey in life. There is integrity in speaking up when no one else does and offering genuine, heart-driven ideas and perspectives. Our very histories are written in the echoed howl of lone wolves who have gone before us.

When you are a free spirit, you have three choices, you can be quiet, you can try to become a circle peg, or you can howl at the moon. You can howl even if no one is listening. Because when you realize there is meaning, direction and beauty in who you are, you allow your voice to be heard.

And even if only the moon is listening, the moon changes the world everyday.

The Leaf I Found: Thoughts on Embracing Change

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Holding my hand up to the sun, I watch as the brightness shines through the leaf I am holding revealing the tiniest pathways of branching veins. I twirl the stem between my fingers and squint while watching the orange leaf dance against the backdrop of the bright blue, mid-day sky. The leaf has a hole in the center. A hole in the shape of a butterfly. I found it that way. A symbol of internal metamorphosis in the midst of the transforming autumn leaf. Change changes us too. I tuck the leaf between the pages of a book I brought along, and continue down the wooded trail towards the sound of flowing water.

 

 

Just a week before this backpacking trip, my husband and I were sitting in the back of our last foster parent certification class. We were sitting there eating semi-stale Doritos off of small square napkins and listening to a current foster parent share her stories and experiences over the past several years.

“Let me just say,” the guest speaker concluded, “The first month or so of having a child placed in your home will feel like your life is turned upside down, then you just start doing life with them.” Life with them, the words felt heavier to me than she perhaps intended. How powerful and humbling and hard it is, to allow all of someone into your life, all of them, unconditionally. To allow someone in and then to keep moving forward, it’s a big thing.

We drove home in the cold winter rain and the windshield wipers created a steady tune with the faint muffled noise of radio ads in the background.

“Well that class was more real. What they were talking about at least, seemed pretty honest,” Adam said.

“Yeah,” I agreed as I watched droplets on the car windshield reflecting the red tail lights of cars in the night. “So we could have a kid in a couple months by the time we turn in the last of this stuff,” I felt my stomach tighten at the sound of my own spoken words.

Adam nodded as he adjusted the speed of the windshield wipers. He turned to me and smiled with a little raise of his eyebrows, “Yeah, we could.”

 

Change can be terrifying. With it can come danger and change itself threatens the comfort of the status quo. But with change, there is usually also light, light that leads to altered, widened perspectives. That is because change, changes us too. It is impossible to step out of a season of change the same person who stepped in, it just doesn’t work that way.

 

 

 

We’ve reached the water’s edge just before dusk to set up camp and I climb up onto a large rock and watch the moving water. The rock feels cold and I can see my breath. Maybe the next time we camp it won’t just be us, I think. Maybe the next time we will be doing life with someone else too. I open my book and the little leaf hops out, caught on a soft breeze. I catch it and hold it up to the sky again. The sun shines through the hole in the leaf, creating a bright little butterfly shape centered in the shadow of the leaf itself. I tuck the leaf back into my book and watch the steady disappearing and reappearing cloud of my breath against the setting sun. I watch as the water just keeps moving forward.