“It’s too bad,” that some people dismiss play as meaningless, said Professor Marilyn Snow, who leads the Child Advocacy and Play Therapy Institute at the University of Mississippi. “That’s where a child talks about life.”
The institute provides therapeutic services for children and families and an opportunity for training for mental health professionals in the discipline. This fall, the institute began the nation’s first degree program play therapy – a specialist’s degree for mental health professionals who have already earned a master’s degree.
Play therapy can offer benefits across a spectrum of problems. It can assist children dealing with behavior problems, abuse, the lingering effects of physical illness, autism spectrum disorders, academic issues and bullying.
“It runs the gamut of problems a child can experience,” Snow said. “It can be used in all kinds of situations.”
For example, a small child who has gone through a physical illness may start acting out, Snow said. The parents may be puzzled because they don’t think of the illness as traumatic. But the child may be scared or angry.
“We don’t think about 2 or 3 year olds have those kind of feelings,” said Snow, but they can express those things through play in a safe space. Small children in particular don’t have the vocabulary to express what they’re feeling.
“They play to process what’s going on around them,” Snow said. “It’s their way of thinking it through.”
The play therapy rooms at the institute are filled with all kinds of toys. There are dress-up clothes, Play Dough, Legos, action figures, blocks and even a sand box. A child-size tent and a cocoon-like chair are favorite spaces in the room.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in that tent,” said Lacy Crumine, a nationally certified counselor and third-year doctoral student at the institute.
The key ingredient for play therapy is the undivided focus of an adult, Snow said.
“We don’t have to do anything to help them process,” Snow said. “What they need is an adult’s attention.”
The play therapists set limits and gently guide the sessions, but they let the child lead the play.
“We respond in a way that lets them know we hear them,” said Crumine, a Tupelo native.
Sometimes, a child is referred to play therapy because a new behavior has appeared. Other times, they come in to situations where parents have been struggling to interact with a child for some time.
“The play therapist develops that perspective of how a child sees a world and gives a lot back to the parents,” Snow said.
With teens, the therapists use technology and art to open up the conversation.
“They can verbalize, but it may be difficult,” Crumine said. “The teens usually find it easier to open up while they’re participating in an activity or drawing a picture.”
The amount of therapy a child needs is highly individualized, but the average is around 10 weeks. Children with autism in particular usually need longer, more intensive therapy because of their developmental delays.
Most parents say they see immediate changes in the child.
“The child knows they have a place to talk about it,” Snow said. “They don’t have to act out anymore.”
Play therapists often work with parents to show them techniques of how to open lines of communication through play, but parents usually don’t have to make a lot of adjustments to see the benefits of play therapy.
“The child makes a lot of changes,” Snow said. “Everything is realigned.… When the child’s behavior changes at home, parents change their reactions. The child calms down. Parent feels hopeful.”
The practice of play therapy is traced back to Virginia Axline, who developed the practice in the 1960s and ‘70s, although the theory behind it goes back to the pioneers of child psychotherapy such as Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and Margaret Lowenfeld.
Play therapists typically come from the ranks of counselors, psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists who have already completed a master’s degree in their field. They typically go through a certification process to become play therapists.
Snow started the nonprofit Oxford Play Therapy Training Institute in 2000, when she joined the Ole Miss faculty. The institute operated off campus until 2008, when they closed it to bring the training and services into the Ole Miss fold.
With two play therapy rooms, Snow, her staff and students have been able to see about 50 children a week. To expand its space to four playrooms, plus space for teens, the institute is moving from Guyton Hall to Insight Park on the Ole Miss campus.
There are about 15 registered play therapists in Mississippi, and all but Snow trained at Ole Miss.
Not every child needs play therapy, but children and parents can benefit
from the techniques play therapists use.You can learn a lot from child’s play.
“They’re playing out their day-to-day life,” said play therapy counselor Lacy Crumine. “You can really see into their world.”
• Find an activity where the child gets to choose.
• Take a break from educating. Let the children lead the play as they want without telling them how they should play.
• Carve out a time where you can give the child your undivided attention.
No multi-tasking with chores or phones.
• Listen what they have to say.
• Watch what they’re showing you.