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In order to help children who have experienced the trauma of abuse and neglect, SCAN uses play therapy in our work with children. Play therapy builds on the normal communicative and learning processes of children. As Mental Health Program Coordinator Lisa Wright says, “Playing is really the language of children. It’s how children want to express themselves.”
SCAN offers ongoing intensive mental health treatment for children at both the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) and the Circle Preschool Program (CPP). In addition to play therapy, SCAN offers art therapy, sand tray therapy and other expressive therapies for children.
In both programs, the play therapy rooms and the classroom offer sets of culturally diverse figures and other toys that can form a variety of feelings children want to express. When children play with these toys, says Lisa, they are often playing in a metaphor and therapists take note and help the children express their feelings.
“When they walk into our play therapy rooms,” said Lisa, “The look on their face says a lot. They see this whole arrangement of toys and it’s such a sense of relief. When they think of counseling, it’s a hard place to be, but kids enjoy coming to SCAN for therapy because it’s a great way to express themselves however they need to.”
One of the favorite art therapy projects therapists use involves a paper maché mask. Many older girls who come in for therapy at the CAC will paint the outside of the mask how the outside world sees them and then paint the inside of the mask about how they really feel.
At the CPP, one client was punished by her mother who put her in a bath of bleach. Both her hair and legs were severely burned from this. She was not only abused, but very neglected by her mom. During her first few days at the preschool, she would go right to the baby dolls and doll houses. She acts out taking care of the dolls, which expresses her need to be nurtured. She also uses the bathtub in the doll houses to act out her abuse.
The preschool staff also use the playground as a part of students’ play therapy. This preschooler in particular would climb to the top of the slide as if it were a castle. She would pretend she was a princess and she was on fire. She would shout to be rescued by a prince. One of our early childhood education specialists would rescue her. The staff correlate the “prince” to her father who really helped “rescue” her from her mother.
“Our main job is to participate in what the children are doing, witness what they are showing us, and help interpret their feelings for them,” Lisa said. “We often help to say their emotions out loud for them. But we are always careful not to put meaning to actions that they don’t have. Ultimately, we want them to be able to verbalize what’s inside of them. “
Lisa says they know play, art and other expressive therapies are effective at the CAC and the CPP is because they continually see the symptoms of abuse or neglect reduce. For example, she said one of the children she had been working with had nightmares every night. Within two weeks of play therapy, his mother was recording no nightmares and no waking up at night.
“I can’t imagine how I could help these children this much without play items, art items and toys,” Lisa said.