Healing Through Play

Robert, a subdued little boy of eight, was referred to me for creative play because of his struggles at home and at school where he was unable to order his thoughts.  When he tried to express himself, his speech was muddled and incoherent.   His actions were clumsy and he often tripped and banged into things.  If a child cannot cope with stress, he or she may also have difficulty coping with changes of plans, paying attention, sharing with others or sitting still. Without good sensory integration, learning is difficult and the child often feels uncomfortable about himself and cannot cope with ordinary demands and perceived pressure. This is because the child’s brain is not processing or organising the flow of sensory stimulation in a manner that provides good, precise information about himself and his world.  Physical activity stimulates the senses and develops the brain’s ability to adapt and to organise.

If as a therapist, we don’t make what we are doing look like play, a child will not participate with enthusiasm. Activities need to be purposeful and directed towards the goal of self development and self organisation. A child can self organise if he can play at one thing in a constructive manner for a reasonable length of time.

One afternoon, when given a choice of play materials, Robert chose to turn the playroom into an obstacle course, using everything in the room: wooden boxes, chairs, tunnels and small tables.  He then asked if I would let him blindfold me so that he could lead me through his creation. I agreed because it felt important for his confidence that he was in charge and that I was dependent on his instructions and physical prompts for my safety.  He then proceeded to tell me when to crouch down, when to lift my foot, when to crawl under a table or slide through a tunnel etc.  He had invented the game and took full responsibility for his role and was totally focused on my safety in our joint venture.

I attached a very long piece of yellow ribbon to my waist and as I moved, I left a yellow trail behind me.  When we had completed the course, I emerged unscathed and we looked back to see the length of ribbon that had marked my steps. The yellow track was a symbol of hope and a demonstration of how it is possible to relink a child’s  own impaired neural pathways through play.  I was given clear instructions and he was confident throughout because he was thinking more about me than his own difficulty in communication . This activity proved a turning point for us both in many ways because through this game of trust we had connected in a unique way and had both learnt from the experience.

On subsequent visits to the playroom, Robert and I played this game over and over again, taking turns with the yellow ribbon to lead each other over,  under and sometimes tunneling through the obstacles blocking our path.  If we give a child emotional support without trying to control what he does, he will probably try the task again and again until he masters it.

Gradually, Robert’s confidence improved and with  his improvement, his speech became clearer.  This confirmed my belief that children know how to heal themselves , we just have to hone our observation skills and watch for the clues they give us. We need to actively listen to the child , allow them to choose the activity and play materials without making suggestions and always follow their focus of attention.   Shining a torch on a speech difficulty or specific impairment may exacerbate the problem and demolish the child’s  confidence.  When children are allowed to choose and are given opportunities to direct the play without adult interference, they are  more likely to tap into their own unique self-healing mechanism.

If you would like to deepen your understanding of my approch to play,  please check out my manuals Sensory Rainbow and  Happy Talk  .  I have provided some guidelines to encourage you to follow your  own intuition when playing creatively with the children you are lucky enough to meet.