As a new clinician, I remember putting a lot of emphasis on trying to strategically prepare for each client session by either trying to preplan a structured intervention or by considering what type of therapeutic modality I might use. I did this so I would feel adequately equipped to assist my client’s in their therapeutic journeys. This need to organize and my desire to feel “ready” arose partly from the messages I heard in graduate school about the importance of the clinical intervention and partly because of my own need to plan ahead. For me, the anxiety of not feeling prepared was too much to handle. I believed it was my duty to be as prepared as possible with pre-planned interventions to help my clients grow and heal.
As I grew as a practicing clinician, I realized that my need to prepare was preventing me from being mentally present with my clients. I found I was hyper focused on my role as clinician and less on what each client was bringing to the “playroom.” I discovered that children needed to be heard and It was in this discovery where I found my passion for working with children. Children want to be heard and thrive in environments when they feel their voice matters. The interventions I thought I needed to plan ahead of time became less important because the children coming to therapy and engaging in play IS the intervention itself. It became less about the type of play that was happening and more about my response to each child. When you listen to a child and observe their behaviors, you begin to see a story unfold. It is through their play where you begin to hear their voice telling you the story about their world and experiences. By slowing down and being present with children through play, you get the opportunity to hear and see a child letting you in to the place they might try to keep hidden, or to that place they might not fully understand themselves.
This shift in thinking changed how I approached each play therapy session and how I generally conceptualized that essence to play therapy. I have worked with many children and families and some interactions illustrate this shift so nicely. A young girl came into my office – known as the “playroom.” Through play, this young girl identified for the first time that she felt important and special. This was hard to hear because of the reflections I now played out in my head, but it also allowed me to see a truly recognizable growth moment for this young girl. In this moment of play, this child voiced feeling special because she felt safe enough to share an inner emotional struggle she was facing. I realized that I was providing a space for children to engage in play interventions of their choice where they could express their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors – ultimately demonstrating their true self.
My thoughts and responses in the playroom shifted. I went from trying to over-plan and lead children in play to allowing them to lead. My role became the listener, where I provided responses to my clients through the use of tracking, reflecting and meta-communication – all based on what the children were demonstrating through their play and storytelling. And through this transformation I realized that children can affect adults in a powerful way. Being able to witness a child growing, healing and becoming a stronger version of themselves pushed me toward continuing my mission to providing a safe space for children to be whom they want, and to engage in the type of play they feel helps to tell their story. If someone had told me at the beginning of my clinical career that I would experience this transformation from engaging in play with children, I would have said no way. However, it happened, and I now realize how powerful play is and how play is the tool and intervention that allows children to open up and to express thoughts in feelings in ways that other’s might not understand. Children can spark growth in others, just as adults work hard at creating opportunities for children to grow.
It is easy to get caught up with our day-to-day expectations and it is sometimes hard to recognize when we need to observe, appreciate and listen to the innocence of children that is heard through their play. My journey has helped me to see children who are creative and playful in their own unique and individual way through their play. When children feel heard, valued and connected with others, they open up and share their inner world. Children have the capacity to communicate deeper thoughts and feelings through play. Play is a child’s job, and through play children grow, develop and discover.
Copyright (2021) Written by Robin Hoffman, Clinician Supervisor, LMSW