Real life and re-enactment play

When children are given a full set of toys that mirror the home environment, including a play kitchen with play dishes, play foods, babies, a baby bottle, a stroller, a high chair, an iron and ironing board, these items invite a child to play out real-life scenarios. Self-expression, a seminal therapeutic power of play, is fostered when these tools are offered. We may be able to tell a lot about the nurture a child has received by observing the ways in which they nurture or take care of the baby dolls (see Figure 3.1).

Abreaction, a therapeutic power of play that is sometimes misunderstood, is a term that is rooted in a psychoanalytic tradition. It is a term for re-living the traumatic experience to leach out the emotional toxicity. Some describe it as a process of desensitisation. In play therapy, the toys provide potentially abreactive opportunities. As the verbal language of children

Toys that mirror the home environment

Figure 3.1 Toys that mirror the home environment.

is underdeveloped and trauma may have occurred when the child was pre-verbal, offering a linguistic narrative about a sexually abusive experience may be impossible. Many of our trauma memories are iconic and somatic, stored more in the right hemisphere of our brains than the left, experienced and stored non-linguistically, or for our youngest clients, pre- linguistically. For these children, accessing trauma narrative and allowing clients to move towards building coherence in their own stories, trauma memories take the form of glimpses and snapshots of expression in play, art or other expressive mediums. This author gives multiple clinical examples of this phenomena in other writings (Goodyear-Brown, 2019, 2019).

Expressive arts materials

Nurture House also has a fully outfitted art room that allows for a multitude of therapeutic powers to be activated through clay, paint, crafts, collage, drawing, weaving and making slime. Here the titration of materials that can access the unconscious are also offered.

Self-expression, a critically important therapeutic power of play can be fostered through expressive arts materials. Offering mediums along a continuum from most to least controllable artistic mediums can allow for children and teens to titrate their creative expressions in a safe way. To this end, instead of offering only one kind of drawing tool, like crayons, it is better to additionally offer markers, oil pastels, paint pens, coloured pencils and so forth (Landgarten, 1987).

Also, the size of space offered as a canvas for artistic expression can also serve to appropriately activate or overwhelm and shut down a child client. From postcards to large pieces of butcher paper, matching the field for expression to the containment needs of the child or teen is critical to effectively using expressive arts. Children with a sensory defensive profile may avoid clay altogether or need several options: air-dry clay, modelling clay, playdough, plasticine, in order to choose the material that fits within their window of tolerance for tactile experiences, whereas other children may glory in creating wet, slippery slime for several sessions in a row. The same is true of sand tray work. Some children will be drawn to soft Jurassic sand, others to sparkly, grainy white sand and still others to kinetic sand that is easily packed.

Sensory play

Children with all sorts of mental health issues may need regulation work to be incorporated into their therapeutic environments as well as in their academic learning environments. At Nurture House we provide a wide variety of sensory experiences aimed at meeting the child all along a continuum of their proprioceptive and vestibular needs. Some of our big body play materials are shown below. As children master big body play,


Figure 3.2 Geodome.

everything from building with giant blocks, to climbing to the top of the geodome (see Figure 3.2) and figuring out how to have a seat on top, they experience full-body mastery experiences which provide competency surges.

Creative problem solving, resiliency, self-esteem and even accelerated psychological development (four therapeutic powers of play that are all forms of increasing personal strengths) are met in this sort of play. We believe strongly in the mitigating effect of kinesthetic involvement in any kind of work that requires approaching difficult things (trauma content, eye contact, turn taking) because we have seen so many clients have breakthrough moments when engaged in this big body play. The jumparoo (see Figure 3.3) as well as the slackline offer big body play while enhancing attachment relationships.

We often invite a small child to stand on one side of the Jumparoo and jump as high as they can. We then invite the parent to stand on the other side and jump; without fail, the child is able to jump higher when counter weighted by the parent. This usually results in squeals of laughter and shared delight. The child who has significant trust issues due to early attachment wounds, who may prefer to be self-sufficient whenever possible


Figure 3.3 Jumparoo.

still has a strong competency urge to cross the slackline, which is impossible to do without the help of a safe other. This child is often willing to risk trusting a safe boss in small titrated doses in order to experience the eventual competency/self-esteem surge of successfully reaching the end of the slackline. The ways to incorporate attachment enhancement into this sort of big body play are almost endless.

Lastly, the somatic encoding of a state of calm can be aided by sensory play. We are grateful to have a small pool with a constantly flowing waterfall in the backyard playscape of Nurture House. While children are not allowed to swim in the pool, there are a wealth of mindfulness activities related to noticing the way their feet feel as they sit on the edge with their therapist, listening to the sound of the waterfall, experiencing the launch of worries as they sail away, and inviting them to notice what it feels like to watch something sink to the bottom. Metaphors surrounding what’s on the surface and what is underneath can also be powerfully activated in pre- teens and adolescents through the use of this body of water.

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