Children have always had a special place in my heart. My mom used to say they followed me around like the Pied Piper. I knew they each carried something special for the world and that they saw and heard more than others credited them for. So when my graduate school advisor recommended I take a course on play therapy, I eagerly complied.
“Play is a child’s work,” my professor explained. My classmates and I had several assignments where we were to observe children at play. We were to notice their interactions, the roles they took, the objects they used, and all the themes of their play. We were to notice every detail as significant.
Once we began to appreciate the value and significance of play in a child’s life, our professor began teaching us about play therapy.
It quickly became apparent that we would not be observing anymore. On the contrary, we would be actively engaged, following the child’s lead, reflecting back verbally what the child said word for word, relinquishing control of where the play goes and in what role the child casts us, and doing whatever the child tells us to do within our sound judgment.
We were not to introduce any new ideas or be directive in any way, but completely engross ourselves in what arose from inside the mind and heart of the child. The need to stay present was emphasized and we were instructed to not let our minds wander or add anything to what unfolds as a little one takes charge.
Sounded simple but I wondered if it would be hard to do after being a teacher, and in charge, for years.
“Unconditional positive regard and undivided attention,” our professor reminded us as she sent us out that week for our first play therapy sessions. We were to choose a child we did not know, conduct a play therapy session, and then write about what we learned.
I choose Kensey. She was seven years old. I didn’t know anything about her except that her mother, who was a trauma survivor, was frequently hospitalized as a self-protective measure and I wondered how this had affected Kensey and how she was processing life in general.
When we started, it took a few minutes for Kensey to realize she was in charge. For some reason, this adult was not making conversation or asking questions. This adult was listening to everything she said and repeating it in a way that showed interest. This adult would even do what she said. This adult let her have control and keep control.
“Put this girl over there,” she said as she handed me the small plastic figure and indicated its place. “This girl goes over here,” I said as I placed it where she had pointed. This went on for quite some time as a whole collection of figures took their places across the bedroom floor.
There was no small talk between us. It was all about the play and it was all about what she wanted to have happen in this freeing 45 minutes where some sense of mastery over the world seemed to settle on her. The more she realized she was in control the more talkative and animated she became. She was really enjoying how this was all unfolding.
Then something happened that I hadn’t expected. Toward the end of our time together, while we were sitting on the bed with toys all around us, Kensey shifted gears and started pretending an evil witch had come into the room.
She jumped into my lap, curled up in a ball and said, “Tell that evil witch to leave your baby alone!” I hadn’t seen this coming. I was surprised she was comfortable enough to jump into my lap and even more surprised that she was pretending to be my baby. I pulled her close, looked in the direction of the evil witch, and with a scowl on my face and authority in my voice said, “Evil witch, you leave my baby alone!”
“Again!” she said with urgency in her voice. I raised my voice and said even louder, “Evil witch, you leave my baby alone!”
“Again!” she said almost yelling now. I added more aggression to my voice and in almost a yell exclaimed, “Evil witch, you leave my baby alone!”
“Again!” she yelled in muffled tones as she tucked her whole face against my body.
I don’t remember exactly how many times she had me stand down that witch. It was quite a few. Eventually she stopped yelling “Again!” and the room fell silent. I continued to rock her in my arms pretending she was my baby, but to me, this wasn’t feeling like play anymore.
The silence persisted as I continued to sway back and forth for some time. She never made a move to get down. Eventually I spoke from my own heart, not caring if I was breaking the rules. “Nobody’s gonna hurt my baby,” I whispered as we rocked, “Nobody’s gonna hurt my baby.” She unashamedly soaked it all in.
I drove home numb. Stupefied. Amazed. I didn’t know what it all meant. I knew it was significant. I knew it wasn’t just play. I knew what I had felt and how my heart had engaged. I wondered what she felt, where that idea had come from, and what her heart was doing as she experienced our time together.
I became a believer in play therapy that day. With time, I became better at being more fully present with others, both young and old, and better at listening to what they said. Somehow I realized that maybe, if given a chance, others might open up too, as Kensey had.
I came to appreciate just how rare and priceless undivided attention truly is and wished it for us all. I realized, too, that the cries of this little one for safety, protection, and comfort had given voice to something that echoed in my own heart, something universal, ageless, and inherently human.
A profound insight gained from the play of a seven-year-old child.
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