Play — Medicine for a Child’s Wounded Soul

By Leslie Holmes, Childhelp Foster Care Family Recruiter

Children who have experienced trauma often have a hard time processing what happened to them. A child doesn’t have the capacity to verbally express the pain, hurt, and fear they have been through as a result of abuse or neglect.

Adults can sit down with a therapist, and while we might struggle to find the words, they eventually come, and we feel better having dealt with our problem. With children, their verbal capacity has not quite reached the level of being able to express such complex thoughts and feelings. I wanted to know more about play therapy for children and how exactly it is done. I met with Childhelp therapist, Shannon Follett, to find out.

LH: What exactly is play therapy?

Childhelp therapist, Shannon Follett, at the sand table with a child

Shannon: Play therapy is a type of therapy that utilizes a child’s natural inclination to play to help them express their thoughts and feelings in a non-threatening way. Play therapy is a medium to engage the part of a child that has not been nurtured.

Me: How specifically is it used to reach a child who has experienced trauma?

Shannon: Children who have experienced trauma can be triggered by everyday experiences in their world. It could be a sight, sound, smell, or an experience. Discussing a traumatic event can be especially triggering to them if only talk therapy is utilized by a therapist.

When a child is triggered, we see behaviors that are outside the norm for this child. For example dissociation, aggression, and hyperactivity might be behaviors presenting in a child who has been through trauma.

Play therapy allows children to approach and process their trauma from a 3rd person perspective. This means a toy or character can go through a play narrative of the trauma instead of the child having to say, “I went through this traumatic event.” Children usually dip into and out of their trauma memories and using a toy or character makes the moments when they do less threatening.

Me: What tools do you use and what is your favorite tool or game to play during therapy?

Shannon: Play therapists use tools like board games, baby dolls, doll houses, art materials, and other objects of play. My favorite item to use is the sand tray and sand tray figures. I enjoy using the sand tray because the possibilities are limitless. The figures, which children call toys and the therapist calls helpers, can be used to set up entire worlds.

This method uses the 3rd-person perspective that I mentioned above. Often the child thinks they are playing, but they are actually revealing a whole world to the therapist. The therapist can then begin to be curious about what the scenes set up in the sand tray mean and can ask the child to explain further to ensure the child is being correctly understood.

The sand tray and figures are a wonderful way for the child to discuss their trauma narrative without being triggered because of this 3rd person approach to the story.

Me: What story can you share where you have seen play bring about a breakthrough for a child?

Shannon: One of the most beautiful experiences I have had with a child using play therapy came early in my career. It was a growth moment for the child, but it was also a growth moment for me.

The child was working through sexual abuse by an uncle who had sexually abused 5 of the children in the family. The child I was working with was the oldest of the children, though less than 10 years old herself. 

In her sand tray, she had set up a group of people in one corner of the tray and put a fence around them. This represented the foster/adoptive family she lived with along with two of her younger siblings. It also represented the safety she felt being in their care. In the opposite corner, she placed an empty chair. In front of the chair she positioned a female character that had praying hands. When I asked her to tell me about this section of the tray, she explained, “If I could see my uncle again, I would tell him that I pray for him. I would tell him that I hope that he gets all the help that he needs to be a better person and never hurt anymore children ever again.”

That child was one of my first therapy clients and I will never forget the lesson of forgiveness that she taught me that day.

At Childhelp, we are so grateful to have therapists like Shannon who are willing to patiently help a child deal with all that has happened to them. With the right kind of help, children can often heal from their tremendous hurt and go on to live happy, productive lives. We are so grateful for Shannon and others like her who have the skill and willingness to lead a child in this process of healing.

Play is the medicine for a child’s wounded soul.

Every wound healed. Every child, a home.

This blog originally appeared at Childhelp Foster Family Agency of E. TN, where Leslie often shares a look at the families that open their hearts and homes to children in need and the work of her incredible Childhelp team.