The smell of a new box of crayons. The feel of a fresh can of Play-Doh. The sight of little miniatures neatly arranged in a sandbox. The sound of a puppet scene being acted out. These sensory experiences remind many of us of our childhood play with friends and family.
When play therapy, the topic of this month’s Counseling Today cover story, is described in the public, play is often the emphasized word and therapy the overlooked word. However, I remember from conducting play therapy that children frequently tasted the salty tears running down their cheeks as they diligently worked through life challenges in our counseling sessions.
We, as professional counselors in schools and communities, know that play is a critical modality in working with youth. Very young children do not have the vocabulary and command of language to accurately express their emotions through traditional “talk” therapy; thus, they rely on their natural language of play to express their thoughts and feelings. Many adolescents, adults and older adults also struggle to articulate themselves through the spoken word. Creativity in counseling can be used throughout the life span and across settings. In addition to play therapy, clients may engage in therapeutic work using mediums such as art, music and journaling.
With the start of the school year, professional counselors are reminded to advocate for youth and families in our communities who strive to maintain wellness in the midst of such challenges as physical and mental illness, trauma and addiction. Children may not be able to verbally describe their feelings of depression or anxiety. At a time when clients are going through their darkest days, they need access to mental health care, including play therapy in their schools and communities.
We need to advocate for children to have a voice through play therapy. Sometimes, children are told not to talk about the abuse they have endured or told to keep other secrets, purportedly to prevent harm to loved ones. They are instructed not to be disrespectful to adults, including school personnel, doctors, neighbors, family members and community leaders. Because of messages to be compliant and follow the directions of adults, children are vulnerable. Because of bullying, natural disasters, and mass violence in schools and communities, children are vulnerable. Because we are professional counselors, we must advocate for appropriate counseling services for these children.
We need to advocate for children and families to have affordable access to counseling services in the community. We know that early intervention makes a difference and that prevention can break the intergenerational cycle of abuse, mental illness and addiction. When clients arrive at our offices, we need to ensure that we are implementing evidence-based strategies in a culturally sensitive, developmentally appropriate manner. By becoming proficient in play therapy or knowing counselors in the community who are play therapy experts (and to whom we can refer clients), professional counselors can assist children who would benefit from this counseling modality. It can help them to address struggles in their daily functioning that have been brought on by a life transition, a traumatic event, a difficult relationship or a physiological issue.
We also need to advocate for realistic student-to-school counselor ratios. In my previous role as a supervisor of school counselors, an intern said that she originally had thought that big kids had big problems and little kids had little problems. Once she completed her internship at an elementary school, however, she realized that little kids do indeed deal with big problems and that they often are disempowered to make changes in their lives at school or at home. Play therapy is a way to advocate for and assist youth with academic and psychosocial functioning.
To close this column, I’ll draw counselors’ attention to three resources that can help them in both their practice and advocacy efforts with children and adolescents:
- The American Counseling Association’s Center for Policy, Practice and Research provides a variety of advocacy and practice resources for working with children and adolescents at the Your School Counselor Connection webpage: counseling.org/knowledge-center/school-counselor.
- ACA divisions such as the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling and the Association for Creativity in Counseling offer additional professional resources. Find out more about ACA divisions at counseling.org/about-us/divisions-regions-and-branches.
- Counselors can engage in legislative advocacy on behalf of clients and communities by downloading the new and easy-to-use VoterVoice app, available in the Apple App Store or from Google Play. Alternatively, use the ACA Government Affairs Take Action page (counseling.org/government-affairs/actioncenter), which is also powered by VoterVoice.