LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Play Therapy ft. Anya Reddy

When asked to think about the significance of playing, we probably think of it as a way to help us with creative thinking, expelling our energy and social interaction. Let’s dig a little deeper on that thought today as we talk about Play Therapy.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Anya Reddy, a Play Therapy practitioner. She is a child and adolescent psychologist who uses play as a language to help children enhance their social, emotional and behavioral skills.

Welcome, Anya!

Anya- Hi, Valerie.

Valerie-  Thank you for being here. Let’s start with you telling us how playing impacts our mental health.

Anya- Wow, well we could start with children or adults but actually to be honest with you, play is something that all mammals engage in. It starts out as our way of discovering the world, of discovering ourselves, our bodies, the things around us. As children, it’s how we develop friendships, relationships, it’s how we strengthen our bond with our parents and it’s how we foster friendships, how we discover empathy, how to share, argue and make up. As adults, it transforms. Some could say that play matures a bit, it could become teasing, flirting, it could become more organized in terms of sport. When we engage in play regardless of age, it leads to a lot of happy hormones in our body – you have oxytocin that’s releasing, it helps reduce your serotonin levels, that’s your stress. Play inherently makes your body happy.

Valerie- Right. Anya, can you tell us what Play Therapy is? How is it different from playing generally?

Anya- In Play Therapy, you have a trained licensed Play therapist who’s using play as a language to help you help yourself. The difference is that in Play Therapy, play isn’t the focus. In fact, we disregard the materials that we have because we know that the therapist is the most important tool and toy in the room. We’re using play as a language but we’re focusing on the client-therapist relationship. 

When you ask how it’s different from playing generally – when we play, there’s no goal to play whereas in Play Therapy, we have our goals. We know what we want to achieve. The child is not coming in just to play with building blocks. The way that the Play therapist holds the space, is watching the child, engaging with the child, the minimal number of rules that we have and the fact that it’s only once a week for 40 minutes, it’s very structured. Going in, even the child knows because there’s an energy in the room and the therapist is picking up on body language, energy, communication, and eye-connection. So there’s a lot that’s going on.

Valerie- Right. Anya, you were telling us that playing can help with a lot of things. It helps when it comes to discovering the world and ourselves, and getting to know ourselves better. What got you interested in providing Play Therapy professionally?

Anya- I have never been a big believer in Talk Therapy, for children especially but adults as well. I wanted to use creative methods, more artistic with movement, storytelling or mindfulness, just different techniques that would access the human subconscious. I feel like we are all able to heal ourselves and that humans are capable of responsible freedom. No one knows one’s inner world better than themselves, nobody else can tell you what you need. I am a big fan of clients being able to take charge of their own healing. So I feel like using creative methods like play allows for that. I wanted to give children the chance to blossom into human beings, not just children. 

I feel like children are infantilized. They’re almost treated as though they don’t know anything, they’re not given enough information, and are dumbed down. Then all of a sudden they’re expected to be able to handle a lot of things. We need to treat children also with respect, autonomy, dignity and just recognition for the fact that they’re also human beings who are actually very aware. A child’s intuition is much sharper than most adults’ intuition. Play Therapy allowed me to integrate creative techniques and an approach where I would be able to meet a child as a human being instead of a child as a child. I was working with a client and it had nothing to do with age. That said, you can also use Play Therapy with adults. 

Valerie- Why don’t you tell us about that? When we were talking about the impact of playing on our mental health, you did mention that it works on children and adults, and right now you did say that Play Therapy is not just for children. Why don’t you tell us more about that?

Anya- When you’re working with adults, Play Therapy is great in terms of healing the inner child. With a lot of adults, you’ll see unresolved issues, maybe a certain conditioning that’s happened, certain scars they never truly had the chance or space to fully heal, and some scars can take years to heal from. 

There’s also how you carry your childhood trauma, not only to your adult relationships at home or at work, but also into your own parenting and how it affects your parenting choices, how it affects how you feel about yourself as a parent and whether you trust yourself as a parent. I’m a big fan of using not only Play Therapy with parents but different techniques of helping parents become aware of who they’re becoming as parents, with the choices they’re making and whether they’re conscious, informed choices. 

Beyond just parents, Play Therapy is a wonderful way of connecting with the inner child, holding and recognizing how it’s important. You carry the experiences, memories, the things you learnt and regretted into who you become as an adult and along the way, we seem to drop the child in us. I feel like it’s important for us to take time out to recognize the child in us, asking ourselves what this child means, how can I help this child? After a point, you can’t really go back to your parents talking about what they did and what you need from them because they may not be able to give it to you, they may not be around. Everybody has their limitations. It’s also taking charge of your own needs and discovering that you can give yourself what you felt you were denied or what you need now. Healing the inner child allows adults to return to themselves in a way that’s empowering and sort of like holding your whole self.

Valerie- Anya, it’s so beautiful that you said you believe people are capable of helping themselves and you just need to be assisted to reach there. When you talk about Play Therapy for adults, you talk about connecting with your inner child, connecting with things that you may have left unresolved or things that you are in conflict with and this just maybe takes you back to the time that things happened and try and get them resolved and make peace with things, and that is such a beautiful thing and such an important thing for people to move on in their lives.

Anya- Right.

Valerie- Can you tell us what a Play therapy session would look like?

Anya- The beautiful thing about each Play therapy session is that they’re each so different. I have this one client, Marissa, who comes in once a week, the way she engages with the toys in the room on the surface seems the same every week but it’s the little things, and a therapist would notice how her body language has changed, whether she’s sharing her artwork with me, whether her body has turned away from me or whether she’s open to sharing space with me. I could also have a client who’s engaging with me but I have also had clients who have almost refused to engage with me. I once spent 40 minutes with a client, it was his first session, and there were no words. He just engaged in movement. It was just a lot of flapping of the arms and different moving of the body. 

So how does a typical Play therapy session look like? Well, the client knows what their boundaries are – basically keeping ourselves safe, each other safe and everything  in the room safe. If they tell me that they have hurt themselves or someone wants to hurt them, then I have to end the session and tell them in advance that I’m ending the session only because I need to keep you safe and this is something that we need to prioritize right now, and I have to tell your parent or your guardian, not to punish you but just to make sure that we can keep you safe. We have to prioritize a client’s safety before we can really even delve into the subconscious and the unconscious. It’s going to be difficult to access healing if you’re physically or mentally unsafe. 

A client comes in and they have the sand tray, they have movement, they have music, art, storytelling, mindfulness. They have a bunch of different corners and materials that they can access and work with during a session. It’s completely self-directed, meaning the client chooses what they want to do. So today they might want to do art and then next week they might want to do sand and the week after that they might do a story, and three weeks later suddenly they might want to return to the story because they’ve processed it and something finally resonates so they feel like they can finally talk about it, that there’s just something that they want to return to about that story. 

So it’s totally unpredictable in a sense, but only in a tangible sense. I suppose in the more intangible sense, I know where a client is coming from and I know where we are going, and there is a growth that I can see happening but then as a therapist, I always have to be careful that I’m not coming from a space of “I know what’s best for the client”, “I know what the client needs”, “I know how to do this”. It’s like holding clay. I’m just holding the clay and watching it as it moulds itself. 

A Play therapy session can be a client that’s throwing a ball from one wall to the other, it can be a client who doesn’t want to talk to me at all, it can be a client who just wants to sit on my lap but then we have to talk about whether that’s safe or unsafe. Then you also have to take into consideration where a child is coming from. Is this a child who has experienced bad touch? How willing am I to allow the child to use my body as a canvas to experience what good touch is? Because how can a child know bad touch from good touch if the child’s never had the chance to experience good touch? You provide a space to experience trust and affection and safety in someone whom they feel like they can experience those things with. It’s a beautiful spectrum.

Valerie- You’ve spoken to us about such a serious topic while giving us this answer. You told us that it doesn’t only delve into the kind of tools they’re playing with and trying to understand them through that but you also have to teach them so much because at the end of the day, they are children and unless they know the difference between good and bad, there’s no way for them to them to understand if something that’s happening to them is right or wrong.

How do you reach out to your clients, these children? You said some of them don’t talk to you for the entire 40 minute session. How do you reach out to them and break that wall?

Anya- Play is a child’s language and toys are their words. There’s so much therapy that’s happening even if a child isn’t playing because they are invited into a play room and they’re invited to play but they don’t have to. It’s completely their space, it’s their rules. They can say what they want, they can do what they want. What a therapist does if a child doesn’t want to engage, or even is engaging, is I hold the space. I mean that I have my eyes around them continuously for 40 minutes, I am mirroring their movement, I am completely attuned to them. When I say attunement, I mean I’m attuned to their energy, their body language, the inflection in their voices, the kind of stories they’re weaving with their toys, it’s like I’m hearing a client in more ways than one. There’s a lot of body language that’s communicated, it’s far more than words, it’s far more than play. I’m completely attuned to the sense of being like a client’s canvas. Even if they’re building a story in a sand tray, I am carrying the energy that a child leaves in a room. 

I think so much of working with children and teaching children happens in a way when you’re not really trying to. It’s sort of like you’re holding sand in your hand and you’re allowing it to do what you feel like it needs to do. You know how to keep the child safe, maybe you’re teaching the child boundaries to an extent but most of it is demonstration, and I think the biggest tool is actually empathy. When I said attunement and listening to the child in more ways than one, what it is, is empathy. I’m listening to how it feels to be in that sitting position, how it feels to jump up in a standing position, how it feels to turn your body away from me during a session and to slowly look over your shoulder at me. I’ve had that with clients. There’s just so much deep empathy in the sense that I’m almost embodying what the client is going through and that’s the deepest level of empathy and there’s no other deeper way to connect to anybody.

Valerie- Anya, thank you so much for talking to us today. For explaining to us what Play Therapy is. We’ve learnt so much from you apart from just the topic of Play Therapy. We’ve learnt that you discover the world, you discover yourselves, you discover empathy and sharing when you’re a child but when you grow into adulthood, the importance of Play Therapy could also be recognizing and nurturing the child in you and that playing can just make your body happy! What’ve we’ve learnt from you is also your personal experience, your passion to integrate creative techniques, not just talk therapy but you go on to talk about playing, art, so many other alternative means of therapy, and you interact with your clients, work on a relationship with that client so that you understand them better and most importantly, you empathize with them. As you said, that’s probably the best way to connect with somebody. Thank you so much for talking to us about Play Therapy.

Anya- My pleasure! I’m always happy to talk about it. Thanks for having me again, Valerie. 

Valerie- Thank you.

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