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What is a Play Therapist anyway?

* This blog is just a guideline and does not include every step taken during the day. Time frames will differ therapist to therapist as will details of the day. Some sessions are 45 mins and others 30 mins. Times have been reduced here for simplicity of writing.


Play therapy is still a relatively unknown profession and often our therapists are asked what they do. Other times, with the best intention in the world, we hear “You are so lucky you get to play all day”. Being a play therapist is at times difficult and emotional yet it is a very rewarding job. All of our therapists deeply care about their jobs and love going to work every day. Not because they can play… It is because they can help! We thought it might be helpful to talk you through the day in the life of a play therapist. So, welcome to our worlds…Meet Sarah*


6.30 am: I wake up. Get dressed and have a cup of Redbush tea (which is a non-caffeine tea to help me start the day, in the interest of looking after my body from the inside out and all that).


8.00 am: I grab my handbag, my work bag, a bag for life with a doll house in it and two suitcases. Yep you heard right. I start every single day by dragging around my two suitcases full of play therapy equipment for my sessions with the children.


7.15 am: I literally wrestle my million bags in to the car. I put on some old 60’s music, today it’s The Eagles, and I drive to work. I am at a different school every day, today it’s a 30 min drive, tomorrow it’s an hour.


8.00 am: I arrive at school. I let myself in, say good morning to other early birds. Talk to the caretaker who is cleaning the halls and is also my saviour because she cleans my room after I am gone each week. Then I head to my playroom. I set up for the day. This part is very important. I make my way round the room in a circular motion setting things out on tables or the floor in little sections.


I get out my paints, pens, paper and other art materials like stick on faces and bendy straws. I get out my clay, wet wipes, modelling tools and I make up a little bowl of water using a plastic cup. That’s the art corner done. Next it’s the doll house with all of the small people and accessories. Then the cooking area with a small play oven, play food, plates and other accessories (It is starting to come together now). I then direct my attention to the puppets. A doctor, a little girl, a little boy, a fairy, a witch. Musical instruments (the kids love the drum). Some special therapeutic stories. I pull out colourful silk scarves for dancing and movement. Hand cuffs, phones, bags, police hats and badges for dressing up. Then my favourite part of the whole room (and the most time consuming) my sand tray and miniatures. This part of the therapy room allows children to create a whole world in the tray. Every week this tray might change and new stories are told through it. A large sand tray lies on the floor in a box that isn’t very deep. Inside is soft clean sand. Next to this on either side I set up my miniatures. This is my sand tool kit. I lay out people, babies, houses, cars, trees, gem stones, dinosaurs, army men, heroes, skeletons, tea lights, bridges, boats. Everything and anything that represent as many things as I can think of. This part of the kit is huge and takes up a whole wall length of floor space.


8.30 am: Done! I hang a “ do not disturb” sign on my door and now it’s time to do my rounds. I start at the kitchen and make a hot drink (another Redbush tea…I take them everywhere I go!). I quickly make some toast and head off to reception to speak to the class teacher. His child is coming for play therapy sessions and I need to ask him how this week has been for the child. This child has been through some pretty terrible life experiences. She has been through domestic violence, coming into school with marks and bruises on her skin and her mother is an alcoholic. The school are following this up and the family is involved with social services. That’s a lot of trauma for a reception child. The teacher tells me this week has been a tough one. The little girl has been very angry in class and he isn’t sure what to do. He asks for some tips for the classroom, we speak for 10 mins and I go and check in with another teacher before school begins.


9.00 am: I go back to my playroom and open up all of the children’s case files for the day. I write notes after every session so I can make sure I log any concerns about a child and write down key things that may have happened. I spend some time looking through case notes and organising paperwork.


9.30 am: I go to collect my first child from class. This child has experienced a death in the family and is struggling to cope with that loss. He is withdrawn and unhappy at school. He has one friend and is too shy to play with anyone else. He doesn’t get involved in many things at school. He spends his session time playing angry wars in the sand tray.


10.00 am: I go to collect my next child. This child is often being sent out of class for aggressive behaviour towards others. He often gets sent in during playtime and struggles to follow instructions in class. He is in year 3 and has just been diagnosed with ADHD. He has a big family and often feels ignored at home. He spends his session drawing out angry pictures.


10.30 am: Break Time. I go and get yet another Redbush tea and walk round to year 3. I am going to check in with the teacher of the child I just saw. We have a brief conversation about him and I offer some advice for the classroom.


11.00 am: I go to collect my next child. This child is in nursery. She was abused as a baby and has been through many different foster placements and has not long been placed with a new family. She is struggling with peer relationships and confidence in schools. She lies and is often found stealing food from lunch-bags. She spends the whole session playing in the dolls house.


11.30 am: I take a deep breath and write my notes. I write them after every session. I make sure I include anything I feel is concerning. I then email relevant staff and pop in on my final teacher for a catch up.


12.15 pm: I go off to the staff room. The dinner ladies here always save me a lunch, which usually includes a nice cake or desert! Today its chicken curry and rice with a chocolate cake to finish! I sit in the staff room and chat to everyone about general things like what happened on Corrie and moving house. This is a good time for me to re-centre myself and get ready for my final session.

1.00 pm: I go to collect my final child for play therapy. This child is in year 4, he has experienced a divorce in his family that was difficult for him to cope with. He now has a new baby sibling and he cant see her very often. This child spends his session playing with the babies and dolls.


1.30 pm: Time to finish note writing and clear up. Before that I make a final cup of tea and go down to the SENCO’s room for a chat about the children and my day. I then head back up to my playroom and put away all of the toys. Once my suitcases are packed I am off.


2.30 pm: I am out the door and on the way home. I spend the journey home driving singing at the top of my voice. It helps me to swap my thought process from play therapist to mum. I now have to go and collect my own children from school. It has been a good day but it is often emotionally challenging playing alongside the children and seeing the difficulties they are going through. I have to be able to switch off and find my mum hat.


3.15 pm: I am at the gates ready to collect my children. Then it is off home for painting and playtime. Followed by dinner time and then bed for them at 6.30 ( Yep early to bed for my two).

7.00 pm: I get in my pjs and answer a few emails before shutting down and watching ‘I Am A Celebrity..Get Me Out Of Here’ and having a good laugh before bed.


Next day? It starts all over again but in a different school with different children who are struggling with different issues. It might be hard, it might be challenging, but I love every second because I know that I am helping these children work through their problems and find a way back to being happy. That makes me very happy indeed.

Why is emotional health and well being impacting on children’s Educational success?


In the past educators have put great importance on a child’s academic abilities and how they ‘perform’ in task that test cognitive intelligence. However a child’s abilities to succeed at school rely on more than how well they can sit, listen and relay what the teacher is teaching. Research and theory now recognise and put great importance upon emotional intelligence (i.e. intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences), and how these affects a child’s abilities. These writings highlight empathy and communicating effectively (these social and emotional abilities) can have more importance over conventional intelligences (Secondary National Strategy, 2007). These abilities are important in regards to the way individuals act, behave and feel about others. Therefore as soon as you get children together in an environment, their interactions with each other, will affect all aspects of their ‘being’. A child’s emotional well being then becomes relevant to every aspect of their lives, including their educational experience. This is often a child’s first opportunity to use and develop these social and emotional skills.


Children who experience unfortunate or traumatic experiences (abuse, death, illness, bullying, divorce etc) can struggle within an educational context. Indeed the outcomes for later life can also be greatly affected and may lead to damaged self-esteem, poverty, social exclusion and emotional dysfunction, all of which have become of great concern for British government and therefore there is a great political interest in promoting individuals emotional well being, and happiness. As a result, many educators look to helping and supporting children with developing their feelings and emotions.


The Governments task force surrounding children and young people’s mental health looks at improving services that are provided for children and young people, how these are organised, commissioned and provided. Making it easier for young people, schools and parents to access the right help and support (www.gov.uk).


Mental health means how a person feels, how they cope with things in their life and people. 1 out of every 10 children needs help for their mental health. Without the relevant help and support a person is more likely to smoke, abuse drugs and alcohol and part take in risky sexual activities. Have mental health problems in adulthood and not so well within an educational context. The task force gathered information from children/young people, parents/carers, and mental health practitioners, which recognised that there is not enough information about the services that are available, children are having to wait longer to receive support and that where an individual lives affects how long people need to wait to get help (Department of Health, 2015). To help combat these problems, by 2020 the Government want to provide the relevant services for children and their families and that this is received at the right time. The right services will be provided as near to their home as possible, parents are supported in how they can make their children have good mental health and to feel safe and secure. Services are transparent about costs and waiting lists, practitioners and trained and provide the support that needed. Better support is provided for the most vulnerable groups i.e. looked after children and children with special educational needs (Department of Health, 2015).


If schools, educators and child care practitioners want children to succeed academically, they have to put a child’s emotional well being and happiness above academic success. Without proper help and support towards their mental health and well being, it is difficult for any formal learning to be processed. The brains’ of the children, who have experienced trauma, do not function in the same as those children who have not. They rely more on impulse and react to certain situations because the part of the brain that is rational (frontal cortex) has not had the same opportunity to develop. In this case, many children have learnt behaviour strategies are used instead of talking about their feelings and emotions.


Play Therapy allows children to have an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings in an accepting and non-judgmental environment. Children are given the space and time to deal with difficulties that they are unable to express verbally. This enables children to solve their own problems in a way that it not offered as part of the curriculum or in a normal school day.


Author: Mrs Charlene Campbell B.A (Hons), MEd, Qualified Play Therapist

Charlene has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Sociology and an MEd in the Psychology of Education. She has expertise in child development, learning processes and Education. Charlene has experience in working with children who display challenging behaviour within an Educational context. She has delivered interventions within schools to children, who were unable to fully access the curriculum, due to their social and emotional difficulties (breaking down barriers to learning to improve outcomes). For 10 years she worked with Looked After Children in a residential home ensuring that all aspects of their social, emotional, physical and educational needs were being met. Charlene is also a Clinical Play Therapist.

References

Secondary National Strategy. (2007). Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL): Guidance booklet. Department of Education and Skills

Department of Health. (2015). www.gov.uk

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