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Therapeutic play in action

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My decade-plus tenure as a clinician at The Guidance Center has provided me with the privilege of being with hundreds of children of all ages. Notice the choice of word, “being” rather than the word “working.” In my opinion, and experience, therapeutic healing comes from a place of oneness between the wounded and healer. When the person playing the healer recognizes that there actually are no such roles in this dyad, that “being with” doesn’t require identifying who plays which role, healing occurs!for both, I’d argue.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to therapeutic practice, but for me, experiential-play therapy has served as the foundation for “being with” children. Experiential-play therapy is not really a guideline for doing, but rather for a way of being with a child!or inner child. Regardless of age, we all have an inner child, holding on to long-ago hurts or unmet needs. It is only when we feel truly safe, physically and emotionally, that our inner child emerges to play as it once did, or how it wishes it could have years ago. Clearly, the older we become, the deeper our inner child tends to hide, insecure to play in a world of marriage, bills, taxes, paperwork and politics.

Adolescence is the transition period, when the inner child takes the back seat to the pressures and responsibilities of the “real world.” In a previous piece— “Monkey Business” — I reminded readers to seek the inner child in even the most hardened and difficult-to-like adolescents. But younger, preschool-aged children are an inner child!if that makes sense. Theirs still lives on the surface.

It’s About T.I.M.E. (Trauma-Informed Movement in Education) has been at two alternative-education high schools (Beach and Poly PAAL) the past year and a half. I’ve had the pleasure of “being with” so many inner children at these schools, both students and teachers! I’ve loved every minute of every day that I’m with them. I received more great news when LBUSD Head Start program reached out, wanting me to bring It’s About T.I.M.E. to their preschools.

During this growing partnership, I’ve provided trauma-informed trainings to several preschool sites and staff of various Head Start programs, while also meeting on-site at one preschool, providing ongoing, weekly modeling and consultation of trauma-informed practices.

Head Start has a foundation of trauma-informed education and practice in the form of the “conscious discipline” model. Conscious discipline and The ChildTrauma Academy’s neurosequential model in education are completely complementary. I can’t say enough about how impressed I am by seeing this model in action.

A 4-year-old girl is in tears as a 4-year-old boy playmate impulsively grabs a toy out of her hand. An amazing Head Start teacher gently intervenes, down on one knee, speaking softly and empathically: “You’re having a strong feeling right now. Let’s take some belly breaths together, and, when you’re ready, you can tell me what happened.”

The teacher models deep, controlled breathing with a hand on her belly, as the young girl mimics her. “He took my toy,” the tiny girl explains, still a little upset, but definitely more regulated than before. The teacher masterfully empathizes with the girl and both go to the boy, not to confront him, but to help him feel calm and understood too. Without any more tears, the boy apologizes un-coerced, and the two children are playing with the toy together.

The Head Start population has allowed me to show more of experiential-play therapy in action, demonstrating the value of truly understanding these young children, because their play is their language.

It was brought to my attention that a very young boy, maybe almost 3 years old, was very oppositional and aggressive towards the staff and other children. The teachers didn’t understand his outbursts nor know how best to respond to him. I spent some time “being with” him, noticing his shoes, the superheroes on his shirt, and how he runs, jumps and climbs. Everything about him is valuable, and I convey that to him by reflecting to him what I see. His speech is minimal and almost impossible to understand.

But his language of play is crystal-clear. He lights up when I notice and value all that he does. He seeks to be known and valued. He carries around a stuffed animal, pushing it in a toy shopping cart, sitting with it, climbing with it and nurturing it. I explain to the Head Start staff that the toy represents him and how he needs to be nurtured. They understand. Helping regulate this young boy will require many adults “being with” him.

This is the beginning of a beautiful partnership between myself and Head Start!It’s About T.I.M.E.

Nathan Swaringen, LCSW is a school-based clinical therapist at The Guidance Center.

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Therapeutic play in action