Play Therapy

Imagine if you will. Entering a room you meet a man, his face is familiar but he is in despair. He is a mathematics professor, his language is that of formulas and equations. Yet today, he has only one question on his mind. He speaks to you. “what are the damn words to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?”. You have entered…. The Twilight Zone… da da dum!!

Although I have dramatized the actual events, this did actually happen. My dad, the mathematics professor, is one of those fathers that recite the valences of elements on the periodic table, recite pi to I don’t know how many decimal points. Calculate the force on an object as it hurdles through space… however, he still struggles to remember my exact birthdate AND has no idea what the real lyrics of Twinkle Twinkle really are. Apparently Google was no help, there were too many other stanzas!!

So why were these lyrics so important to a man who once never gave it a second thought? Well he was helping with Ted’s Play Therapy. In order to help with speech and create interactive games, my dad had to actually STUDY AND MEMORIZE the correct lyrics to several toddler songs and rhyming games.

The idea of play therapy is to have children build the milestones of interaction and communication. Whereas the goals of ABA/IBI is to teach skills, remove unwanted behaviours and have a child appear more “typical” in their actions. Obviously our goal as parents is to have our children be as independent as possible so skills are important, but my thoughts are that it will come once the other building blocks of development are in place.

As there are off shoots of ABA therapy there are also a few variations of Play Therapy. However the basis is the same – build the child’s social and communication skills through play. It starts simply with skills like being able to self regulate and creating a connection with others. It builds with two-way communication, complex communication and eventually emotional thinking. If you have other children or have spent a lot of time with young babies and children you can see how naturally most of the milestones progress. The infant learns to self soothe, the toddler with no words can point to ask for an object, bring a toy to initiate play etc.

For my both my boys these milestones did not develop naturally and when they were developing they were done so in quite different ways. As you see in the documentary I spent a lot of time in the beginning helping Oskar to find ways to self regulate or cope. The same happened with Ted, he needed to run and crash and lots of physical interaction. However, his playing consisted of just moving a toy car back and forth repetitively and he preferred to do it in isolation. The same happened with Oskar as he wanted only to spin toys rather than play with how they were intended.

Instead of calling the boys interactions with their worlds or environment – behaviours, we called them coping mechanisms or just that… interactions. Ted was big into the cars but never wanted to play like a neurotypical child by driving them around and creating adventures with them. He liked to watch the wheels, observe them from different angles. As he got older he would park them and create lines and patterns with the colours of their bodies.

At around 4 or 5 years he watched the Cars movie and so would act out certain parts with his car collection. Everything we engaged him with was only with letting him lead. We would create boxes or paper parking lots. We took pictures of his “art work” designs (like toy cars arranged in a rainbow pattern) and praised him that he was very creative. We never told him “how” to play with his cars, they were his and he, for the most part, could take the lead on what would happen with them. But we did use them as a way into his world. We might have the parking lot be outside of the box we labeled “grocery store”, “school” or library.

We would talk about what was going on in there. Sometimes he would get frustrated and I knew I had pushed too hard. But other days he might just move his car away and allow me to act out a very small story line. I know he was always listening. During outings I would hear him say “books” when we drove past the library in town. I would build on it for next time.

The key is to allow the learning to happen as naturally as possible for young children, that is through play. It’s harder to track data or to say exactly when something was “mastered”, but I feel that if the basics are not there then you will have nothing to build on. For Ted, we eventually started IBI and he learned a lot of skills. But I feel it was at a cost, he had a traumatic time with his sensory issues, increase in anxiety and had no foundation for his complex conversations. Things were “canned” responses. He learned there is only one right answer to a question, and you don’t want to be wrong… because that’s bad. As children learn through play there are no wrong answers. I see this with our younger girls, Anika and Izzy. I saw this with my oldest, Livie. Playing and exploring sparks creativity, which builds learning and confidence… self awareness, emotional ideas… and on and on.

A doll shoe for example. As an adult we would “teach” a child that the shoe must go on the correct sized foot, maybe it needs a sock,…. Oh and where is the match? We must wear two shoes, they must match and then we will have the doll walk around and then maybe sit in a chair and have…. The Tea Party. Right?? This is “correct” and “appropriate” play.
First none of my girls have ever liked to play with traditional “dolls”. Family and friends bought them dolls, we tried playing dolls, pushing in a stroller, brushing hair etc. But they have all preferred to play with stuffed animals. Sometimes they will dress them up, but they have never played out the shoe scenario from above. In fact there is never a matching set… usually something like a roller skate on one foot and a too small shoe from a different pair on the stumpy squishy leg of a bear… or maybe it’s a unicorn sporting the footwear today! Both Liv and Anika would have to problem solve ways to get those shoes to stay on… ribbon, tape or maybe just a story how they have a blister on the one foot and can’t wear shoes that day.

Izzy on the other hand has probably never had even her stuffed animals wear a shoe “appropriately”, yet she has no problem putting on her own shoes or boots… okay maybe occasionally on the wrong foot, but she is learning how it doesn’t feel so comfortable. So when Izzy plays with toy shoes, she uses them for spaceships, homes for tiny animals, a feed trough for another and on and on… she sparks creativity and innovative thinking everytime she picks up a toy.

This is our goal with Oskar. We allow him to explore toys, we or the other kids model the “appropriate” use, but he often just observes and does his own thing. Lately he is into balls. So that is where we start, we have lots of different ones, sizes, colours and textures. There is always a ball readily available… funny because I know from watching the Brady Bunch “mom always says – don’t play ball in the house”… but WE do! When Oskar tosses a ball in the living room or kitchen we immediately toss it back. We now can go back and forth for several minutes. He may kick first and then throw. We follow his lead and try to be silly and have fun.

There is laughter and giggling and after a few minutes he may have enough… or go and get a different ball. This is the level of communication we are working on. It doesn’t look like it, but it’s actually Two Way Communication, turn taking; it’s what we do when we talk with another person. Just as in a conversation when one speaks and the other waits. He looks to our face to see if we are going to do something silly or if we are serious. Sometimes the ball goes off in another direction and I might move somewhere else… does he stop and look up to see if I am where I was… he is looking and learning, reading body language… all very naturally in a loving and supportive way!

We will continue to explore communication, social and emotional thinking through play. We will have future blogs and vlogs to allow you to see the progress!

Leave a Reply