Play Therapy and the Pandemic: By Kevin Hull, PhD on 3/30/20 - 3:13 PM

The worldwide events of recent weeks have affected everyone, and one of the most affected populations is our children. Young people often receive the “trickle down” effect of fear because of the reactions of adults around them to national and world events. The fear generated by this current crisis is magnified by the rapid change due to disruptions in daily lives. School, church, synagogue and play-space closings, and cancellations of team sports and organizational meetings hit people, and particularly children, on a deeply personal level. For children who get a lot of their sense of safety by watching the reactions of adults around them, seeing angry and fearful adults is unsettling, to say the least. As a play therapist, I see the need for play now, more than ever, to help our young people develop coping skills and express their fears.

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“We Can Still Have Fun”

Last week I met with 9 year-old Steven, who was very worried about everything going on. His mother had called prior to the appointment to make sure our office was still open, and expressed relief that it was. As he entered the office he exclaimed, “At least something in this world is normal! We can still have fun!” For the next 55 minutes, he captured robbers, protected a city from the “evil stuff,” and built towers “where nothing bad could get the people inside.” For this little person, play was a way to make order out of chaos and feel safe. He kept saying to himself, “Everything is going to be okay.”

Playing Outside the Box

Telehealth has made it possible for the delivery of psychotherapy services to continue during this time of quarantine and office closings. Play can still be used in the telehealth format, although it may look a little different. Because I’ve worked with many kids over the years with autoimmune issues and other illnesses that make them home-bound, I’ve used play in telehealth with some modifications. Puppets, stuffed animals, or LEGO minifigures are great to use to tell stories, and building materials and mediums like Play-Doh and clay work well. As the child builds, the therapist reflects content and meaning as technology breaks down the barriers of distance. Often, just hearing the familiar voice of the therapist and seeing our face brings a sense of connectedness and comfort. Many of the telehealth platforms allow screen sharing where the child and therapist can share drawings and pictures, and some will even allow drawing together on a virtual white board.

Journey to the Unknown

Sebastian, age 10, has worried about viruses for a long time. Born with an autoimmune disorder, he has spent a lot of time in hospitals and doctor’s offices. He is no stranger to being homebound, and he remarks to me during an online session that this pandemic is much like a “journey to the unknown.” During our telehealth session, Sebastian made a spaceship out of LEGOs and told the story of a group of brave explorers who must leave their planet because it is dying. “It is not going to be easy,” he remarks, zooming the ship around in front of the camera. “We are journeying into the unknown.” Using the dynamics of our online setup, Sebastian suggested that I play the role of “Mission Command.” “You’re stuck back on the dying planet and I’ll be the guys on the ship.” Back and forth we went, with me commenting on the importance of the mission and bravery of the explorers, while Sebastian played out repeated scenes of danger and overcoming challenges.

Welcome to My World

Stephanie, age 8, has a vast stuffed animal collection. During a telehealth play session, Stephanie introduced me to several of her favorite stuffed animals. As our session progressed, she made a hospital “for the ones that got sick.” “Oh no, there are some sick ones; good thing there is a place for them to get better,” I responded. “Yes, I really hope that some of them don’t…you know…get really sick,” she said, making a coughing sound with a fuzzy elephant. “You’re worried about the ones that get really sick,” I reflected. After a moment, her face brightened. “Even if they, you know…die, the doctor has a way to make them alive again.” Despite distance and connected only through a screen, play was still able to give Stephanie a way to play out troubling feelings during stressful times.

Help for Families

Play is a powerful tool during this time when many families are homebound. Parents can use play to build deeper connections with their children and allow the child to express emotions and work through internal conflicts. Play can be a space of safety, bonding and communication. Helping the parents of kids we work with see the usefulness of play can also help the parents feel as though they are helping their children during this dark time. I tell many parents that one of the most important parts of playing with their kids is simply “creating space” for the play to happen. Usually, the kids take it from there.
While this time of crisis is certainly taking a toll on all of us, let us remember our children, and how play never stops being a bridge to better coping and making sense of a chaotic world.

File under: Online Therapy, Child & Adolescent Therapy, COVID-19 Blogs