The Play-Based Healing Event: Establishing Safe Connections

by TRF Community Member Rebecca Van der Weij

In October, 2022, the Trauma Research Foundation provided the opportunity for us to be a part of an interactive day of learning led by Dr. Margaret Blaustein, Lou Bergholz and Dafna Lender. Looking through the lens of trauma, the Play-Based Healing conference focused on creatively utilizing the natural healing qualities of play in order to develop an inclusive environment in which children feel safe and connected, and where they are met as they are. 

Dafna Lender and The Importance of Play

The day was started off by Dafna Lender who presented on the importance of play. Through the use of interactive activities, we were able to experience what it is like to participate in the games as well as facilitating them ourselves. A few of the games we were introduced to included: 

  • ‘Peanut Butter and Jelly’ in which one candidate said the words ‘peanut butter and jelly’ in a chosen tone of voice, for example, very high pitched, and another participant repeated it back. 
  • Similarly, we were introduced to the Tooty Ta game in which Dafna led the group in a dance which we imitated while singing the Tooty Ta song. 
  • Games that could be adapted to online included: passing an imaginative ball back and forth and blowing really hard at the screen while the person on the other side is ‘pushed’ away. 

Children who have experienced trauma often express dysregulated behavior combined with an attunement to danger and/or adapted strategies of managing stress that, from an outsider’s perspective, can seem disruptive or even labelled as misbehavior. Play, in the form of games such as those above, can be used as a regulation technique. Simply put, play is regulation. Part of the healing process is introducing a child to a regulated and attuned adult who provides eye contact, nurturing touch when appropriate, movement, rhythm, and facial expression. Playfulness unlocks the sense of self in which the coping strategies developed through the experiences of trauma are no longer necessary because a child begins to feel safe in their body and their environment. 

For more information on Dafna and her work visit: https://www.dafnalender.com

Lou Bergholz and Playful Design

Lou carried on where Dafna left off and invited us to reflect on the healing powers of ordinary playful activities that we participate in with the children we work and live with. Often, we work with children who still live in and with the source of their trauma and pain. While the experienced difficulties continue, Lou invited us to explore how our role in working with these children can still be healing. What does healing look like from a practical perspective? What can we do right now, in this moment to give a child a win? Engaging in this perspective, Lou further challenged us to find the healing power that is at the core of even the most ordinary of activities. A few mentioned in conversation included:

  • Knitting-a source of rhythm, calm, and self-regulation
  • The On-Deck Circle (in baseball)-a source of sanctuary, a place for visualizing greatness, a pause before a challenge
  • Jumping Rope-a source of joy and feelings of competency
  • Team Sport- a source of support, connection, and stress relief

Through playful activities, children have the chance to connect with their whole selves and often parts of themselves that they have yet to discover. This might look like their bodies experiencing power for the first time through sports, or running, and other forms of movement. 

Lou further highlighted the importance of structuring our interactions with children by prioritizing play. Play must come first and last. Above all, play is supposed to be fun; children should be experiencing play with a sense of ease, amusement, enjoyment, light-heartedness, and pleasure. Our job as adults is to find what therapeutic cores are hidden in the work we are already doing, to take one aspect of what we do and make it memorable because what we do has to have some sticking power. 

For more information on Lou and his work visit: https://www.loubergholz.com

Dr. Margaret Blaustein and Possibilities

Margaret finished off the day sharing with us about the magic of possibilities, bringing home the message that in play anything is possible. She explored the ways in which children try out possibilities in play. This might look like:

  • Dressing up as a superhero, princess, teacher, or explorer
  • Pretending to be a firefighter, a vet, a mum, or a dad.

Margaret defined play as a form of dreaming, as the expression and exploration of what could be. During development into adulthood these play-based possibilities and dreams eventually become roles. Children will grow into the role of a firefighter, vet, mum, or dad. But this is only one side of the trajectory, because when a child experiences trauma, often the magic of possibilities is taken away and a theft of what might be occurs. Rather than exploration and imagination of who a child is and could be, a lot of kids have been told who they already are now and in the future. 

From a trauma perspective, negative labels or roles can look like: 

  • broken, 
  • unwanted
  • bad
  • hard to love
  • a failure 
  • a disappointment

From early on we are building a sense of self that in part, is contributed by the way the world sees us. Margaret explained play-based healing as reintroducing possibilities back into the lives of children who have experienced trauma. In our work we can cultivate healing by taking on a perspective of possibilities that rejects the idea that a child is broken. Specifically, Margaret talked about practically cultivating possibilities using choices in such a way that children feel empowered. This might look like adapting children’s behavior and character to an activity. For example, a child that is loud is given the opportunity to step into a loud role or a child that feels shy or hesitant is given the opportunity to observe. Using this approach incorporates the awareness that all behavior makes sense. The message we want to give children who have experienced trauma is that they are understood and welcome as they are, being loud is ok and being a quiet observer is ok too. Margaret explained this approach as creating a superhero squad where the adults in charge are vocal in pointing out the ways in which every child in the group plays an important role and contributes in their own way. This allows children to feel empowered and engaged with the world while feeling safe and heard. The overarching metaphor that Margaret used to explain her approach was of the possibility of the acorn. We are all acorns and hold the possibility of becoming an oak tree, in whichever shape or form, as long as we are able to grow in fertile ground.  

For more information on Margaret and her work visit: https://arcframework.org

In summary, the conference was insightful, interactive, and educational. The healing powers of play allowed us to see that the moments we create with the children in our lives are going to be vehicles that they hold on to no matter how big or small. Interacting with children through their language of play unlocks the possibilities of connection, ease, and nurturance that children who have experienced trauma so need. 

Much gratitude to Margaret, Lou and Dafna for all the passion, enthusiasm, and information they shared with us. 

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