Friday, 3 February 2017

The Power of Play

We all agree that playing is fun! It's needed. Regardless of your age or gender. We all love to play. Some alone, some in groups; some together for a common goal, others play competitively; some with recycled cheap rubbish (and lots of imagination) others with super expensive gadgets.

But what if you don't know HOW TO play?

For most of us it's a silly question that we dismiss with a wave of a hand 'How can you not know how to play? Even poor African children who have nothing know how to have fun in the dirt. Everybody has an imagination! Surely every child has creative ways of entertaining themselves!' Surely...

My 2 boys came from the same home, experienced the same neglect, but have different personalities. One escaped the harsh reality by creating an imaginary world in his head where he is safe, happy and can think up all sorts of funny things to keep him entertained. The other one just shut himself down completely and used his body parts to fight everybody and everything. For him, this was play...

Fast forward to living in several foster carers' homes with left over broken toys from previous children and lots of new ones given for their birthdays, Christmas or just to 'keep them quiet'. During Intros we found out the boys' favourite past time was to watch telly, play on their tablets, play on their Nintendo DS or play with their Nintendo Wii. All activities designed to escape from reality, narrow your focus on a tiny screen, avoid eye contact or conversation with anybody else. To the last FC's credit the boys had lots of cars, toys, Lego, domino...etc but they hardly played with it and even then they just threw them around so naturally all were broken.

One of the hardest thing was (besides the many obvious) for us to get them free from their screen addiction. With a swift decision we removed all gadgets from their new room and replaced them with educational games, board games, we increased their Lego collection and introduced weekly crafty activities. We also played with them various sporty activities in the garden, did other fun stuff like snail races or comparing worms and now we are at a point where they don't even miss their gadgets. So, they can have them as treats from time to time. They are no longer a tool to 'give parents/carers a break' but rewards to acknowledge and celebrate when the boys achieved something.
When he is free to be a little boy and use his imagination outside of his head...
He made these 4 designs in 15 min!
To be fair we can't claim much credit for this. I must mention that we are one of the very fortunate adopters who could access Play Therapy from very early on. At first I didn't feel comfortable watching my child on the play mat with the therapist. They were surrounded by boxes of toys (doll house with figures, crafts, puppets, toy cars, soft toys, animals, dress up props and lots more) and the boys were so overwhelmed they didn't know what to do, what to play with first and ended up having meltdowns. The 'play lady' was fabulous and week after week the boys felt more confident, more excited and more animated during each session. I could not understand how 20 min of throwing puppets around would help them be less chaotic, more manageable, less violent, more settled.... simply put: How will playing help all four of us to survive this adoption???

Fast forward again a few months and suddenly we started to see the transformation! Goofs' (6) angry outbursts and Child on Parent Violence (CPV) subsided significantly. He was still getting all upset and worked up about the same simple issues like 'go brush your teeth', but he could calm down much faster without the need to hurt us or break something. I do not wish to over-simplify this complex issue and I am certainly no expert on this topic, but in short by allowing 'him to decide all the fun things we do in play therapy' and making it clear 'all feelings are OK on the play mat' he was able to work through some of his control issues while playing on the mat and week after week he was more compliant at home. I am still amazed and often jokingly describe play therapy as 'black magic'. He is rapidly turning into a sweet little boy who is no longer crippled and determined by the horror, trauma and loss he experienced so his fun, creative, kind self can come to the surface for all to see and love!
Snoops' (7) imagination is wonderful. These are his newest creations for his next story.
N.B.: all names are Trade Marked already :) 

Play Therapy slowly turned into Filial Therapy so it was no longer the therapist on the play mat but mummy and daddy. That really opened up ways for him to heal at a speed not even his therapist expected. With him, after 9 months in placement we are in a place where Attunement is no longer enough! I mean it in the best possible way! The therapist is training hubby and I now to practice Congruence, which is like an advanced level Empathy & Attunement combo - if I understand it correctly...

Last week we were given a few boxes of toys by a friend; most of them are age appropriate. There was a puzzle game for toddlers that I wanted to donate further thinking boys will find it 'childish'. (yes, I know... that's irony for ya). Goofs saw it and asked what it was. Before I could explain he started playing with it. I took the opportunity to do Play Tracking (a therapy technique, basically I describe what is happening, mention every emotion that can come up) and suddenly the miracle happened!

Goofs felt free to regress to a younger age and he felt safe enough to start talking about his past - for the very first time! We obviously knew most of the horror, but not from him! While his fingers were busy he was in a happy chatty mood. He talked about his birth dad, what happened, HOW HE FELT during those times. The puzzle was complete, but he felt safe to stay in the 'zone' so I ventured into asking about his time in Foster Care, the constant change, his feelings around meeting us, Intros, his initial aggression and CPV and its roots! It was such a weird experience: He is 6! His emotional age was 3-4 at that moment. His words were as of a grown up!
Allowing him to regress and enjoy toddler toys immensely
He described the nervousness he felt, he was unsure if 'this will work out this time', 'can I trust you', 'will you be nice to me', 'will I get punished for not knowing your house rules' , 'can we stay here forever or is this just another stop'. I tried my best to stay Attuned and not switch back into 'teary mummy mode' so we discussed how all those were understandable feelings and that no child should experience that and alike. After about 15 minutes of very intense therapeutic parenting he switched back to a 6 year old and asked what's for dinner. He reached his limit for the time being.

Last night I called him 'my son' without even thinking twice about it. He turned around and asked: 'From now on, can you please call me MY SON and not my first name please?' When I said of course he jumped into my arms and said 'You are my bestest Mummy ever!' Sounds like the 5th time might be the charm??


  1. What you have done for those boys is amazing! Play therapy sounds like a wonderful thing that maybe more people should be aware of.

    1. Hello Ali, thanks for stopping by to comment; thanks also for your kind words. Yes, play therapy is revolutionary stuff that everyone, even birth families could benefit from! Worth googling, lots of info and resources available!

  2. By the end of your post I'm nearly in tears, how wonderful that you have chosen to share your story with your readers, I feel privileged. Thank you so much for sharing with me and for the linkers at #mainyloveseaster I look forward to reading so much more. Mainy

  3. Hello Mainy, thanks for commenting, I am glad you liked our story; it's unusual, that's for sure. :)