Access Institute | Transformation Through Play
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31 Jan Transformation Through Play

January 31, 2018

For Access Institute therapist Maura Ferguson, it’s important to help children process what they are experiencing in a healthy way. Six months ago, she began working with at-risk children at Tenderloin Community School as part of Access Institute’s In-School Mental Health program expansion.

Each child Maura works with has a challenging set of life circumstances and needs. Some of them have witnessed violence in their neighborhoods, or in their homes. In those situations, it’s often too terrifying and overwhelming for the children to understand and talk about their emotions, so Maura provides other avenues for them to express their feelings. “One child uses dinosaurs or monsters during play therapy to show he’s scared, and that opens up a dialogue between us,” said Maura. “Once the lines of communication start to open, the healing can begin,” she said.

Witnessing destructive anger in others has been a dangerous experience for some of the children working with Maura. “So it’s ok for them to be aggressive with toys during play therapy. It’s a way of expressing anger without hurting someone else,” she said. For one child in particular who has been processing a violent incident he witnessed, Maura notes that he doesn’t hit or act aggressively towards other kids or adults. Instead, he uses play therapy as a healthy outlet to communicate what he’s going through. “He makes Lego cars and then smashes them into each other when he’s experiencing anger. Using play therapy in those situations is essential for children because it helps them to move through the many complicated feelings they are experiencing including sadness, fear and anger. Either they’ll act it out in play or they’re going to act it out in real life,” explains Maura.

The therapy Maura provides also has helped children process difficult transitions, such as no longer having both parents at home, or the lack of a stable housing. “Children who are struggling with instability tend to cling onto their teachers or school staff,” said Maura. “There is so much uncertainty for them. They’re clinging because they don’t feel they can count on anything. They wonder if the people in their lives will leave and never come back. They’re not sure they’ll ever see someone again after they’ve said goodbye. So I try to create consistency and a sense of security in their life.” Maura provides a routine for the children, something they can count on. “Their therapy session is part of that routine — they know that they’re going to meet with me again. But I also try to create something for them to internalize and hold onto between sessions — they know that I’m holding them in mind,” said Maura.

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