Shatisha Wilson admits she was skeptical when she first heard about play therapy.
“In my mental health training, there had been very little focus on play therapy,” said Wilson, now a registered play therapist with the Association for Play Therapy and owner of Wilson’s Garden of Hope Play Therapy and Counseling Center, which has three locations – one in Augusta, one in Waynesboro, Ga., and one in Aiken.
National Play Therapy Week was Feb. 5-11.
Wilson, who worked in mental health in the Burke County education system’s Head Start program before starting her own practice, has used play therapy extensively for about two years.
“I see children and adults who are dealing with trauma. I get a lot of referrals for sexual trauma. Children are not going to sit on my couch and talk to me,” she said.
Play therapy has been around for many decades, but there aren’t many practitioners in the area. The Association for Play Therapy has four registered play therapists in the Augusta area and three in Aiken listed on its website.
Play therapy works best for children who are about 3 to 12 years old.
“Talk therapy doesn’t work for that age,” said Donna Lewis, a registered play therapist-supervisor who has been using play therapy in her private practice since the mid-1990s. “Talk is abstract. Children take to play naturally.”
Both therapists have play rooms in their offices. Children are allowed the lead in the therapy. They choose the toys that speak to them, and the therapists say they learn a lot about children’s lives through their play.
“Children are reluctant to tell what happened, but through play, subconsciously they will tell what happened and who did it,” said Wilson.
Toys used include action figures, play kitchens, dolls, doctor kits, puppets, dollhouses, balls and an array of others. They also integrate art into therapy. They have art supplies available and sand trays clients use.
Wilson said one of the more popular toys in her toy room is the sword. Children can release their aggression and anger through play sword fighting. She said she has replaced quite a few of the toy swords.
Also, many children will gravitate to one specific toy. It will have special meaning to them and they sometimes call it their own.
One of the best benefits of play therapy is that it works quickly, said both Wilson and Lewis.
“Parents often notice an immediate change,” said Lewis, who sees a lot of children dealing with divorce or who have behavioral or anger management problems. “Children become happy and playful.”
Wilson said she teaches children to identify their emotions and the reasons for them so they can better communicate them to the adults in their lives.
Children go into therapy sessions alone, but the adults in their lives are part of the process. Parents and caregivers are sometimes seen separately and taught how to communicate with their children. Wilson offers family counseling.
Wilson and Lewis both teach parents how to play with their children.
“I believe kids need to have less electronics and more connecting outside and connecting with one another,” Lewis said.
While she advocates limiting electronics, she said she has seen families bond over phone apps such as Pokemon Go.
Not all counselors are registered play therapists. Lewis said there’s an extensive process to becoming one; she’s gone further by becoming a registered play therapist supervisor, which includes more education and supervised counseling hours.
To learn more about play therapy or to find a registered therapist, visit www.a4pt.org.