Play therapy is an emerging profession in Australia. It is a form of child psychotherapy or counselling but with a ‘show and tell’ element that utilises specifically selected toys and other play materials to help children express themselves within a therapeutic relationship. It is important to develop the therapeutic relationship first as children cannot play unless they feel safe. Once in the play, children are more able to fully communicate when words alone do not, or cannot, describe their thoughts and feelings. Consistent, predictable play therapy services may help children to cope with their concerns, worries and mental health needs.
Play therapists use many types of resources such as art and craft, music, puppets, dolls, teddies, dress-ups, games, miniatures and other toys, as well as sand and natural objects – to name a few. Children use the toys and play materials to tell their stories of what is concerning them or what may be significant in their lives. Play therapists observe developmentally aligned themes in children’s play through close observation and by engaging in play with the child. It is interesting to note that the COVID-19 pandemic, needles and other related themes are currently being played out in play therapy clinics.
Play therapists work with children and their families referred for childhood attachment difficulties, trauma, anxiety, depression, bereavement, bullying, low self-esteem, developmental delay, limited play ability and many other reasons. Referrals can come from any healthcare professional, childhood educator or caregiver. An educator may notice that one of their students does not fully engage in lessons due to an underlying psychosocial or emotional concern. A caregiver may notice something is wrong with their child, who may not be able to articulate what or why but may find it helpful to see a play therapist.
Some metropolitan and regional areas may have access to a play therapist in their community or school. For children in rural or remote areas, provision of this service is minimal to none. However, one such service is provided by the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) South Eastern Section. Play therapist Lesley Harvey sees children and their families across an expansive area of New South Wales surrounding Broken Hill – from 358 kilometres to the north, 364 kilometres to the south, as far east as 381 kilometres and as far west as 192 kilometres. Lesley sees children aged between birth and 12 years across eight rural and remote communities.
Flying into Tilpa on the Beechcraft King Air with tote bags of toys, Lesley sets up the play therapy room in a bush clinic, ready to see three or four children. A family drives up to the front of the health clinic and a child opens the car’s back door. There is a small cloud of dust as their boots hit the dirt and the child announces, ‘I am here Lesley, I am ready for play therapy’.
When Lesley is finished working with children and their families at the clinic, there is often time to head over to the local school to provide wellbeing activities and support the teaching teams. Opportunities for collaborative work occur such as Lesley and her puppets providing medical play as part of children’s dental visits.
Lesley undertook a Master of Child Play Therapy at Deakin University and continues to advance her knowledge through ongoing continual professional development (CPD) as an attachment and trauma-informed therapist. Her thesis researched how play therapists can embrace the social and emotional wellbeing framework within rural and remote Australian Aboriginal communities. It was recognised as outstanding and awarded the Susan Esdaile prize.