Play it forward! A plan for play therapy in the Lismore region

  • Play therapy tote bag with text: What they struggle to say we help through play

[Image: Be Centre]

Kate Renshaw,
Lecturer in Play Therapy,
Deakin University and
Michelle Carlyle,
Chief Executive Officer,
Be Centre

In March this year, a severe weather event caused destructive and widespread flooding across northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. Lismore and the surrounding region were particularly hard-hit. With thousands of homes and businesses destroyed or rendered unliveable, the true extent of the disaster was hard to comprehend.

Within a few weeks of the initial flooding, a primary school teacher from Lismore reached out to Be Centre, a charity based in Sydney’s northern beaches that offers play therapy services to children and families. The teacher explained that they were reaching out for help because ‘when teachers and students returned to their temporary learning spaces, [the teachers] were witnessing many students visibly traumatised by the recent events.’ Teachers were hearing stories of lost homes and family businesses; a general sense of melancholy prevailed. The teacher asked, ‘Can Be Centre help us, please?’

Staff at Be Centre had already commenced planning the delivery of therapeutic support to children and families, many of whom had lost everything in the floods, including children losing toys and the places they liked to play. To gauge what would be possible on the ground, Be Centre made contact through their pre-existing community links in the flood-impacted regions. An example of one contact was a mental health clinician from Lismore, currently studying at Deakin University to become a play therapist, who indicated they would be willing to contribute as needed if Be Centre were to offer support on the ground.

At this point, Be Centre knew their proposed contribution to post-disaster support was viable. They began the search for funding to ensure that play could be included in the post-disaster response for children, families and the community.

Be Centre had previous experience in delivering this kind of post-disaster support following the Black Summer Bushfires in 2019–20. After securing three grants through private and corporate foundations, Be Centre supported the bushfire-impacted regions in a variety of ways. Firstly, a three-day Festival of Play focused on community re-connection. Next, the distribution of specially designed Play Bags for children. Then, information was provided to caregivers about how the therapeutic qualities of play could aid recovery and ameliorate distress. Finally, play therapy sessions were offered to children that had been identified as requiring more targeted mental health support.

For the flood-impacted Lismore region, Be Centre hopes to deliver support in three phases. Phase 1 will see the distribution of Play Bags to children and families. The Play Bags were initially devised for children impacted by the bushfires, so will be tailored for flood-impacted regions. Two updates to the Play Bags include the small fire trucks being replaced with boats and the therapeutic story especially written about floods instead of fires. Other items in the bags will include play doh®, a squishy sensory ball, paper and drawing resources, a small worry doll, bubbles and other carefully selected playful resources.

The aim is to distribute Play Bags to many children and families. Securing funding for these bags is currently underway. Each Play Bag costs $30. A batch will be ordered once funding is secured for the first 1,000. Getting a Play Bag into the hands of as many children who need them is the goal.

Phase 2 aims to provide targeted support to children and caregivers. The ideal would be for a play therapist to be available in school communities as needed. Finally, Phase 3 intends to offer additional support to teachers and groups of children.

Play therapy is a developmentally sensitive approach to trauma recovery for children, families and communities. When disaster strikes, play, fun and laughter are often sacrificed. Playing it forward will ensure that children and families can reconnect with the vitality of play – a restorative step forward in the recovery process for the community of the Lismore region.

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