Playing with fire: helping children speak about the trauma of bushfire through play

  • A play therapy scene of a fire, created with toys from the playroom. [Image: Nicky Nilsson]
    A play therapy scene of a fire, created with toys from the playroom. [Image: Nicky Nilsson]
  • Play Therapist Nicky Nilsson from the Bega Valley, NSW.
    Play Therapist Nicky Nilsson from the Bega Valley, NSW.
Nicky Nilsson,
Play Therapist and
Natalie Hadiprodjo,
Deakin University

Play therapist Nicky Nilsson resides in the Bega Valley on the Far South Coast of New South Wales. She has experienced natural disaster, living through bushfire. During the bushfires that raged throughout Australia in 2019–20, the Far South Coast was heavily impacted, with loss of life and homes, and destruction of property. This was a time of distress for the whole community.

Nicky has been supporting children in her community to process the trauma of bushfire within the playroom of her private practice. The children referred to her are vigilant to their environment. A simple loss of light due to the sun moving behind a cloud can raise a child’s anxiety as they look skyward.

Play therapy is a developmentally appropriate mental health intervention that supports the emotional wellbeing of children. Children can struggle to communicate frightening experiences with words; however, they can clearly communicate their experience through play. In the same way that an adult may feel relief after sharing their struggles with a counsellor, children too can experience relief and release as they play about their difficult experiences. Play gives voice to the child’s world. The play therapist reflects and responds to the child’s thoughts, feelings and activities in such a way as to facilitate the resolution of the child’s emotional difficulties at their own pace, through the playful means they have chosen.

Abreactive play is a term used by play therapists to describe the type of play children may engage in after a traumatic event. In this play the child re-creates an experience that has previously been unresolved due to overwhelming emotional distress. The child’s repetitive, re-enacted play can be viewed as the child’s attempts to work through complex thoughts and feelings associated with the traumatic event. The use of toys in play therapy are symbols and metaphors used to create meaning and bring emotional release and increased insight. Positive change and mastery over frightening memories occurs through this play.

This mastery in play is observed by Nicky as children relive frightening experiences related to the Black Summer fires in the safety of the playroom. For example, a child may repeatedly play out a fire scene in which a toy fire truck arrives at a housefire to help and rescue. While a child may have experienced a sense of helplessness during the actual bushfires, within play they can take on the role of a helper and rescuer. It is a sense of helplessness in the face of danger that can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Through play, children can replace these feelings of helplessness with hope. Within play therapy a child has the power to transform a bushfire from something to fear into a gentle campfire that generates warmth and comfort on a cold day, where joy and happiness is felt. A sense of safety is restored.

Play therapy is an emerging profession in Australia that can be used to support the mental health and wellbeing of children following natural disaster, including bushfires, floods and pandemics. As illustrated, play is the natural language of children and can be used to facilitate mastery and healing following frightening events.

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