2014 marks the year that I will have practiced as a therapist for 15 years. Six months as a practicum student, 18 months as an intern, another year learning about play therapy, but I saw my first clients in 1999. What are the biggest lessons I’ve learned in all that time listening and feeling with people who are in some of the biggest crises of their lives? What could I impart to others to help them as therapists or as parents? Here is a series of articles meant to communicate some of my thoughts, feelings, experiences. You might find them helpful.

Rules = Joy

Play therapy is a therapeutic modality that uses objects, games, and play to address emotional issues in the client’s life. It relies on the idea that with the right experiences and relationships, a person can work to a better level of understanding and self-control. One of my favorite parts of play therapy is games. They use simple rules and devices to help people interact and learn about their world. What an exciting and fun way to deal with non-fun concepts like self-esteem, self-control, and sportsmanship.

A fundamental question that children have between the ages of 8 and 12 is: ‘Why are rules important? And ‘What happens if I don’t follow rules?’ Lots of my elementary and beginning middle school kids wrestle with this question and I wish I could just tell them the answers: Rules keep you safe, provide you with guidelines, help you know when you are successful, etc. In even thinking about this, it is difficult to write out the words. I have learned these lessons through experience-using words to describe it are difficult. This may be why play has been such a great way to work with my clients. Maybe a story will work better for you and I to explore this topic.

Amy is a bright 10 year old. She usually does really well in school, and even though school gets harder each year, she keeps organized and seems to like to learn. At least, until last month. Something seemed to turn off in her mind and she began to test boundaries in all sorts of areas. At home, she stopped cleaning her room or doing her chores without lots of ‘help’. At school, she began to only do the homework she liked or felt like helped her with tests. She told her teacher and parents, she had learned the material, why did she need to do it over and over and turn it in? Couldn’t they see her test scores and realize she knew what she was doing? Her parents were flabbergasted and brought her to a therapist to ‘talk some sense into her’.

“Hi, Amy!” Mrs. Gram said. “In here, you can do lots of things you’d like to do. You can work on things you like and things that worry you.” Amy was confused. Wasn’t she here to be in trouble? Wasn’t she going to hear another long lecture about how homework is good for you? “You are having trouble starting. Look around! You get to choose what to do in here.” There were a lot of toys and sand in this room. She didn’t want to seem stupid or too young, so even though the doll house looked fun, she avoided it. Baby dolls were the same and why would she ever want to shoot a gun?! Then she found the games. There was one with pretty marbles and a wooden board. Mancala. It even sounded different. “You want to play a game!” Mrs. Gram seemed to read her mind, but Amy realized she just watched her really close. Wow. It feels different to have someone just notice you—what you want to do, where you want to go. Maybe this wasn’t going to be the torture she thought it would be.

When Amy told Mrs. Gram she didn’t know how to play, Mrs. Gram explained in therapy, there aren’t many rules. In fact, she said Amy gets to choose her own rules for any game. Amy paused in confusion-how do you play a game without rules? Mrs. Gram offered to show her some simple rules other kids had used, but made it clear that Amy got to pick how to play. She could even have different rules for Mrs. Gram! All she had to do was make sure to tell Mrs. Gram the rules so that Mrs. Gram didn’t cheat. This is quite a weird lady, Amy thought. After a few rounds of the game, Amy felt really confident but Mrs. Gram kept winning. Amy decided to test if Mrs. Gram really meant it when she said Amy could change the rules. Amy made a new rule and Mrs. Gram wasn’t bothered. She made another and then began making different rules for her and Mrs. Gram. In no time, Mrs. Gram was laughing at how funny it was she couldn’t win, moaning over feeling really dumb and asking for help remembering the rules. Amy left that day looking forward to having time to think up lots of different rules for their next game.

At the beginning of the next session, Amy was grumpy. She made sure that Mrs. Gram couldn’t do anything right-the rules were complicated and changed often. Mrs. Gram began to talk about feeling stupid. She put words to all the feelings Amy was having RIGHT THEN! But that meant Amy began to feel guilty for making Mrs. Gram feel bad. By the end of the session, Amy knew Mrs. Gram understood her feelings, but was surprised when Mrs. Gram said she was looking forward to the next game. She sure wouldn’t be if she was in Mrs. Gram’s shoes!

The third session began with Amy making sure that Mrs. Gram won. She didn’t want this person to be mad at her and she knew last time hurt Mrs. Gram’s feelings because she had said how she felt. After several rousing rounds, Amy began to change the rules again so that she would win. Over and over and over! Mrs. Gram didn’t forget the rules anymore, she never said she felt stupid and Amy made sure that Mrs. Gram played the right moves. But Amy did win. The rules made sure of that! After a while, Amy noticed she was basically making all the moves on the board. Mrs. Gram was still talking and laughing, but she began to talk about being bored. Amy realized something. If the end is too predictable or the rules feel unbalanced, there really wasn’t any challenge. Amy decided to make a new set of rules. These were much stricter and more difficult but fair. She and Mrs. Gram finished the session tied, but Amy felt so good about her win, she bragged about it! She knew she had won against a really good player fair and square. Maybe Mrs. Gram could help her with some other questions she had…

If you’ve ever had play therapy, or even played games with your children, this story may seem familiar. I didn’t have a particular client in mind, but this is the progression I have seen in session, over and over. Maybe you’ve seen it in your life. Therapy, both talk and play, is simply taking every day experiences and concentrating them, giving them impact. There are so many things those around us can teach us. I am just honored to have been witness to so many wise people!

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