A therapist and child working using sandbox play.

S6 E9 Is Talk Therapy Always Right For Kids? Play Therapy Offers Another Way

A conversation with Cary McAdams Hamilton about play therapy and how it can offer alternative ways to work through deep feelings and strengthen their mental health.

Episode Notes

Children often lack the language and self-awareness to name their feelings and discuss them in classic talk therapy. Can play therapy offer a different way? This week’s guest, Cary Hamilton, believes that play offers a unique way to access deep feelings, to talk through emotions and conflicts, and to build resourcefulness and self-control. In this conversation with the founder and director of Antioch University’s Certificate in Play Therapy, we talk about the theory behind play therapy, real-life examples of how it works, and the neuroscience that makes it so effective.

Guest

Cary McAdams Hamilton is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Child Mental Health Specialist, and Registered Play Therapy Supervisor with diverse experience working in private practice, nonprofit mental health services, juvenile justice, public education, residential treatment centers, and county assistance programs. She is focused on working with children, adolescents, and their families to improve relationships and healing.


Visit Antioch’s website to learn more about the Certificate in Play Therapy that Cary founded and directs.

This episode was recorded on April 22, 2024, via Riverside.fm and released on May 14, 2024. 

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University

Host: Jasper Nighthawk

Editor: Johanna Case

Web Content Coordination: Jen Mont

Work-Study Interns: Georgia Bermingham, Stefanie Paredes, Grace Kurfman, and Lauren Arienzale

Additional Production Help: Karen Hamilton, Adrienne Applegate, Jamila Gaskins, Amelia Bryan, and Melinda Garland

To access a full transcript and find more information about this and other episodes, visit theseedfield.org. To get updates and be notified about future episodes, follow Antioch University on Facebook.

S6E9 Transcript

[00:04] Jasper Nighthawk: This is the Seed Field Podcast, the show where Antiochians share their knowledge, tell their stories, and come together to win victories for humanity. 

[Music]

[00:18] Jasper: I’m your host, Jasper Nighthawk. And today we’re joined by Cary Hamilton for a conversation about play therapy and how this somatic, kinesthetic, and imaginative approach to therapy can be really powerful for children and also potentially for everyone. Part of why I’m excited to have a chance to interview an expert on play therapy is that I think play therapy might be able to offer an answer to an objection that I’ve heard to bringing kids into therapy. And this objection goes something like this. Sure, it would be great for my kid to have therapy to help them deal with X or Y traumatic event. That could be a divorce or a family member’s death or bullying, sexual abuse. But I regularly ask my kid if they want help and they don’t report being sad or anxious or having complicated feelings. And I just know that if I brought them to a therapist, they would ask, “So how do you feel about that?” And my kid wouldn’t feel comfortable opening up. And it’s not just comfort, like they really don’t have the insight or the words to talk about their feelings the way you or I would. So that’s a pretty common objection to bringing a kid to therapy. And I do think that any therapist who works with kids would say, “You don’t really know that. Like your kid might surprise you.” And kids can act differently when their parents aren’t in the room. But I also think that the parent in this hypothetical is probably right to some degree. Kids often don’t have the language or self-awareness to name their feelings and discuss them in a classic conversational talk therapy setting. And that’s where I’m so interested in play therapy. Does it offer a way to access deep feelings and emotions and conflicts without requiring that verbal self-awareness? And does it offer some different opportunities to build creativity and resourcefulness in confronting problems and to develop self-control and self-direction? To explore these questions, I’m delighted to have Cary Hamilton in the studio with me today. Cary designed and now directs the play therapy certificate offered on Antioch’s Seattle campus, which is available either as a standalone certificate or as part of the MA in clinical mental health counseling. Cary is herself a practicing therapist as president of Olympia Therapy PLLC, and she’s a current member and past president of the Washington Association of Play Therapy. She spent a lot of her career thinking about studying and teaching play therapy. And I’m excited to get to tap into this expertise today. So with that introduction, Cary, welcome to the Seed Field Podcast. 

[02:53] Cary Hamilton: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here to talk about and answer all those questions.

[02:57] Jasper: Yeah, well, we’ll get right to them, but we do like to start every episode by asking guests to disclose their positionality, especially when it’s relevant to the topic that we’re discussing. And in our case, we’re talking about kids, trauma, therapy. These topics intersect with so many of our society’s axes of oppression. So I can go first. I think it’s useful for listeners to know that I am white, I’m a cisgendered man, I’m not living with a physical disability, though I have experienced anxiety and depression since I myself was a kid. I’m queer, I have a college degree and a master’s degree, and I have steady housing and income. Okay, I’ll toss it over to you, Cary. As much as you’re comfortable, can you share your position? 

[03:39] Cary: Sure, I’m a cisgender female who’s white, who also is a mother of two neurodivergent children, as well as married to a neurodivergent individual, and that plays distinctly into my career path, as well as my talks around play therapy and my loved one loved experience. I have a college degree and a master’s degree. I live in Olympia, Washington. I could go on and on, but I won’t, yeah. 

[04:02] Jasper: You’re way more than just those details, but that gives us a good picture of where you’re coming from. 

[04:07] Cary: Yes. 

[04:08] Jasper: Okay, so I wanna jump right into the heart of this topic. Can you share with us your definition of play therapy? 

[04:14]: Cary: Certainly. So play therapy is a trained individual being able to have a interpersonal relationship with a child or person of any age, that through the use of play materials or in a safe space, that they’re able to process information, learn information, and understand more about themselves in the context and relationship dynamic that occurs between a therapist and the child or the individual that’s involved. And we use that as a, both directive or a non-directed methods in order to prompt the healing process or even prevention process when it comes to children. 

[04:52] Jasper: So the play aspect is not just about uncovering, but it’s also about resolving. 

[05:00] Cary: Correct. In the sense that children play out their natural experiences all day, every day. That’s their primary first language is play. Like as adults, we often have forgotten how to play, and then we have so much fun when we start to play. And what play therapists do is we find a way to be able to be in presence and relearn that language of play that allows for children to process what’s on their brains, what’s in their discomfort zones, what’s bothering them in those moments, which sometimes can be what the adults in their lives expect, and oftentimes is something completely different. And so they have the option and ability to choose what they wanna work on in session, which is often much more congruent to who they are as human beings. 

[05:37] Jasper: That’s beautiful. The freedom to decide what you’re gonna talk about in this session, which you do have in a normal session with a talk therapist as an adult, you have some freedom to say, “I wanna talk about this today.” But if instead you’re not saying, “I wanna talk about this topic.” You’re just playing your way into whatever is on your mind. 

[05:56] Cary: Yeah, and I think children live in a unique environment. Like the culture of childhood is often overlooked. They have a different viewpoint on life, a different view on what they’re experiencing, and parents or caregivers will come in and they’ll say, “Well, you need to talk to Cary “about what happened on the playground today, “or you need to talk about what happened at school today.” And those actually might not be what’s important to the child to be working on. It’s important to the adults in their life, but it is not necessarily what the child really needs to talk about or play out, which is their way of talking, using toys for their words. That is a much more congruent way for them to actually work on what they want to work on. 

[06:33] Jasper: You mentioned that you have two neurodivergent kids and your positionality. I should have mentioned that I also have a 20-month-old kid myself, who I spend a lot of time playing with. And it is amazing how much agency kids have. I think there’s like a mental model that we have of, oh yeah, kids are basically like the responsibility of their parents. But even from a really young age, kids have a lot of ability to make decisions about their world and to have internal lives. 

[07:03] Cary: Yeah, they do. But usually adults don’t think about it until the child is expressing their discontent for what the adult’s wanting to do, i.e. during a tantrum, having power control, like saying no, talking back, doing all the things that they see adults doing, but we are less accepting of those coming from children. So we tend to be a little bit more punitive instead of having a holistic viewpoint that they’re just trying to express a need that’s being met and they are doing it in whatever way it is that adult is going to hear it. And if you’re not listening to the subtle cues or even direct cues, then they’ll make it very explicit in their behavior.

[07:36] Jasper: Yeah, that is a good way of understanding a tantrum, I think, that is less just, my kid is bad. So I was hoping that you could talk us through a play therapy session, say for a 10-year-old. What might you spend your 45 minutes with the kid doing? 

[07:54] Cary: That is a harder question than you think. So it depends on the 10-year-old’s ability to want to engage and have relationships. Per this interview, I’m gonna assume that I have relationship with the 10-year-old and that they’ve been coming for a while. The initiation part is different, right? So oftentimes at 10, we’ve been talking about or have had congruent themes that have been our points that we’ve been addressing in the therapeutic process. So they will come into session and everything in a playroom or play space is very kinesthetic, it’s very hands-on. It’s not often just talking back and forth. It’s very rare for a 10-year-old to come in and sit on the couch and say, okay, here’s my problems for today. That is not what they’re going to do, even though they often perceive that’s what they’re supposed to do. Instead, it’s engaging in tactile sensory objects or even engaging in Sandtray. Sandtray for children, teens, and adults is a way of manifesting being present in the earth, being grounded, and also being able to have some external viewpoints and be able to create snapshots of worlds and concepts of things that are bothering them using symbols and objects, miniature figurines that allow them to have conceptualization of what’s going on. So they can show me without having words, right? Like they can show me what’s happening in their world and I can very clearly understand what’s happening based off of the imagery. 

[09:10] Jasper: Can I pause for just one second? So you brought up this term Sandtray and you’re literally talking about a tray. It’s like, I don’t know, 18 inches by three feet. It has sand in the bottom. This isn’t a metaphor. 

[09:25] Cary: It is literally what you think it is. It is a Sandtray that is usually about 15 by 20 and has really magical sparkly sand in it. So it neatly draws you in and it’s very pleasant and cool to touch, which is very engaging. And so they can manipulate the sand, be present in the sand. Oftentimes, most teens and adults just sit and rub their fingers through the sand and start talking because it engages and opens those parts of the brain that allows for comfort, security, and resonance to be occurring. And so whether they’re using miniatures in the sand by creating an imagery world, or if you can imagine looking over a sandbox and taking a snapshot, that’s what Santray is. Is it allows you to see a world in a very encapsulated, closed off space that keeps it safe and secure. And that happens in a bigger context when the playroom for younger kids becomes the Santray in itself, right? So everything that they’re playing with in the playroom, the toys are their words, the how they’re playing with them as their narrative and their story that they’re informing us of how things are being understood for themselves. And so Sandtray is like a microcosm of what the playroom for younger kids would be. That being said, I’ve had 10 year olds come into the playroom play just as much as a six year old would ’cause they engage in play and really love play and prefer that way of communicating their story. 

[10:41] Jasper: Yeah, I think that this idea that if you just sit down and start playing with figurines, maybe some of which are human or animal that can take on some extra symbolic significance, that you might not even know or intend at the outset. I think that makes some sense, but it suggests a theory of how our minds work that says when we start playing, we reveal ourselves through the shape that our stories take. Is that fair? 

[11:15] Cary: Yeah, that’s a good way of saying it. We often conceptualize it as the prefrontal cortex or where our language comes from, right? That often is a filter or a block from showing what’s truly going on, which is why words is not always helpful to use in the therapeutic process because they maybe don’t know the words, they can’t contextually have reference points or know the words that go with their narrative or their story. And so play cuts through that difficulty by allowing for a manifestation of what it felt since of what you’re feeling going on inside you by using a representation of another object. Let’s say, I’m just having a look over here, like I have an octopus, right? If I said this was me right now because I’ve got 15 different projects going, that makes sense to why I might be feeling like an octopus, right? And so kids do that to represent people in their lives, right, and what kind of figurines are those that they represent? Is it Superman? Is it, oh my gosh, I’m not gonna be able to think of a negative figure right now. Marvel villain, I can’t even think of one right now. 

[12:15] Jasper: The silver surfer. 

[12:16] Cary: Right, yeah. 

[12:17] Jasper: One of my idols. 

[12:18] Cary: Yeah, so just imagine if they’re saying I’m, if they put an image in the tray that is, this is me or this is my dad or this is my mom or this is my brother, that imagery is gonna portray more than just the symbol of what it is, but the depth of what that means to the person based off of what that means in a cultural context, right? If a kid puts Black Panther in, I know what the reference point of how they perceive the world. If they’re saying, yeah, that’s me against the world, right? Like I have a much better understanding than just saying the words, I’m Black Panther in this world. If it’s within the context of this image or playing out the story, the power is associated to it. The felt sense is associated to it. 

[12:55] Jasper: Yeah, it raises a question for me of how you engage the deeper meaning behind these figurines because you and I could make a diorama that would be the same diorama, but it would have a different meaning for me and for you. And so do you end up having conversations with your clients or how do you find your way to the deeper meaning? Or does it engage your kind of emotional intelligence and imaginative, playful understanding as well? 

[13:21] Cary: I think it does all of those things. I think how we would address it in play would be processing and using our language of our narrative of expressing understanding and validation of what the child’s playing out as far as their understanding. Oh, you know how to do that. You’re creating or you’re showing me blankety blank, whatever it is that they’re wanting to show me. So it gives them the empowerment, right? And the same is true with figurines is we’re going to look across time. So when we take a snapshot, it’s the collection of snapshots. As we all know, if we see one image out of context, then that doesn’t necessarily give context. Where if you have a lot of images, that provides the context and the narrative, right? So as play therapists, we’re trained to identify the different themes that are available in play therapy, that within these themes, if they’re done over and over again, then we can conceptualize that’s the processing that’s occurring for that child. So it’s never just one. We can have inklings or ideas of what’s going on. Let’s say, go back to the Black Panther analogy and it’s in altercations all the time with the brother figure, let’s say, that might be congruent to what I already know is context of their sibling rivalry going on and there’s disagreements going on. But them being able to show me, I can identify the intensity that they’re feeling that and whether it’s really something to further discuss or talk about or bring up. But in general, a lot of play theory theorists and practitioners, if we’re non-directive, we don’t ask questions. And even if we are directive, how we go about asking the questions is based on our theoretical perspective. And that is then attuned to what it is that the narrative is. But overarching, we’re looking at play themes. We’re looking at how play is being shown to us and what they’re trying to tell us in those narratives. And we have to conceptually understand where they might be. Are they just reenacting the commercial or the movie they just saw this weekend? Or is it they’re trying to apply it to their life, the lessons that were learned in that story or narrative? 

[15:11] Jasper: Okay, that makes a ton of sense. Asking the question or listening to you talk about it, I started thinking of these sort of like dictionary of symbols that I’ve run into from like the 19th century, which are like, a rose means this, or these dream interpretation dictionaries. And it makes a lot of sense that it’s not nearly as one-to-one as that. If it was that one-to-one, you could have a robot do it. 

[15:36] Cary: Exactly. And it’s more over the time, right? Like if Kiddo’s always choosing Black Panther for him, and then it shifts all of a sudden, I’m gonna wonder about that, right? That’s a shift or a change. So the symbols are what the client makes of them. The client identifies what they are, the client understands what they are. And in that though, there’s still the theme of how they’re playing it out or the words that they’re using that is the narrative that they’re reenacting out. So it takes more savviness and training to be able to learn that language of play in order for you to understand how those themes work and how the therapeutic powers of play work. 

[16:07] Jasper: Yeah. Another thread that I just wanna pull on a little bit is the idea of using this example of Black Panther has made me think of the Jungian idea of archetypes, but it seems like these are sort of like naturally emerging archetypes that are not being imposed from a broader theory, but are present in the figurine that the child chooses. 

[16:27] Cary: Yeah. 

[16:28] Jasper: But that still have a kind of archetypal power. 

[16:30] Cary: Definitely. I mean, we know that symbols create our society, right? They are what make up how we can actually understand our society and what that reference is from. And so it’s what the mutual context applies to those images or those toys and reference points. And then there’s always the addition of what does the child reflect upon and have attuned to that and what that means for them as well. And innately, Jungian type archetypes do definitely come out, but that’s where we’re gonna be paying attention to what the themes are, right? Is the theme overarchingly conflict or negativity or overcoming, or is it nurturing and mastery and power and control? Like those are very different distinct things that just represented by “Black Panther,” you need more context understanding to the narrative of the child experience in order to put whatever meaning it is that the child’s intending for you to have in it. 

[17:19] Jasper: Yeah. This all makes, I think, a lot of intuitive sense to me as somebody who remembers being a child and also as a creative writer, which is my pastime. I engage in a lot of play and find a lot of power in that. But I’m curious if we could switch gears a little bit and talk about our neuroscientific understanding of what is happening when we’re engaging in play therapy. How do we know that this works and what do we know about how it works? 

[17:49] Cary: Oh, a big question, right? Like how does playing with kids actually do anything for them? That’s what we’re constantly challenged on actually by adults is how is play not just play? Like kids just play, like what’s the big deal? It’s not valuable to them. Not understanding that it is their way of communicating and understanding the world and how they’re interpreting it and their understanding of their role in it. So Gary Landis was the founder of Child-Centered Play Therapy which is kind of the foundational core of the play therapy movement. And so we all use that as our foundational knowledge. And his whole premise was that if you can be in relationship, have connection, take yourself out of it as an adult, live in the culture of the child and be in the child’s worldview, then the child will tell you what they need to know. And your understanding of that is what creates understanding. What we know now neurobiologically is that neuroception of safety created in the playroom and the relationship is what binds humans together and allows for that to happen. And then by using play, which is a natural circuitry in the brain, it enables us to go into the lower depth parts of the brain and less in the context, which is where children live. Children live in kind of the right low brain, mid brain areas of being able to understand ’cause their cortexes are still developing. They’re still growing and they’re making all the connections and they can’t make those connections unless they have lived out play experiences. So that’s why we all play. And so now we have all the science that kind of shows that play engages the neural networks in ways and strengthens the connections across the hemispheres of the brain. So integration is more applicable and there. And we know that play is the grounding force of that allows that to happen. So talking doesn’t do that. Playing does because it’s a full body experience. It’s all in. We’re not overtly thinking about it. We’re processing and having fun while we’re doing it. And so if you’re not curious and having fun and engaging in the process, then you’re not actually playing. You’re just quote, unquote, playing around or just fooling around, right? You’re not actually in the play. Where children live in that play experience of their brain, which is why we see them playing all the time. And we accept it for lots of their years. And then all of a sudden they hit elementary school and somehow they’re supposed to stop playing and focus more on high brain thinking, cognition, problem solving, all those things. What our society has forgotten is that those parts of the brains, the higher functioning of the brains don’t actually come online unless the lower midbrain is well connected and integrated. And so that is why play is so important to humans because all humans play across all cultures, even during times of war, even during times of destruction or famine, it doesn’t matter. Historically, we know that play has played across all cultures at all times and it’s healing because it allows for connection, understanding to happen in ways that the brain doesn’t connect in any other way unless those things are turned on. 

[20:32] Jasper: Yeah, that’s beautifully put. And thinking about this interview, I was just thinking about how devalued play is in our society where rational insight or so-called rational insight, we could even probably problematize that, but it’s put on this pedestal and play is coded as frivolous or unserious, which like it literally sometimes is. It’s meant to be- 

[20:55] Cary: Freeing. 

[20:56] Jasper: You build the tower out of blocks and then you knock it down. That is the definition of frivolous. We’re not keeping it. 

[21:01] Cary: Right. 

[21:02] Jasper: But I wonder, do you encounter a lot of resistance from parents or from other practitioners? 

[21:10] Cary: Yes, yes and yes. So lots of parents will come in and say, “I want X, Y, Z changed about my child. I don’t like that they’re overly emotional. They need to understand how to accept no. They need to stop having tantrums.” Right, they have all these behavioral responses. And the same is true for traditional talk therapists. I was trained as an MFT. That’s where my training came from, but I then got training in play therapy, which then shifts it. And that’s something I tell my classes, “I’m gonna untrain a lot of the things that you just learned and I’m gonna teach you to do them in a slightly different way that’s much more humanistic and applicable to across the ages. It’s not just for children. It’s just a different lens that you put on and how you see people and how you understand what is occurring for them.” And so the resistance we get is clinicians don’t understand, like you’re not doing CBT. You’re not teaching them skills. You’re not helping them understand how their behaviors, emotions, and feelings are connected. And a play therapist viewpoint is, “I don’t have to. They innately already know those things. They have to feel heard, validated, understood, and connected, and then integrate what their experience was, and then they’ll move through it and move on.” It’s the not recognizing, trying to make it a higher value thinking, trying to engage change without listening to what the real problem is for the child. That creates dissonance. And so that’s why a lot of therapists struggle in working with kids because they try and engage strategies that are inappropriate for their brain development and don’t apply. And they’re discontent that nothing’s changing, right? For them and the parents. [22:37] Jasper: Yeah, so you mentioned CBT, which is cognitive behavioral therapy, which is like a very widespread, prevalent, and just disclosing my own experience of therapy, can be really transformational for adults to learn these different strategies that are very evidence-based for interrupting negative thought patterns or spirals of anxiety or depression or those sorts of things. But I’m hearing you talking about parents coming in and saying, “I want this X, Y, and Z behaviors of my child to change.” And even other more traditional talk therapists saying, “I’m trying to get my client, who is a child, to this place, and I’m struggling to get them there.” And then what I’m hearing you saying is like, the way that you’re framing this from the start is like removing agency from the child and not listening to what the child is saying and following along. [23:33] Cary: It’s a really good description of it. And I think that’s part of the struggle is adults want children to do like they do, forgetting that they had to grow with experience and experience then learn how to do, right? And just telling them how to do is nothing. I mean, if you ask any parent and it’s like, “I’ve told them a million times not to do that.” I’m like, “Yeah, how’s that going? It’s not going.” They have to fall down. They have to experience the failure before they’re gonna recognize that there’s a felt sense in their body is what needs to change ’cause they didn’t feel comfortable. So I don’t wanna do that. So that’s the distinct difference is that telling them about stuff. Yeah, they can mimic and they can do exactly. They know how to follow directions really well. That’s what school’s all about. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re incorporating into the reasons why for them or understanding why it’s necessary for them. They can please everybody, but then internally they’re still suffering and they’re still struggling with whatever it is that was causing the discontent to begin with. And that leads to bigger problems later on. 

[24:27] Jasper: Yeah, we’ve been talking specifically about behavioral issues, which can arise in many kids for many different reasons. They do something their parents wish they didn’t. Yeah, exactly. But I’m curious specifically about trauma. And I know a lot of kids who end up in therapy, it’s because they’ve experienced some kind of traumatic life event. And I’m curious about how play therapy can help traumatized kids. And also just like the way that our bodies move through trauma or don’t. 

[25:00] Cary: You asked a really big question. I will try to simplify it. 

[25:05] Jasper: Not a softball, but like three fastballs. 

[25:07] Cary: At the whole class plus on that. I think the biggest thing is understanding that when children or humans experience trauma of any kind, it creates memories in the body and it creates memories in the brain. And those are not always congruent, the same. They’re remembered very differently. And so what play affords us, it allows us because we’re in our bodies and we’re moving and we’re expressing ourselves. Play therapy allows for the body brain connection to be much more congruent and consistent across the board because we’re moving our bodies while a therapist is providing language to what we don’t already know. So this can be true of adults. Like sometimes when you ask them about their trauma, it’s like, I can’t put words to it. Like it’s just too much and they get overwhelmed and they’re flooded. Whereas if you have them do a sandtray or you have them reenact it, they don’t have to use words. They don’t have to engage the upper parts of their brain. They can just do and show us, which often then in the kinesthetic moves, it moves that pain point through the body. So play therapy allows for trauma to be moved through their body, integrated into the brain narrative, but congruency and with less distress that then allows them to move on to their next goal, next stage, whatever they’re at next. And that would happen with every traumatic event per se. We would keep going through all of the traumas that the child is wanting to work through in those moments in order for us to process through the body and the brain, what is happening. And then that gives a consistent coherent narrative, which we all know from evidence-based nature is that our brains create stories and narratives if there’s lacking one. And so through the play therapy process, we call it the spiral of play where we start and it starts low and tight. And as a child plays out a narrative, we provide words and understanding to it and validation for that experience. And then they play out some more and we reiterate that narrative and that congruency to create understanding. And we all know that when we feel heard and understood, that is what we’re seeking is to have understanding, to create connection, to feel not alone, to have a sense of belonging. All of those are extremely important to human beings. And so that is what play does for us neurobiologically. It allows us to move from body to brain with consistent coherent narrative. That is what the human that has experienced the trauma or the experience needs, not what an outsider perceives they need. 

[27:23] Jasper: Yeah, I feel like a very tight and succinct answer to a giant question. But I keep hearing you use this word integrate and I’m curious, what do you mean by that? 

[27:32] Cary: Integration is used at different levels for lots of different terms. It’s a term that describes lots of different processes. So integration is not only the brain integrating back and forth, so the electronic neural pathways developing stronger pathways, so they’re a little more consistent. And in that consistency, rewrites negative pathways or negative narratives with a positive affirming one. And then there’s integration of both the body’s experience and the brain’s understanding of the body’s experience. So our bodies always remember events before our brains do. In fact, I posted on social media around March 20th that the last two weeks have been really hard for most people and people had forgotten, right? Like March 20th is the day that the world shut down for most of us as far as COVID pandemic. In 2020, it was March 20th. And so when that happened, our bodies experienced something really traumatic. We all had high stress points, our cortisol was all shot through the roof. We all experienced unknown and ambiguity. Brains don’t like unknown and ambiguity, so it creates a trauma in the brain. And with that, then our bodies start doing what they do to keep us safe. We’re on four years later now, and it comes to the couple of weeks before March 20th. And it occurred to me on March 20th, I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is anniversary times.” Our bodies have been remembering all along what these two weeks have been about, and we weren’t paying attention to it. We all just were grumpy and irritable and agitated with one another. And when I posted it, the response I got was, “Oh my gosh, thank you for naming this. “I had forgotten completely that this time period “had a name. “And now that I have that narrative “that matches my body story to my brain, “it relieved tension for everybody “’cause it’s okay, there’s nothing currently wrong with me. “It’s a remembrance from before. I’m okay.” So this is a good example of integration, like with the recognition that my body was trying to tell me something. “Oh, I know what that narrative is. “I know what happened. “It’s not happening currently.” But my body was trying to tell me, “Hey, this is a scary time of year for you,” because that’s what all of our experiences were. And now we don’t have that same experience, but our body’s still gonna give us warning for the next several years just to make sure that we’re protected. 

[29:36] Jasper: Yeah. I love the emphasis on the embodied quality and the feeling that we can have multiple narratives in conflict where our brain is thinking like, “Oh, it’s just another day. I just feel really crappy and I don’t know why.” And meanwhile, our body has its own reasons that our reason doesn’t necessarily grasp. Thank you for that explanation. That really, that helps. So I wanted to talk a little bit about play therapy and the way that it intersects with social justice, racial, environmental justice, these things that are part of our mission here at Antioch. And I’m curious how you see the program that you direct and your own work intersecting with the many injustices in our society. 

[30:21] Cary: Again, another big question, Jasper. I think the biggest thing is that play therapy, when a trained individual can go out and with confidence be able to interact and give connection and healing to anyone that’s experienced it. So I’ve done lots of crisis work where I went to Maui after the fires and worked with the children there and the families there, as well as lots of play therapists. Whenever there’s a big event, you should all know that there’s play therapists that have joined in and are all trying to contribute to providing support to those children wherever they are. So in crisis events, or even just in being able to provide services, we don’t have to, one, speak the language of the child ’cause play is the language. Two, we just have to be present in an environment that we can deem as safe and the child can deem as safe. And we can provide treatments or care and integration for any child that may be experiencing difficulty. So whether that’s in domestic violence shelters, whether that’s in crisis events, whether that’s in different racial neighborhoods, like I’m a white woman that goes in and I could easily come in and have a very strong power dynamic of racism and injustice. And it’s really fun for me to get on the ground and start talking and playing with the kids and getting them to giggle and getting them to engage and having them demonstrate mastery and control over their world and watching parents breathe a sigh of relief. I’m not saying that happens every time, but it definitely provides that I’m here for the correct reason to allow children to heal and I may be different and I can still be supportive in what I can bring. There’s a huge push in the play therapy world to allow for the BIPOC populations to increase because there’s statistically less BIPOC individuals in the mental health field. The understanding that there is things that I’m not going to be able to understand and have cultural humility towards that. I do a lot of differentiation between cultural competence and cultural humility and striving to have the humility be the focus of the practice in that we’re achieving developmental practices and meeting the needs of children, no matter who they are. Children is the identifying factor. 

[32:26] Jasper: Yeah, thank you for sharing all of that. And it’s beautiful to think of you and other play therapists traveling to a place like Maui after the fires in Lahaina and helping deal with some of that trauma in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, or a school shooting, or all of these horrible things that happen with a lot of regularity in our society. As we come up on the amount of time we have for this interview, I wanted to ask you about more broadly the experience of kids who today are experiencing so many broader societal challenges to their own mental health. And I think sometimes the message that they get is one of hopelessness of like your generation has so many problems like climate change or a pandemic or gun violence, and you’re in a lot of trouble. And I wonder if play therapy and these tools that we’ve been talking about today can offer maybe some hope and a chance for children to take their own mental health more seriously. 

[33:30] Cary: Play affords the ability to, and this would be in and outside of a therapeutic space, right, like children need to play innately and more and more science is coming out to say our children aren’t playing enough and no screen time and video games are not kinesthetic enough to be play oriented to the same circuitry in the brain, like those have been proven. It is true to some extent, not to full body extent that all children need play. And we’ve gotten in the environment of everything seems unsafe. Kids have gotten pushed into homes and into their rooms and gotten smaller and smaller space. So that’s more difficult for them. Play can give a great gift for kids when they can have an hour with you, someone who trusts them, validates them, connects with them, believes them, understands them. Those are immense qualities that a play therapist can provide respite for that hour to give hope to children in understanding that their world is crazy, yes, and there is some validation, normal, safe for their own experience and their safety and security that can be present, like it does exist in this world. And a lot of kids don’t have that opportunity to have safety and security present. I tell my students all the time, I’m like, you may be that one hour that keeps that kid going because they know that they get to come in and they know they get to be safe and secure. They know they get to have relationship or understanding and validation occur and that they get to breathe deep, that they are okay, that they are safe. And to do active problem solving if they want to, or to do some integration or mindfulness to help develop a skill base, it affords them the ability to have a pause necessary for them to prevent spiraling further into the depths of potential depression or anxiety that is currently gripping our youth mental health right now. 

[35:11] Jasper: Yeah, that’s a beautiful thing to provide to kids. And I think for my last question, I just want to ask more broadly, I think we’ve alluded several times through this conversation that play, the importance of play and even play therapy shouldn’t be understood as just for kids. But I just want to talk about like the importance of play more societally for you and me, for our listeners, for everyone, what do you think our society needs to do in our relationship with play? 

[35:43] Cary: Accept it again, not think it’s childish. I think the biggest thing is we change the language around play as we grow up and become older and we have it become recreation, we have it become hobbies, we have it become all the things that we choose to do when we don’t have to be doing work or don’t have to be doing something, it’s all those activities we go and engage in. That is adult play and it’s just as valuable. And we often will do it even though we know we’re avoiding doing work, we will still go do those things because it’s necessary and we’re driven to do it. And I think a key component is humans are driven to play, humans are driven to be in relationship with one another. And those two factors are where play therapy has its value is we’re engaging the play process that is innately human and necessary for growth, development and happiness and being in relationship and connection. And that is where the play therapy process really has great value. And what we often quote unquote prescribe is you need to go play more. I told lots of my adult clients, I’m like, you need to go do your painting and drawing, you need to go do some swinging, you need to go climb on a jungle gym, you need to go play with little two year olds who’ll just make you laugh and giggle the whole time. Like you need to do these things and you will innately feel better because our brains are wired for that. And so when we engage in play, our brains naturally release positive neurotransmitters that allow everything to settle and to challenge the cortisol that is pumping through our brains from our stress hormones right now. And when you’re having difficulty, when you are questioning things and when you are wondering what the heck am I doing right now, if you choose play as your option, you can never go wrong and you’ll actually have healing benefits that come along with it. It’s one of those unique factors. 

[37:28] Jasper: That is so cool just to understand some of the brain physiological mechanism behind that. And then also just to think about in my own life, sometimes I’m feeling exhausted or burnt out and do I reach for the guitar to play around with that for a while or do I reach for my phone to just scroll Instagram? And I do know on a rational level what makes me feel better afterwards, but I think you’ve really clarified for me part of a big part of why that is. 

[37:58] Cary: Yeah, go play your guitar more Jasper. 

[38:02] Jasper: Thanks Cary. Thank you so much for coming on the show today. It’s been a pleasure talking. 

[38:06] Cary: Ditto, thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure. 

[38:14] Jasper: You can learn more about the Play Therapy Certificate that Cary directs and teaches in, on Antioch’s website. We’re adding a link in our show notes. You can also find these show notes on our website, theseedfield.org, where you’ll also find full episode transcripts, prior episodes and more. The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Johanna Case. I’m your host, Jasper Nighthawk. Our Web Content Coordinator is Jen Mont. Our work-study interns are Stephanie Peredes, Georgia Bermingham, Lauren Arianzale, and Grace Kurfman. We received additional production help from Karen Hamilton, Amelia Bryan, Adrienne Applegate, Jamila Gaskin, and Melinda Garland. Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. We hope to see you next time. And don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause, and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been The Seed Field Podcast.