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Playtime and therapy are synonymous at this Dallas child care center. Here’s how it works
Fort Worth Star-Telegram - 11/20/2022
Kelly McShan was worried when she started noticing her young son, Jackson, having bad dreams and showing signs of anxiety — like being afraid to leave the room even to get water or play outside.
Through her church, she learned about play therapy — a unique method of therapy that is child-led and allows patients to explore their emotions and learn coping skills, while just playing with toys.
The program she learned about is housed in Annie’s Place, a child care facility on the campus of Parkland Hospital in Dallas that provides services to families in medical crisis free of charge. Since McShan sees a psychiatrist at the hospital, her son is eligible for free play therapy.
When she first explored the program, the therapist walked her through the open-ended play set-up, with activities available like dress-up and drawing, police cars and fire trucks, all led by Jackson.
“And then he had a follow-up session right after,” she said. “She really, she explained to me that it was just more of a spot where there’s not really a ton of rules.”
Jackson ended up going back 20 times as he processed his anxiety, McShan said, with the therapist updating both parents once a month on the progress he made.
After all the sessions, McShan said the difference was immense.
“Even though when he got in there and he didn’t talk a ton with her, I think just feeling able to lay on the floor and kind of relax and sometimes play with toys — it was a time where he just opened up mentally and let himself breathe for a minute.”
Once his bad dreams subsided and he was less nervous to play outside, he “graduated from the program.”
Play therapy helps children in variety of situations
Play therapy is offered in a variety of formats by therapists across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
But the program McShan attended is unique.
Children from a wide range of backgrounds are dropped off at Annie’s Place when their parents attend check-up appointments at the hospital, or when a visit to the emergency room causes a parent to need child care.
This means that every day is the first day of school for at least some kids, Annie’s Place Founder Natalie Boyle said.
“We have the ability to kind of help kids settle in if they’re having a really hard time,” she said. “Or if a child starts being aggressive in the classroom, you can take them here and help them calm down.”
Lots of children will be dropped off for the day, so they get both play therapy, and high-quality child care in the same setting, Boyle said.
Kait Christian, the on-site play therapist, said children are referred to the program for a variety of reasons, including acting out, and throwing fits — as well as shutting down, not talking or lying down when upset.
In many cases, children are processing the illness of a parent, which can be disruptive to their routine and cause emotional distress. Play therapy can help with that as well.
CancerCare, a tristate nonprofit helping cancer patients and their families, also uses the practice in some situations.
Lauren Chatalian, the director of advocacy for the nonprofit, said parents need to explain the diagnosis to their children first, before therapy can begin — so the child can start processing how they are feeling.
“We try to use our space as an outlet to be able to kind of pull out and identify some of those emotions,” she said.
Unlike traditional therapy, play therapy can look vastly different from session to session and patient to patient, Chatalian said. One session could involve a therapist working with puppets to help explain a situation to a child, while another might involve work sheets or drawing.
‘Mini-Parkland’ helps children see hospital in a positive way
The organization in Dallas is also partnered with the Magdalen House, a center that helps women attain and sustain sobriety, to provide play therapy and child care services.
“So if they have a mom that needs to go to treatment, but can’t because she has young children, if somebody can drop them off here during the day, we’re happy to watch their kids,” Boyle said.
Beyond the actual services, play therapy is built into the design of Annie’s Place, which features a “mini-Parkland” hospital to help children process and cope with their family situation in a way that is natural to them — mimicry and play.
“You give kids a safe space to act out things that they might be doing or going through,” Boyle said. “We also wanted to create this positive association with the hospital. Hospitals are not big, bad, scary things. Mom is going to Parkland and I’m going to mini-Parkland.”
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