When the Work is Play

Erica Craig, LCSW, RDT
In Step Fairfax

“Creeeeeeeak!,” shrieks Eddie as the group members pull him back further, further, stretching the giant slingshot to its very limit. “Ok, I’m the Red Bird. Make sure to aim me carefully. We can’t miss this time!” The group members negotiate their places; John and Aidan direct the others to maximize the impact of the shot.
“Move to the left, Charlie!” barks Aidan gruffly.
“Tell him in a nice way.” offers John.
“Sorry. Charlie, could you move over there, please?” Charlie, our quietest group member, smiles briefly as he shifts to the left.
“Are you ready Eddie?” Aidan asks with a final tug on the slingshot. “Ok, on the count of three! One . . . two . . .”
“Thrrreeeeeeeeee!” Eddie squeals, flying through the air at amazing speed, landing squarely on King Piggy in an explosion of dust and triumph.
“Hooray!!!” shout the group members. High-fives are exchanged, victory dances performed. A round of applause is offered as the boys bow deeply and return to their places in the circle. Another drama therapy scene is complete.

Have you ever overheard one of your children playing with his toys and talking to his action figures? Likely, as parents, we have all been in situations where we see our children acting out the things they see and hear throughout the day in the form of play. A Barbie becomes the teacher and the stuffed dogs and cats are the students. Or maybe your child is the teacher and a Power Ranger is a misbehaving classmate. It can be funny to listen to him disciplining the toy in the way he perceives it happens in real life. This “playing” is really much more than what it seems on the surface. It can be a way for a child to express things that he might not be comfortable expressing when he is himself. As Renee Emunah, PhD, RDT/BCT says, “Under the guise of play and pretend, we can – for once – act in new ways. The bit of distance from real life afforded by drama enables us to gain perspective on our real-life roles and patterns and actions, and to experiment actively with alternatives.”

Drama therapy is a modality that uses role play, storytelling, improvisation and other creative arts techniques to work on expressing/containing feelings, building social skills, and practicing successful approaches to difficult situations. The process of drama therapy incorporates play and imagination, allowing kids to tackle important skills while engaging their creative minds. Imaginative play contains endless opportunities to experiment with problem solving and collaboration; the group members described above were tackling themes of patience, teamwork and peer negotiation.

While at times these play-based groups can be loud and boisterous (at times you may hear us in the waiting room!), a great deal of work is being done in each session. Group members are engaged in constant negotiation around reading social cues, sharing the center of attention, accommodating the ideas and desires of others, and regulating, containing and expressing their own feelings and ideas about this process. Generally, they are enjoying themselves along the way. In fact, some of the children in Drama Therapy have been through more traditional treatment programs and have found more success with this modality. Each child is different and one of the wonderful things about expressive therapy techniques is that it can be tailored to the dynamic of the group and the individuals within it.