PRINCETON — Play therapy for children is far more than just a few games to help them relax.
It is run by a professional who uses play to reach children, learn from them and help them recover from trauma.
Beth Hughes, a Boone County native who now lives in Logan, is a licensed clinical social worker, registered play therapist supervisor and certified trauma therapist, and has been working with Children’s Home Society West Virginia, and her play therapy bus has made stops in Princeton and many other places.
“I use the bus not just to see children but also to train clinicians to try to qualify to be a registered play therapist,” she said. “This is a national accreditation through the Association of Play Therapy (APT).”
Hughes specializes in the treatment of traumatized children and adolescents and their families and has traveled extensively in this region in her play therapy bus, “Ivy.”
“We have far too many young children needing mental health intervention and far too few registered play therapists in our beautiful state,” she said in her explanation of how the bus began. “Access to care is a tremendous obstacle to children in need. Clinicians often told me they were seeing traumatized children in their homes - sometimes the very home where the child’s trauma took place. In-home services were mandated with little thought about the problems this causes for the child.”
Those facts gave her the idea.
“So I found this old Ford 15-passenger bus, had her transformed into what I use today to treat children and train therapists in play therapy,” she said. “‘Ivy’ is named in honor of a girl (some called ‘special needs’) who was my tent mate at a summer camp in 1969. She changed my life course.”
That course took her to Alabama for 30 years to work in her profession, and then back to West Virginia, to Logan.
“I wanted to come back home and get more credentialed,” she said of the shortage of play therapists.
That process requires 150 hours in training with a registered play therapist supervising and 3,000 hours working in the profession to be a supervisor.
“You can’t do it in under two years,” she said, because it is on-the-job, hands-on training under a supervisor.
But the rewards are tremendous, she added.
“A child’s first language is play,” Hughes said. “We use play instead of words.”
Traumatized children can be very difficult to reach, she said, because they can be highly disassociative, and almost catatonic.
Those traumas may involve sexual abuse, kidnapping, or things like witnessing a drug overdose or even murder.
The kids she works with are typically part of something she may have read about in the newspaper, and people often wonder what happened to them after the trauma.
They often end up at her door or an agency like Children’s Home Society.
“It’s hard to get through to them,” so that is why words often have no affect. “They are self-protective. It’s not their fault.”
But they respond to play because that is the way children primarily communicate.
She said the therapy actually started with Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, who saw that toys can be used as metaphors for words.
As an example, Hughes used a case of a 2-year-old found in a crack house.
“She was not communicating at all,” she said. “She was almost zombie-like.”
But with the use of hand-held miniatures mixing things like dragons with small toys that resembled drug paraphernalia and dumping them in the middle of the room, the little girl picked out the drug paraphernalia toys and placed them all in the center.
“That was her world,” she said, and that opened the door for a response and communication.
Hughes said they also use art, drama and music as therapy, as ways to relate to kids, and music is especially effective with teenagers.
Dogs can also be used, with rescue dogs very effective.
All of these therapies help draw kids out who are “stuck in a trauma.”
“Children are just naturally resilient,” she said, and once drawn out can recover. “What you can do in that play therapy room with a child is where the rubber meets the road.”
Jenna Miller, a child and adolescent therapist with Children’s Home Society in Princeton, is in training to be a certified play therapist and already uses some of the techniques in her work.
“Any practicing therapist is allowed to utilize techniques from a different modality,” she said, adding that a therapist can observe a child’s play and it gives the child a chance to express emotions and reveal thought processes.
“In free play, you can help guide them on how to cope with the things going on in their world,” she said. “You can teach them to take ownership of their thoughts and feelings and that is a huge part of it.”
Miller said play therapy can actually be used at any age. “This is something that has been proven to work.”
Play is a great way to build rapport with anyone, she said. “It makes it a little less intimidating and more inviting.”
But for kids who have been traumatized, whether it’s abuse and neglect, witnessing a traumatic event or bullying, it’s a team effort.
Miller said many community agencies are involved, including Child Protect and social services.
“It’s a collaborative effort to make sure we provide everything they need,” she said. “We are here for the community.”
Miller is excited about her training and also works in the Northfork Children’s Home Society facility.
“It’s actually really, really exciting to use a creative intervention,” she said, adding that she also works with Hughes.
“Beth and her husband Bob (an attorney) are long-time friends of our agency,” she said. “Both have helped us.”
Miller, a Mercer County native who grew up in Kellysville, said the bottom line is play therapy works.
“It’s effective, it’s just different,” she said.
— Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com.