Mary Rose Baldacchino’s playroom resembles an Aladdin’s cave of children’s delights – the room is coloured with hundreds of small toys neatly lining stacks of shelves, costumes hanging upon racks, art materials, musical instruments, sand trays and scores of other playthings.
Yet the room serves a very important purpose – it is where Ms Baldacchino conducts play therapy, allowing her young clients to express their experiences and feelings through a self-guided and self-healing process and to ultimately help them reach a sense of resolution.
Play therapy is just as effective on adults
The 66-year-old is the president of the newly formed Malta Association of Play Therapists. Now retired and running only her private practice, Ms Baldacchino spent many years working as a school counsellor before studying family therapy followed by play therapy. She qualified as a play therapist in 2007.
She stresses the importance of being fully qualified in the field of play therapy – university qualifications in psychology and counselling do not automatically qualify a person as a play therapist.
“People and therapists who are not qualified in play therapy do more harm than good,” she warns.
“Clients, especially children, deserve an experienced and trusted therapist with specialised education and training in working with children.
“Using creative activities without the necessary background training and practice is fraught with all kinds of risks.” Ms Baldacchino treats children as young as three-and-a-half years of age. ‘Talk therapy’ does not work with children, mainly because they are not emotionally literate, making play therapy an especially powerful tool.
“By nature, children do not have problems. But they carry the problems of their environment – be it problems in relationships at school or at home”.
Children who benefit from play therapy include those who are adopted or fostered, those whose parents are going through separation, children who are withdrawn or continually unhappy, those who are not realising their full potential academically or socially and those who have nightmares or disturbed sleep.
So how would a typical session play out?
Ms Baldacchino would invite the child, alone, into the playroom.
“I tell the child: ‘In here, you can do absolutely anything you want. But you cannot hurt me or hurt yourself and you cannot break the toys or furniture’.”
She would then closely observe the child engaged in play. She would not, however, attempt to guide or direct the child in any way.
“When you guide them in play, it would no longer be a natural expression. I need to accept the child exactly as he/she is and allow the child to lead.”
She may participate in role play but would only reflect or echo a child’s behaviour, refraining from making any snap judgements.
Through the medium of play, confusion, anxieties and conflicts are slowly worked through.
Ms Baldacchino illustrates the power of play therapy by quoting the case of Jason*, a seven-year-old boy she worked with a few years ago.
“I first met Jason at school. His teacher said his behaviour was impeccable while his home environment was a loving and peaceful one.Yet, inexplicably, he would frequently burst into tears.”
During his first session, Jason drew a picture using water colours. He described his drawing as depicting an aeroplane, set against a backdrop of rainy, stormy weather.
“I was concerned when he described his image as an aeroplane. It appeared to have huge wheels – grounding the aircraft firmly on the land.”
As there seemed to be no problems at home, Ms Baldacchino deduced that the problem had to be in the classroom.
Jason’s teacher had a habit of shouting when the children grated her nerves. Although she never shouted at Jason, Ms Baldacchino inferred that the boy was terrified that the time would come when she would shout at him. Jason was slower than others when it came to copying material off the whiteboard.
“I asked the teacher to gently rub his back in an assuring manner and tell him: ‘Good, you’re nearly ready’. That way, she’ll be acknowledging the work he already did as well as encouraging him.”
The sand tray proved to be a particularly effective tool for Jason. During his sessions, he chose a number of miniatures, among which was a tiny dinosaur that Ms Baldacchino figured out represented himself.
Jason first buried the dinosaur in the sand. Slowly, it came out and faced its ‘enemies’. As the sessions progressed, the miniature ‘baddies’ became the tiny dinosaur’s companions.
In the final session, Jason drew another picture of an aeroplane. This time, it was flying high in the air, and the sun was shining.
“Play therapy is just as effective on adults,” Ms Baldacchino insists.
“Don’t you believe me? Choose a couple of miniatures and bring them to the sand tray and you’ll see the powers of play therapy unfold.”
The Malta Play Therapy Association may be reached on email@example.com.
* Name has been changed.