Journey of play
Updated: May 16
By Emma McLachlan
I have been surrounded by children, whether other people's or my own, for many years now. Early in my career I was privileged to be entrusted with educating and caring for children in an early learning setting, and then lucky enough to have my own two children, both with additional support needs on the Autism Spectrum. And these days as a psychologist I also meet with children to assist them to cope with a range of issues in their lives.
Throughout this journey one subject has remained the same - play! As a childhood educator play was about assisting children to meet their developmental milestones such as language development, motor development and social skills.
As a mum it was often about keeping my very busy children occupied and engaged, and with the possibility of stealing a moment for myself. As a new mum I discovered the toy library and was instantly attracted to the idea of toy variety and turn over, and of saving money. As my own children grew and were diagnosed, toy selection and play became more about special interests and assisting them to develop skills in a particular area of deficit, while the toy library for me became a valuable part of my weekly routine and a welcome source of social contact.
Now I am again privileged to be working with other people’s children, this time from a therapeutic perspective. In the work I do I feel I can draw on my own experience as an early childhood educator, my own challenges of being a Mum to two children on the Autism Spectrum, and from my long 10-year journey later in life to become a psychologist.
In my practice as a psychologist, play has a specific purpose. It can be used to build rapport, assist with psycho education, support emotional regulation, or assist with emotional expression.
I find children are more engaged when they are playing, and more relaxed to be able to chat about difficult things in their lives that might be worrying them. After all, children make sense of the world and communicate with play. What’s more, it's fun, not just for them but for me too!
My observations of the benefits of play therapy for children are many. Take 10-year-old Tobias* who felt safe to express himself through teddy bears. During the session Tobias was able to project his feelings onto the bear, which allowed him to express his strong emotions regarding his family relationships and his separation anxiety from his Mum. This sadness was then able to be addressed and eventually resolved.
During another session Tobias was able to identify similarities from a children’s picture book about a mother who had depression, to his own circumstance, ‘that’s like my Mum’, normalising his situation. However, it was through the board game snakes and ladders that I was able to teach and assist Tobias to practice his assertive communication skill with his dominant brother. This newly emerging skill contributed to an overall increase in self-confidence for Tobias that carried over to other areas of his life, and eventually led to Tobias finalising therapy.
I also have a very clever therapist who works alongside me, and who is present in all my sessions - my certified therapy dog ‘Billy’. Billy is a 4-year-old Labradoodle and acts as a social lubricant to the work I do. He assists in improving mood and in lowering stress and anxiety in those he meets, plus he gives awesome cuddles (and licks!).
I love working with kids, and I am so privileged to hear their stories and be present when they invite me into their world through play.
*name changed to protect the identity of the child
Photo credit: Tayla Anne Photography
Emma is a mother of two children and believes in the importance of toy libraries in her local community. Emma is a soon-to-be-fully-registered Psychologist, has completed her Master of Professional Psychology and is currently working at Mullum Psychology Clinic, Croydon.
Emma is passionate about working with children and adolescents with an array of mental health presentations and development disorders using play therapy. Additionally, Emma practices as an animal assisted therapist (AAT) with her certified therapy dog Billy.