Wilma's Social Workshops - Building skills to support families

Piece of the Puzzle

Connecting through play and creative activities

Research from the areas of neurobiological development and attachment shows us how important it is to first really connect with children and teenagers in order to reach them. We need to find ways to connect before we are able to have an impact on them.

It does not matter whether you are a (foster)parent, teacher, social worker, residential worker, psychologist, chaplain or other professional. If we want to teach children and youth about life, help them develop and practice social-emotional skills, get along with their siblings and peers and develop resilience. If we want them to be able to take full advantage of learning opportunities at school and develop their executive functioning. We first and foremost need to find ways to connect with them and establish a safe environment. Children and adolescents need to feel safe in order for them to be able to access and use their prefrontal cortex.

The use of play, drawing, painting, tactile and sensory work, movement and relaxation are powerful ways to connect with children and adolescents.It is about meeting them on their terms and in their preferred language. Play, creative activities and body work can help children and young people (re)-connect with themselves; with their feelings, their needs and experiences. It helps them explore those in a non-threatening way.Being engaged in play, art or a physical activity helps create some space between them and their (at times strong) feelings and (difficult) experiences. It creates a way for children and teens to experience through the activity, while at the same time being able to look at it from the outside -in, so it helps them reflect on their experiences, their choices and their relationship with others. The act of playing, drawing, sensory or  physical activities also helps children and youth to regulate or calm intense emotions.

As parents or caregivers we have the opportunity to be right there beside children and young people as they engage in creative activities, physical and/or sensory activities and play. These are windows of opportunity to connect with them, to experience with them, show empathy for their feelings and experiences and encourage them to develop skills and knowledge. This is exactly what they need in order to feel safe; to have someone on their side who is accepting them, not evaluating or judging their feelings and actions. 

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As adults in a professional capacity we are 'at risk of' forgetting about or dismissing the window of opportunity to connect with children and young people on their terms. We are employed to teach them or fix their issues. Whether this means helping them to regulate emotions, learn to control behaviour, overcome anxiety or difficulties in coping with life changes, traumatic experiences etc. What we do needs to be evidence based and we need to achieve our goals in a minimum of time due to funding restrictions. Of course it is important to keep finding new ways to improve our ability to support children and their families. But in the end of the day we can only go as fast as the child or young person can go. This depends on where they are developmentally, but even more so on whether we are able to establish a relationship with them and create a space where they feel safe, accepted and understood. A space where it is ok for them to express themselves in a way that feels most comfortable for them. A space where there is respect for how much or how little they are willing to reveal about their inner world.

The use of interventions from play and art therapy and body based modalities can be a powerful and very useful addition to our professional tool kits. You don't need to be a fully trained and qualified play or art therapist in order to successfully use some of the interventions. What you do need is training in the basic principles and applications, to experience the interventions yourself and ongoing supervision to ensure quality and ethical practice.  

You won’t need a fully equipped play or art room either. It would be helpful to assemble a modest collection of toys and art supplies, but with some improvisation skills you could do a lot of the activities in a child's or teenager's natural environment with a minimum of toys or materials.

However no matter what method or new intervention we are using, we got to keep the child or adolescent we are working with at the centre of our attention. Because some would naturally engage in play, physical, sensory or creative activities. Others may not be used to expressive activities, due to family life style or the need to be vigilant all the time. They may need some time to feel comfortable enough, they may need encouragement to discover their abilities and preferences. We may need to adapt what we are doing to the needs and comfort levels of the child or young person we are working with. And for some play and expressive interventions and activities may just not be what works for them and that is ok too.

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