Therapists help children through play

Lisa Eaton, a psychotherapist with Ben Gordon Center, poses with one of the stuffed animals in the center's play therapy room.
Lisa Eaton, a psychotherapist with Ben Gordon Center, poses with one of the stuffed animals in the center's play therapy room.

DeKALB – To children, play is language and toys are their words.

With that in mind, Ben Gordon Center has begun a play therapy program.

Psychotherapist Lisa Eaton, who oversees the program, said it is for children between the ages of 3 and 11.

“I saw there was a need for a formal play therapy program,”  Eaton said. “It provides a way for them to express their experiences and feelings through a natural, self-guided, self-healing process. As children’s experiences and knowledge are often communicated through play, it becomes an important vehicle for them to know and accept themselves and others. This is thought to help them towards better social integration, growth and development.”

She credited her former supervisor Shannon Underwood with backing her up in forming both the program and the play room.

“We’ve always offered therapy and counseling for children, but this is something new,” marketing and development director Michelle LaPage said. “We’ve seen an increase in the need for children getting these services. This is a very positive way for them to get counseling.”

The play therapy program is part of the center’s Early Intervention Program, which began in August.

Besides two offices in DeKalb – at 12 Health Services Drive and 631 S. First St. – Ben Gordon Center has a satellite facility in Sandwich, which also has a play therapy room.

When Eaton engages a client in play therapy, she works “very collaboratively” with other staff members, the client’s family and their school.

“When a child comes to the therapy room, a lot of what they do is called ‘non-directive play’ or ‘child-led play,’” Eaton said. “Adults can come in for talk therapy. They can sit down and talk about their feelings and things that have happened that are troubling them. A child (with development issues) won’t do that so they express themselves through their play and the toys that they use. This is kind of a really unique idea, play therapy.”

For example, a 4-year-old who has witnessed some kind of a trauma can’t sit in a chair and talk to a therapist like a 30-year-old could.

“There are toys in here that have been selected that they are able to use to work through whatever might be going on, to re-enact something that may have been very traumatic for them,” Eaton said.

Another purpose of the program, she said, is to help children deal with anger or aggression. For example, there’s a large, overstuffed pink gorilla they can punch in one corner of the room.

“There’s not a lot I have to do except provide a safe place for them to do what they have to do,” Eaton said. “It’s not without limits, so the child doesn’t hurt themselves or me. As long as the child is safe and not ripping off the head of the gorilla, I’ll let the child punch or kick the gorilla because that’s what the child needs to do.”

Eaton is quick to add that when a child comes in, she already has a working knowledge of what’s going on with them.

“If I know this is a child with a lot of aggression, then I’ll let them be aggressive with the gorilla,” she said.

Eaton said there’s also a light board for teenagers to use for art therapy, as well as a sand tray with figurines.

“It gives them some distance between what happened and talking about it themselves,” she said. “If they can do it in a sand tray, you kind of do it as a third person and it helps them express what happened.”

Before the play therapy room opened two months ago, Eaton said she used a variety of rooms throughout the center, using a pile of toys she had to bring with her and set up, then put away when the young client left. This way, the toys are already lined up around the room.

Prior to the Early Intervention Program, Eaton said therapists weren’t expecting to see clients younger than 6; now, they’re getting them as young as 3.

“We have three times the referrals now than when we started the Early Intervention Program in August,” she said.

LaPage said they’ve received a lot of positive feedback from parents.

“It’s definitely growing,” she said.

Toys for the room have been purchased with the help of grants; donations that can be put toward additional toys and materials would be appreciated. For a list of needs, call 815-756-4875.

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