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Play therapy and peace
Play therapy has a role to play in preventing children from growing up violent. The child-led method which we teach at the charity Carefree Kids in east London enables children to express themselves freely - hate, anger and all - in our belief that discharged emotions are less dangerous than emotions which have had to be suppressed.
We therefore provide a gun, handcuffs, swords, a large inflatable “person” (bobo), police hat, and other things to beat up and to bash with. We provide dolls, arts materials, puppets, but it is the violent toys which children return to time after time.
They might spend the whole of the 45 minutes session beating up the bobo, handcuffing the therapist, playing goodies and baddies. They often start their weekly session with great gusto on this way.
Many people who believe in teaching “good” behaviour, or who take the pacifist line (as I do), look in horror as we bring these toys into the therapy room!
However, we ignore children's aggressive impulses at our peril. If we don't help them achieve self-control when they are young, some will act out their pent-up violence on other people and end up in prisons which make things worse.
Why are children violent?
Some blame the films and games they are exposed to. I tend to believe that children brought up with kindness, acceptance and security will not become violent as a result of seeing these. Violence stems from how children have been treated and what they have experienced at home, school and environs.
We do not ask them what their play is about. Instead we trust that they know unconsciously how they need to play. By giving them freedom to be fully themselves, by never judging, evaluating, guiding, praising or blaming, we create a warm but neutral space where they come to learn that all their feelings are accepted.
Play therapy is unlike most ways in which adults treat children. Because children don't answer questions very meaningfully, we offer them toys and arts materials instead through which they convey to us what their emotional state is like. Because it doesn't work with troubled children to lecture them about right and wrong, we allow them to learn through doing, and through their relationship with the therapist. So if we see that the child wants to hurt us with the sword, we don't try to bury the impulse. We say something like, “I can see that you'd really like to poke me with that sword, but I'm not for poking. You can poke the bobo instead.” We acknowledge the feeling, name it, don't blame or deny, but also don't let ourselves get hurt. We offer alternative outlets for the anger. The child gradually learns self-control and respect, feels accompanied, knows that we are on his side, that his feelings don't have to be kept secret, but also knows that hurting another person is not acceptable. Carefree Kids is non-bureaucratic and community-based, a tiny contribution to an equal society which meets needs. We can't stop wars but perhaps the good feelings of the children and the volunteers make tiny ripples for peace.
Carefree Kids can be contacted through 15 Matcham Road, London E11 3LE, 0208 555 5248