Higher ed making a difference through Play Therapy centers

Colleges and universities, including Sacred Heart in Connecticut, are offering both a training ground and bridge to communities to help children with social and emotional needs.
By: | February 22, 2021
WaveBreak/Adobe

Children and adolescents who struggle to express their feelings or control certain behaviors often can begin to break through those barriers during structured play therapy sessions.

The concept is not new – counselors across the country have been implementing it and researching it for seven decades. But it continues to gain traction in higher education as colleges and universities seek to advance work in the field, study its efficacy and develop clinicians who can help enhance social-emotional outcomes in young students.

Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., is one positioning to be on the cutting edge. It recently announced it will open an Approved Center for Play Therapy Education this fall with a certificate of advanced study in the field through the Isabelle Farrington College of Education.

The goal of the two-year, online part-time program is to prepare interested students – “who are enrolled in master’s-level licensure programs such as counseling or social work or professionals who already have master’s degrees [in related fields]” – to become registered play therapists or school-based play therapists.

“This will be the first Approved Center for Play Therapy Education, on ground or online, in the entire New England area,” said Rebekah Byrd, associate professor of SHU’s clinical mental health counseling program and director for the institute. “SHU has the unique opportunity to be at the forefront of these training needs.”

Students in the Sacred Heart program will take several courses – many of them asynchronous – including seminal theories of play therapy, play therapy in school settings and clinical mental health settings. A three-day, on-ground, residency is required. Once students complete the program and all clinical and supervision requirements, they have the opportunity to apply to become an Registered Play Therapist.

What is play therapy?

Play therapy in a structured setting can provide a soothing environment that can get children, typically 3-12, to address behavioral problems or feelings of stress or depression. Toys are often used to get students to feel more comfortable and to help build trust with the therapist. Children, if they cannot verbalize their feelings, may be able to do so through their play. The simplest example is the use of a stress ball or playing catch between participants, which can build rapport and allow for children to open up about their feelings and learn appropriate behaviors.

Simple play on its own might not work, but with a therapist, it can be game-changing.

“You need to have training; you need to have the skills to administer play therapeutically. It’s not the same as regular play,” said Franc Hudspeth, associate professor and director of SHU’s clinical mental health program and editor of the International Journal of Play Therapy who helped kickstart the University of Mississippi’s play therapy program. “We’re using a child’s preferred way of communicating, which is play, instead of talking.”

Although many colleges and universities offer play therapy curriculum, few offer centers such as the one Sacred Heart is set to open. According to the Association for Play Therapy, 31 institutions have such centers. Some of the more notable ones that go beyond the certifications to assist with peer-reviewed studies and other research include:

  • Lipscomb University in Nashville, which was one of the first campuses to open a Center for Play Therapy and Expressive Arts back in 2015, where Department of Psychology students going for master’s degrees in mental health counseling can hone their studies.
  • The University of Central Florida has its own Center for Play Therapy Research and Training through its College of Community Innovation and Education that has conducted a number of studies, including a current one that is working with Orange County Public Schools to look at the “effectiveness of Adlerian play therapy on reducing disruptive behaviors/emotional disturbances.”
  • The University of North Texas offers Child Centered Play Therapy certification and Child Parent Relationship certification through its College of Education and Center for Play Therapy. Like Central Florida, it is continually aiming to develop best practices while conducting research projects.
  • New Jersey City University also has its own Center for Studies of Play Therapy that not only helps licensed mental health professionals earn Registered Play Therapist certificates but conducts a number of events and projects. One of them is working with the Union City and Jersey City Boards of Education to offer play therapy to student exhibiting social or emotional distress.

Others include Antioch University, Arkansas State, Brenau University, Capella University, Erskine Theological Seminary, George Fox University, Georgia State University, John Brown University, Louisiana State University, Loyola University New Orleans, Northwest Nazarene University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, Regis University, Richmont Graduate University, Sam Houston State, South Dakota State, Southeast Missouri State, Texas State, Thomas Jefferson, University of Arkansas, University of Central Missouri, University of North Carolina Charlotte,  and the University of Wyoming.

Wichita State received its approval for its Play Therapy Center from national organization Association for Play Therapy (APT) in 2009. It offers four courses plus a therapy practicum. Colleges and universities looking to follow its lead must follow several steps to attain that status, according to the university, including:

  1. “Confer master’s or higher degrees accepted by its state in which the program resides for licensure or certification of mental health practitioners. Offer this training to all university departments conferring mental health degrees.
  2. Offer at least 18 graduate semester credit hours per three-year renewal cycle, at least two 3 credit hour classes per year and must be offered by or approved by a registered play therapist or Supervisor who is preferably a faculty member.”