CEDAR RAPIDS — Stacie Mitchell’s office is filled with toys.
Shelves line the walls, crowded with dolls, books, plastic figures, puppets and games. As a registered play therapist, these are the tools of her trade.
Mitchell is the clinic supervisor and a therapist at Tanager Place in Cedar Rapids. The non-profit offers mental and behavioral health services to children throughout the community, and play therapy is central to its mission.
While adults might benefit from talk therapy, that doesn’t work with children. Instead, therapists use play to help children work through their struggles.
“Talk therapy, with kids — that’s not really how they communicate. It’s a way to work through problems without having to talk about them,” she said. “A child’s natural way to communicate is play. When we expect a child is going to be able to deal with their problems with words, we’re not recognizing their developmental level.”
A sand tray in the middle of her office allows children a space to create scenes with action figures and dolls. She might ask them to pick out an animal to represent everyone in their family, for example, and have them act out scenes.
“The power of play therapy isn’t playing, it’s dealing with the issues, the struggles, the problems through play,” she said.
She recalled one child, about 4, who was very aggressive and violent. He had witnessed domestic violence and would hit, kick and pull hair of other children at his day care.
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On the sand tray, he and Mitchell would act out scenes with miniature puppies. When a puppy fell over, Mitchell would comfort it. Eventually, she encouraged the child to take over comforting it. By watching and then acting out empathy in therapy sessions, Mitchell said he learned how to show more empathy outside her office.
“This child went back to day care, and his aggression and violence decreased,” she said.
She said the reasons children get referred to them — things like aggression, depression and anxiety — are often symptoms of deeper problems. The goal of play therapy is to help children uncover those problems and learn to cope with them.
The center sees about 125 kids a day in its outpatient clinic, which in addition to play therapy offers music therapy, autism spectrum services and medication management. There is usually a waiting list for services, even after a major expansion last year allowed the clinic to increase capacity.
Mitchell also teaches play therapy through Mount Mercy’s marriage and family therapy graduate program and is president of the Iowa Association for Play Therapy, which has around 120 members across the state, mostly at agencies like Tanager but also in schools, hospitals and at private practices. Tanager has play therapists working with ten Cedar Rapids schools and two in Mount Vernon and is starting in three new schools in the fall.
Tanager Place has had play therapists since 2005. Mitchell joined the non-profit as the second play therapist in 2007, one of three total therapists on staff. Since then, the organization’s mental health clinic has grown exponentially — they now have 32 therapists, including five registered play therapists and 14 more in the process of getting credentialed, which involves working two to three years under a registered play therapist after finishing a degree.
Tanager therapist and licensed independent social worker Lindsey Swandby is working to get credentialed as a play therapist.
“I just think it’s so cool that there’s a way to communicate with kids who are so little. It allows us to go into their world,” she said.