Playing For Inner Peace

By Evangeline Majawat

Somewhere along Jalan Klang Lama is an unusual office. It is filled with toys of all sizes and shapes. Baby dolls of different races perch delicately from a top shelf staring serenely at their surroundings. Figurines inspired by fairytales and cartoons mingle with the soft toys and animal playthings. In the middle of the room is a small sand box.

This is the play room.

For play therapist Andrew Ng, this room is vital to his work because it is the gateway to another world for his clients. It is here that the healing process begins. Ng also offers sandplay therapy as part of his services.

Play therapy is a counseling approach using toys and games as the medium to help a child or adolescent experiencing traumatic life experiences (such as mental, emotional or physical abuse) to express their emotions and thoughts. Sandplay or sandtray therapy, on the other hand, uses sand as the medium. Just like music, dance, art and other creative forms of therapy, play and sandplay therapies help one to articulate when verbal communication is hard or impossible.

Prince Court Medical Centre Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Hypnotherapist Dr Daniel Zainal Abdul Rahman says that creative and artistic therapies engage the least used part of the brain — the unconscious.

“When we talk or do cognitive therapy, we’re engaging the verbal analytical mind, the conscious side, which is only 10 percent. It only makes sense that you also engage the other 90 percent, the unconscious mind.”

The mind automatically buries traumatic experiences and memories into the unconscious mind to protect itself from unbearable mental and emotional pain. Dr Daniel says that creative therapies tap into the unconscious mind to release repressed and suppressed emotions and address deep-seated problems.

TOYS ARE MY FRIENDS

Ng reveals that some of his little clients are so mentally and emotionally scarred that they view the whole world as a threatening and terrifying place. He says these children often come into his office clinging to their parents, refusing to let Mum and Dad out of sight.

“Play is a natural thing for children. It helps in their learning and experience of the world and develops creativity. In here (the office) is a safe environment where they can let it all out, be themselves and not be scared.”

Ng relates the story of a little 5-year-old boy who was brought in by his mother. His mother had noticed that he was becoming more aggressive toward other children, beating them and lashing out.  “When I introduced myself as Uncle Andrew, he pulled up his t-shirt to cover his head and petrified, ran and crouched in a corner.

“I didn’t know whether it was the ‘uncle’, ‘Andrew’ or my appearance that frightened him,” Ng said. Away from the boy and observing through a one-way mirror, he watched as the little boy lined several car models up in the sandbox. Interestingly, he named the first car Andrew and unleashed his anger and frustration on it. He repeatedly bashed the toy car while shouting “naughty Andrew”.

“I found out later on that his father’s name was Andrew. His mother had left him because he was abusive husband and father.”

Ng managed to see the little boy only a few weeks before they left for Australia but he noticed significant improvements after just four sessions. “He dared to enter the play room on his own and not have his mother by his side all the time. That was a very important step.”

Parents’ involvement is key. While they are not encouraged to enter the play room with their kids during the sessions, Ng keeps them updated and dishes out advice, especially if they are at the root of the child’s problems.

“For a family, I believe that if the parents are happy, the children will be too.” It is for this reason that Ng also offers sandplay therapy for families. Children, he says, naturally emulate their parents and want to please them.

STRESSED OUT LITTLE ONES

According to Ng, the pressure to perform and excel academically is so intense these days that he is seeing more and more children and teenagers who are stressed out. “They come here with behavioral or anxiety problems, obsessive compulsive disorders or phobia of school or anything associated to it.”

Ng also says that children these days do not play enough. “Playing is a form of self-discovery as well as learning about the world. It gets children closer to Nature. It explores their creativity and encourages imagination,” he says.

The American Academic of Pediatrics believes that in contrast to passive entertainment, play builds active, healthy bodies. The research ‘The Importance of Play In Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds” states that play is important for healthy brain development and “… allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills.”

Ng believes electronic gadgets are affecting our children and teenagers’ creativity and health. “That isn’t playing. Playing is about exploring and using all your five senses,” he points out. “I believe this is one of the reasons why our kids are becoming fatter!”

DON’T FORGET THE ADULTS TOO!

Playing is not just for children. Ng has used sandplay therapy to counsel couples whose marriage is on the rocks. “You’ll be surprised at how sandplay therapy can help two people especially when every time they talk it almost always ends up in a fight,” he explains.

Ng has also used sandplay therapy to help adults who are depressed. “Playing is for everyone. You learn so much about yourself. It helps express what is too painful to be said out loud. Playing helps you recognise problems and handle them.”

To contact Andrew Ng call 012 361 8596 or email andrewng@malaysiaplay.com. Dr. Daniel Zainal Abdul Rahman can be contacted at zainal.rahman@princecourt.com

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