Days of play and healing
Therapists help young survivors of Oklahoma tornado
One month after a howling tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, 22 children play quietly in a room filled with a variety of playthings: figurines of animals and action heroes, boxes of crayons, bottles of bubbles, trays of sand, lumps of clay.
At one point, a boy buries a tiny plastic Bible in the sand. Another boy sets a figurine on top of another and murmurs, "Stay down. It will be okay." A third boy shapes clay into the form of a funnel.
Though the children appear to be just playing, they are actually engaged in play therapy, a form of counseling that uses play-based models and techniques to help children cope with difficult emotions. Through playing, children express what is troubling them—in this case, the May 20 tornado that literally and figuratively turned their worlds upside down.
A team of disaster mental health specialists from the University of North Texas at Dallas, in partnership with World Vision's U.S. Programs, conducted the therapy for four days in June at Westmore Community Church in Moore, Oklahoma.
The "Days of Play and Healing" are part of World Vision's efforts to provide Child-Friendly Spaces that give a disaster's youngest survivors a safe place to play. The program helps children return to a normal routine through structured activities and games.
World Vision often offers Child-Friendly Spaces following international disasters. The Days of Play and Healing in Moore, which helped children ages 5 to 12, may serve as a model for a similar program in the U.S.
In play therapy, anguished children might use toys instead of words. The boy who buried the toy Bible was indicating that his family Bible was initially lost in the tornado. The second boy was depicting his mom protecting him during the storm.
"The [children were] doing what is sometimes called a 'traumatic play re-enactment' in an effort to understand the event and make meaning of it," says Jennifer Baggerly, who led the disaster mental health team. She is associate professor of counseling and chair of the Division of Education and Human Services at the University of North Texas at Dallas.
In the case of the first two boys, Baggerly says, "the meaning we hope the children will place in their heart is that 'spiritual faith is something that can always be with you even when you can't see it' and 'Mom is protecting me, and I can trust people to protect me as much as possible.' "
While children play, thoughts and behaviors emerge, sometimes in jarring juxtaposition. At a table filled with toys and art supplies, two girls color an outline of smiling children holding hands while another squirts red glitter glue onto her picture.
"I was kind of happy the tornado struck down the school—because, well, we don't have school anymore," one girl says, giggling.
Another girl frowns at that remark. "I love school," she responds, firmly setting her glitter glue bottle on the table for emphasis.
Associate Professor Eric Green, Baggerly's colleague, sits nearby.
"Sometimes when really bad things happen... sometimes we try to look at the bright side of things," he says to the first girl, whose soft smile seems to betray a deeper concern. "I think that's a good way to cope. Sometimes I cope by using a sense of humor."
Interjects the third girl: "When I saw my house and everything destroyed, I cried."
Children may play in a way that indicates what they are troubled about, but they “may not be able to resolve it if there is not a trained therapist there to help them make sense of it," Baggerly later says.
Carla LaFayette, part of World Vision's disaster response team in Moore, observed the play therapy and found it revealing.
"We underestimate or overlook how deeply children hang onto their feelings or their fears," she says. "It really hit me more than it has before that children are very vulnerable when it comes to being overlooked. It was helpful to see them just be children and express what they were thinking about."
Baggerly later described an interaction with a boy who told her that "looking up at the eye of the tornado was the worst moment." It was the first time his mother, who attended a portion of the sessions, realized he had looked skyward while they raced to protection. Their home and neighborhood was destroyed.
The boy breathed quickly as he retold the story, prompting Baggerly to help him "re-regulate" his breathing with a sensor attached to his ear so he could calm down and think more clearly.
The boy later re-enacted his sense of helplessness during the tornado by repeatedly smashing a superhero figure with a toy alligator. The alligator represented the tornado, Baggerly says, and the boy gained control by eventually sitting on it and hitting it with a toy sword.
During therapy with the soothing touch of sand, the boy placed a purple dragon figure in the tray along with wizard, phoenix, and religious figures to "depict a battle of the 'good' powerful rescue workers triumphing over the 'bad' dragon tornado" Baggerly says.
The boy further released his anxiety by squeezing clay and re-regulating his breathing. He shaped clay into a tornado-like funnel. "Without any encouragement, he took the same 'tornado' and reshaped it into a mask over his face, like Ironman," LaFayette says. "It was something that caused him fear and made him weak, and he created something new out of it — something that made him strong."
Baggerly says the sand and clay therapies helped the now-calmer boy create "meaningful, symbolic healing metaphors that cultivated his inner resilience" and made him feel safe.
Overall, nothing that children said or did during Days of Play and Healing surprised her team, Baggerly says, "but we were definitely heartened [and] encouraged to see the resilience within children, which came from their families and faith in God."