About Me, Garry Landreth
I have always felt that knowing the author, or at least knowing something about the author, helped me to more clearly understand what the author was trying to communicate. Therefore, I want to let you know something about me. Perhaps this will help you better understand the meaning of what I write, even though my words may not adequately convey the message. Printed words on a page are at best an inadequate method for communicating something important—and what could be more important than talking about children and their world? I experience a very real feeling of apprehension and inadequacy when I think about trying to convey through this medium what I have experienced with children, my feelings for children, my belief in children, my hopes for children, and the significance of this process we call play therapy in the lives of children. Perhaps that is why I appreciate so much the opportunities I have to be with children in play therapy relationships, for there we are not limited to words to communicate.
As a child I was scrawny and underdeveloped and attended a one-room, all eight grades, rural elementary school taught by my mother. In that setting, I developed a genuine appreciation for simple things, a propensity to strive, a love for learning, and a sensitivity for the underdog, the person who does not get noticed. Because of those experiences, I am keenly aware of children who do not get noticed.
I have not always been comfortable with children, as I suspect many of you who read this text have been, and that I regret, for I did not know experientially, emotionally the world of children. Oh, I knew intellectually from books and a university undergraduate course in child development, but I only knew about
children. I did not know
children with my heart in a way that touched them and their world. Children were there. I noticed them, but it simply did not occur to me to try to establish communication with them. The child in me had long before been pushed into the background out of my need to be appreciated for being mature, an adult. Being adult for me meant being serious about life, being responsible. I know now that was partially an attempt to overcome some feelings of inadequacy and the fact that, throughout my undergraduate years and my first year as a 21-year-old high school teacher, I looked much younger than my chronological age; in fact, I was often mistaken for one of the high school students.
After 4 years of teaching, a master’s degree, and 2 years as a high school counselor, I gained my first glimpse into the child’s world as a doctoral graduate assistant in the Children’s Center on the University of New Mexico campus. There, a sensitive and perceptive professor, who saw in me qualities to which I was oblivious, encouraged me to work with children and introduced me to the exciting, multifaceted dimensions of play therapy through which I began to slowly discover and experience the unfolding of the child’s world.
Is it possible to truly describe the discovery of a life-changing dimension in one’s life? If so, then the experience must have been rather small or insignificant, or both, for most words are small and insignificant. At this moment, I sit here wanting to convey the genuine pleasure of making contact with children and how that added a new depth dimension to my life, and I must admit that I am unable to do so. How does one describe children’s wonder, excitement in experiencing life, the fresh newness with which they approach living, and their incredible resiliency? I feel inept; my mind has suddenly come to a screeching halt. It is no longer active. All the circuits are open and searching. No words come to describe that experience, although I know the feeling well.
Life cannot be described; it can only be experienced and appreciated. Descriptions can always be evaluated, but life cannot. Life is. It unfolds and is in totality at that moment, no more and no less. We do not look at a person and judge or evaluate that person to have too little of life or too much. Indeed, one of my important discoveries was that little children seldom, if ever, evaluate the lives of other little children. They interact with each other and accept the other person as enough. In those early years of my professional development, experiencing the unconditional acceptance of children was a profound experience. They did not wish I were more or less. I experienced children accepting me for what I was at that moment. They did not try to change me or make me different in some way. They liked me the way I was. I did not have to pretend. I discovered I could just be. What a fantastically freeing experience that was and continues to be as I relate to children. As I related to children on the basis of who they were at that moment and accepted them, their personhood, this became a reciprocal experience of sharing being together and accepting each other.
My early interactions with children in play therapy awakened in me a deep appreciation for the unfolding process of life as experienced by children and in turn a new appreciation for the process of my own life, not as something to change, or undo, or overcome, or prove the worth of, but to appreciate and live out the excitement of the process of being the person God has created me to be—to be me! Being more fully me means being more fully human, accepting my strengths as well as my weaknesses, for I do have strengths as well as weaknesses—and my mistakes are only a declaration of the fact that I am indeed fallible—human. That was a significant discovery for me, and yet as I look back, it was not a discovery, for that seems to indicate an event in time. Like life, it was a process I experienced and gradually became aware of and slowly began to appreciate. What I would like to say to children is wonderfully expressed in Peccei’s (1979–1980) “In the name of the children”:
If we were to allow the wonder of the life of a child to reach us fully and truly and to be our teacher, we would have to say: Thank you, child of man…for reminding me about the joy and excitement of being human. Thank you for letting me grow together
with you, that I can learn again of what I have forgotten about simplicity, intensity, totality, wonder and love and learn to respect my own life in its uniqueness. Thank you for allowing me to learn from your tears about the pain of growing up and the sufferings of the world. Thank you for showing me that to love another person and to be with people, big or small, is the most natural of gifts that grows like a flower when we live in the wonder of life. (p. 10)
As I progressed in my relationships with children in play therapy, I made a rather startling discovery about my counseling sessions with adults. The counseling process seemed to be speeding up, and I was becoming more effective. With some adult clients with whom I had experienced being stuck, little progress, therapeutic movement began to develop, and a new depth of sharing and exploring of self occurred for the client. As I examined this development, the change could be accounted for by my having become more aware of and responsive to the subtle cues in the client that had always been there. I attributed this increased sensitivity to clients’ subtle cues to my increased sensitivity to children’s subtle forms of communication. I discovered that as I became more effective with children in play therapy, I became much more effective with adults in counseling relationships.
I joined the Counselor Education Department at the University of North Texas in 1966 and taught my first course in play therapy in 1967. Play therapy was not very well known in Texas in those days, or anywhere else in the nation for that matter, but from that meager beginning has come tremendous growth. What an exciting adventure that has been. The Center for Play Therapy, which I founded at the University of North Texas, is now the largest play therapy training program in the world, and each year provides an Annual Play Therapy Conference and a 2-week Summer Play Therapy Institute. Graduate courses offered each year consist of five sections of Introduction to Play Therapy, Advanced Play Therapy, Filial Therapy, Group Play Therapy, master’s-level practicum and internships in play therapy, a doctoral-level advanced play therapy practicum, and a doctoral-level internship in play therapy.
One thing I really enjoy about teaching play therapy is that the child part of me can emerge in the role-playing I often do, and
that helps to balance my tendency to be too serious about things. I am now able to really prize the child part of the person I am and thus to more fully appreciate and be sensitive to those qualities in children. I have discovered that when I am with children, the person I am is much more important than anything I know how to do in my mind.
I am still learning about children and about myself as I experience with them the complex simplicity of their play and the unfolding of the vibrant colors of their emotional inner worlds. What I have learned and how I have come to incorporate that learning into my relationships with children is perhaps best expressed in the following principles.
Principles for Relationships With Children
I am not all knowing.
Therefore, I will not even attempt to be.
I need to be loved.
Therefore, I will be open to loving children.
I want to be more accepting of the child in me.
Therefore, I will with wonder and awe allow children to illuminate my world.
I know so little about the complex intricacies of childhood.
Therefore, I will allow children to teach me.
I learn best from and am impacted most by my personal struggles.
Therefore, I will join with children in their struggles.
I sometimes need a refuge.
Therefore, I will provide a refuge for children.
I like it when I am fully accepted as the person I am.
Therefore, I will strive to experience and appreciate the person of the child.
I make mistakes. They are a declaration of the way
I am—human and fallible.
Therefore, I will be tolerant of the humanness of children.
I react with emotional internalization and expression to my world of reality.
Therefore, I will relinquish the grasp I have on reality and try to enter the world as experienced by the child.
It feels good to be an authority, to provide answers.
Therefore, I will need to work hard to protect children from me!
I am more fully me when I feel safe.
Therefore, I will be consistent in my interactions with children.
I am the only person who can live my life.
Therefore, I will not attempt to rule a child’s life.
I have learned most of what I know from experiencing.
Therefore, I will allow children to experience.
The hope I experience and the will to live come from within me.
Therefore, I will recognize and affirm the child’s will and selfhood.
I cannot make children’s hurts and fears and frustrations and disappointments go away.
Therefore, I will soften the blow.
I experience fear when I am vulnerable.
Therefore, I will with kindness, gentleness, and tenderness touch the inner world of the vulnerable child.
Peccei, A. (1979–1980). In the name of the children. Forum, 10, 17–18.
The Meaning of Play
Children’s play is not mere sport. It is full of meaning and import.
Children must be approached and understood from a developmental perspective. They are not miniature adults. Their world is one of concrete realities, and their experiences often are communicated through play. In seeking to facilitate children’s expression and exploration of their emotional world, therapists must turn loose of their world of reality and verbal expression and move into the conceptual–expressive world of children. Unlike adults, whose natural medium of communication is verbalization, the natural medium of communication for children is play and activity.
Functions of Play
The universal importance of play to the natural development and wholeness of children has been underscored by the UN proclamation of play as a universal and inalienable right of childhood. Play is the singular central activity of childhood, occurring at all times and in all places. Children do not need to be taught how to play, nor must they be made to play. Play is spontaneous, usually
enjoyable, voluntary, and not goal directed. In order to make children’s play more acceptable, some adults have invented a meaning for play by defining it as work. In their push to be successful and to hurry up the process of growing up, many adults cannot tolerate “the waste of children’s time by playing.” The attitude is that children must be accomplishing something or working toward some important goal acceptable to adults.
It is regrettable that play has been identified by many writers as children’s work. This seems to be an effort to somehow make play legitimate, intimating that play can be important only if it somehow fits what adults consider important in their world. Just as childhood has intrinsic value and is not merely preparation for adulthood, so play has intrinsic value and is not dependent on what may follow for importance. In contrast to work, which is goal focused and directed toward accomplishment or completion of a task by accommodating the demands of the immediate environment, play is intrinsically complete, does not depend on external reward, and assimilates the world to match the child’s concepts, as in the case of a child using a spoon as a car.
Frank (1982) suggested play is the way children learn what no one can teach them. It is the way they explore and orient themselves to the actual world of space and time, of things, animals, structures, and people. By engaging in the process of play, children learn to live in our world of meanings and values, at the same time exploring and experimenting and learning in their own indivi...