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Carpe Diem. Play!

A discussion with Play Therapist Bridget Dooley

Bridget Dooley has a Masters in Play Therapy and is quick to debunk any notions that play is frivolous. It is child’s play- in the way that it enables children to survive and learn, use their body and activate their brain.

“It transcends all cultures and is incredibly complex,” said Dooley.

“The way that play lights up every area of the brain means that play is literally brain fertiliser and provides children with the optimal conditions to thrive.”

Play is the most human thing to do. It allows children to experiment, build physical skills and bond. Dooley explains:

“There is a popular phrase in play circles from Play Therapist Gary Landreth that birds fly, fish swim and children play. Play is essential to human growth, development and well-being across the duration of the life span. Early play experiences, especially those that occur within significant attachment relationships lay the foundations for all brain growth and set the relational patterns for how we will be in the world with others.”

Dooley’s childhood was rich with play. She grew up in Ballarat, a town famous for the gold rush and cold winter weather.

“As a child I of course loved play!”

“I have many fond memories of playing imaginatively at home and making cubby houses in the lounge room with kitchen chairs, sheets and tea towels for curtains. We also had a ‘making box’ that inspired many creative constructions and my beautiful mum who even made us homemade paper mache glue”.

That type of creative play has become increasingly meaningful over time during Dooley’s studies. She was interested in working in the health sector, working with children. She had a drive to help people, this she was sure of. After completing a degree in occupational therapy, she continued to complete honours. Her major research project blended her interests. She examined the pretend play abilities of children with acquired brain injuries. Professor Karen Stagnitti who is well known in play circles, founder of Learn to Play Events, was her supervisor.

“It wasn’t until I began working at a K-10 school in a highly disadvantaged and vulnerable area of Ballarat that I realised that mental health was where I wanted to be and that I needed a different therapeutic approach to support the social, emotional and psychological development of the children I was being referred,” said Dooley.

Dooley discovered that Play Therapy was more powerful and remarkable than she first had imagined. She found it rewarding. The relationships that forged had a big impact on her, as she supported children and families in healing emotional injuries and preventing and protecting future ones.

“It is also a profession where the true self of the therapist is highly valued, with the therapeutic relationship recognised as the key agent of change in the therapy.”

The importance of play for children with learning difficulties and disabilities stood at the forefront of Dooley’s mind. 

“It is essential that, regardless of a child’s chronological age, we remember to see their developmental age, providing developmentally appropriate and sensitive learning and therapeutic experiences.” 

In her academic role, Dooley is driven to support the leading educators and clinicians in the field, increasing the credibility of play and advocating for wider research which she herself contributes. Ultimately, she said it is her goal to lead to better outcomes for children and families.

The personal links make Dooley’s work profound. They provide an authenticity and purpose to her specific studies. She can see why and where these studies assist in the real world.

“The children are always our biggest teachers.”

“I loved getting to learn from them every day and contributing my difference to their lives.”

While playgroup and early years support services are foremostly for the children, they also exist to support the parents and carers. This component does not go unnoticed by Dooley who wholeheartedly agrees with the widely published Bessel van der Kolk that “The parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind” and believes that play is absolutely important for adults, too.

“It is well known that you can’t pour from an empty cup and play in its many and varied forms is a wonderful source of adult self-care. Play continues to fertilise our brains and facilitates strong emotional bonds and relationships with others, the foundation of our human experience.”

The early years of a child’s life are woven with a range of influences. A child’s environment and the people within it have great influence on their quality of life. This can be especially trying for families with learning difficulties or disabilities. As Dooley reiterates every day in her work, play support and play therapy can make a positive impact on all involved.

“Play has the power to connect communities across the generations and bring great joy that contributes to a fulfilling life.”

Play provides a release, a way to move forward and experience things. Play can often be a saviour for those who have moments of struggle. It can be a welcome distraction. Whether it be for ten minutes, one hour or a whole afternoon, the freedom to play gives humans the freedom to be themselves in the world. That’s what we all strive for. When you can, carpe diem. Play.

Article by Sinead Halliday