DENTON (UNT), Texas — With COVID-19 pausing traditional indoor therapy services, the University of North Texas Center for Play Therapy has found a creative, nature-based solution to continue helping kids improve their social and emotional health.
Through an outdoor playroom, which debuted in September, play therapists are able to offer in-person services in a safer environment during the pandemic while adhering to CDC guidelines for sanitation and social distancing.
Kim Walker, assistant director for CPT and a doctoral student in the College of Education's counseling education program, led efforts to assemble UNT’s first outdoor playroom on the grounds next to the clinic. A play kitchen, a picnic table for crafts and a sandbox under the shade of trees encourage kids to interact in the space. Pine cones, loose bark and rocks provide other options for kids to connect with nature.
Bringing play therapy into the outdoors is something that Walker has been considering for a while. She has researched the benefits of ecotherapy and has been thinking about ways she could integrate the technique into CPT’s internationally-recognized and evidence-based, child-centered play therapy program. She began adding nature toys into her sessions earlier this year, but then COVID-19 hit and she had to suspend that research.
When the spread of the virus pushed many in-person counseling services online in March, Walker saw it as a critical time to make outdoor play therapy a reality on the UNT campus.
This summer, Walker worked with CPT Director and College of Education Professor Dee Ray, as well as UNT Facilities and the administration, to design the space and a set of protocols to ensure therapy services could be carried out safely in the outdoor playroom.
“By moving our work outdoors and following CDC guidance in sanitizing surfaces, screening clients and wearing masks, we’ve been able to give kids much-needed in-person interventions for their social and emotional health,” Walker said.
Walker and three other CPT play therapists have been serving 15 clients ages 5-10 a few times a week in the outdoor playroom. The sessions will be part of Walker’s research looking at how a child’s attention and emotion regulation is impacted by incorporating nature into play therapy. Preliminary data shows that children have responded positively to the outdoor environment.
“This has been a tremendously exciting and innovative project for the Center for Play Therapy. During a time when many children in need are unable to receive play therapy services, we have been able to create a space, protocols and conditions that offer therapy in a safe and effective way. In the midst of so much loss and loneliness during the pandemic, the outdoor playroom has been a light of hope,” Ray said.
UNT CENTER FOR PLAY THERAPY
The Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas has a mission to encourage the unique development and emotional growth of children through the process of play therapy, a dynamic interpersonal relationship between a child and a therapist trained in play therapy procedures. The therapist provides the child with selected play materials and facilitates a safe relationship to express feelings, thoughts, experiences and behaviors through play, the child's natural medium of communication. To fulfill its objectives, the center provides training, research, publications, scholarships, oversees clinical play therapy services and acts as a clearinghouse for literature in the field.