“Play is a child’s language”: Play Therapy and Addressing the Mental Health of Unaccompanied Children

May 25, 2023

Unaccompanied children suffer high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. Through our social services programming, KIND aims to improve and support the mental health of unaccompanied children through referring clients to counseling services and other therapeutic interventions such as play therapy.  

Since 2018, KIND has partnered with Dr. Yumiko Ogawa and the Center for Studies of Play Therapy at New Jersey City University to provide play therapy to our clients at KIND’s New Jersey office. Yumiko is an Associate Professor in the Department of Counselor Education and the founder and director of the Center for Studies of Play Therapy.

In these child-centered play therapy sessions, Yumiko and her students use the therapeutic powers of play to help KIND clients help children process their difficult experiences, often including the trauma of their migration journey or home country, in a way that makes sense to them. It is common for kids who have survived trauma to repeatedly play out the scene of the trauma; play therapists call this post-traumatic play. In these instances, the therapist intervenes to help the child resolve the trauma scene, serving as an important starting point for post-traumatic healing.  

Jasiel Fernandez, KIND’s Regional Director of Social Services for the East Coast, described the positive impact of this work:  

“Our partnership with Dr. Ogawa and her team has contributed greatly to many of our younger clients’ well-being. By engaging with this clinical modality, participating clients, many without access to other mental health supports, engaged in a therapeutic space that nurtured their resilience in while preserving elements that trauma tends to steal from children—their joy, their innocence, and the space to make sense of the world not though an adult’s lens but their own.”

Through this partnership with Dr. Yumiko Ogawa and the Center for Studies of Play Therapy, KIND has also provided trainings to lawyers (both KIND lawyers and lawyers for our pro bono network) and some social service coordinators about cultural humility. Cultural humility allows social service and legal practitioners to center client voices and strengths in their own healing while recognizing cultural differences. We have also done outreach to educators to help them understand how trauma impacts children’s behavior and performance in school.  

During the height of the COVID pandemic, we provided play-based parenting trainings to caregivers to highlight the benefits of engaging in intentional play with their children. Adult caregivers learned how to use play to communicate and engage with children in a trauma-informed way in the potentially traumatic environment of isolation under the pandemic.  

On the question of what the unique value of play therapy is, Dr. Yumiko said:

“There’s a saying in play therapy circles: ‘Play is their language. Toys are their worlds.’ Play language is universal. All kids—no matter where they were born, live—they play. When they come to the States to a totally different culture not knowing the language, the play brings familiarity to them. Naturally, they play and they are at ease with the language of play. That is one of the beautiful things that the play therapy can bring because they are adjusting so much when they move to the U.S. and especially with the trauma. We are just asking them to use their natural language to express. This is the unique value of using play. The universality of play is comforting to the kids.”

KIND is proud of this partnership, and through this and other programming, we continue our commitment to the mental health of our clients.