Kristy A. Brumfield, Ph.D., watched the 8-year-old girl climb up on the table in the playroom. The girl stood, looking at Brumfield from her new perch.
“You look like you’re not sure about being up there,” Brumfield said.
“No, I’m fine!” the girl replied breezily. “I bet you’re scared I’m going to fall.”
“Sounds like you know you could fall off that table, and if you fall, you’re going to get hurt,” Brumfield said.
“Yeah, but I’m not going to fall,” the girl insisted. She climbed off the table, but then grabbed a jump rope and climbed back on.
Brumfield was nervous, but the table was wide and sturdy. She considered intervening but decided not to get into a power struggle. She knew the girl had developed a talent for holding her ground when her teacher and grandmother told her what to do. It would mean so much more if she could decide on her own to get down rather than having an adult tell her to do that, Brumfield thought.
The girl started to jump rope, and Brumfield watched her expression change as she realized the adult in the room wasn’t going to make her get off the table.
“You know, I don’t think it’s safe for me to be up here,” the girl said, and got down.
Remembering this incident later, Brumfield reflected, “I really wanted my playroom to be a different kind of place for her.” As a result of Brumfield’s choice not to engage in a battle of wills, the girl learned that she needed to set her own boundaries.
Brumfield’s work is all play—for her clients, that is. She is a registered play therapist and an associate professor in the Graduate Psychology and Counseling Department at Immaculata. She works primarily with children ages 3 through 11, practicing child-centered play therapy, a specific theoretical model that uses a non-directive approach.
During sessions with “Dr. Kristy,” as children call her, play becomes a tool for them to explore themselves and their emotions, process their experiences, build skills and resilience, relieve stress, exercise some control over their environment, and enjoy some freedom and spontaneity.
“Play is like a child’s language, and toys are the child’s words,” Brumfield tells the children’s caregivers. Play therapists interpret children’s play behaviors as a form of communication about their feelings and experiences.
Play therapists also create a place of safety for children. As Brumfield noted in a paper she co-wrote for the American Counseling Association’s online collection of peer-reviewed articles, “Child-centered play therapy presents the idea that children can develop and mend when a positive and nurturing environment is provided for them.”
Referencing the work of Garry Landreth, a professor and counselor who developed child-centered play therapy, Brumfield says her goal is to communicate to children, “I’m here, I hear you, I understand, and I care.”
“I am simply trying to be with them, trying to understand them and listen to them, in a way that perhaps they are not understood in other settings,” Brumfield said. She understood her jump-roping 8-year-old client’s desire to try out something adventurous and test some boundaries.
“This is a very powerful thing for children to be able to learn how to control themselves, rather than having this external control [from adults],” Brumfield said.
Brumfield adds that, earlier in her career, “I did not immediately trust that children would be able to come under their own control that way.” But she has seen the benefits of giving children some freedom to gain a sense of mastery and to make certain choices on their own—a critical part of children’s development into healthy adults.
Brumfield frequently consults with parents and caregivers, teaching them strategies for modifying their children’s behavior and recommending age-appropriate books for them to read with their children about issues such as grief, making friends, or adjusting to a new sibling.
Brumfield talks with parents about general themes she sees in their children’s play. “I’ve noticed some aggression in your child’s behavior,” she might say. “Where might that aggression be coming from?”
In addition to her work with parents, Brumfield helps educate teachers about realistic, developmentally appropriate expectations for children. She smiles as she remembers a visit she made to a preschool classroom where some of the children were wandering around the classroom.
“They were just being 3-year-olds. There was nothing wrong with them!” Brumfield said, laughing. She was quick to empathize with the teachers’ frustrations while also encouraging them not to “try to teach a cat to bark!” Teachers can face external pressures to prepare children for the next grade level, so Brumfield gently encourages them to trust that their students will get there at their own pace.
While “inhibited behavior is more valued in school settings,” Brumfield says, “being able to be spontaneous and free and child-like is something that I want to see for children.” In the playroom, a context that allows children more autonomy than a classroom, Brumfield tries not to set limits unless they are necessary. She tells her clients, “This is the playroom, and you can choose to play with the toys in many ways.”
She is careful not to say, “in any way.” Brumfield doesn’t allow her clients to behave violently or to deliberately break or steal toys. But even when it comes to enforcing these limits, she tries to give children some latitude. “Sometimes I think, ‘Did that car just go in that child’s pocket?’ But I don’t criminalize them or pat them down before they leave my playroom. I always use it as a reminder to myself—oh, I should be paying better attention!’” she said, laughing.
Brumfield then helps children identify and label their feelings. “I try to use more words than just ‘mad, sad, glad, scared,’ so that they expand their feelings vocabulary,” she said.
Brumfield doesn’t expect children to analyze their feelings or engage in the kind of problem-solving that teenagers or adults could do. “Little children are so concrete, and problem-solving is abstract,” she said. But some children may discover coping strategies on their own, and Brumfield helps them notice this: blowing bubbles, for example.
After sessions end, Brumfield fills out a summary form that helps her evaluate the dynamics of children’s behavior on a scale—low activity versus high activity, constructive versus destructive, messy versus neat, solitary play versus inclusion of the therapist. Ideally, Brumfield wants to see children strike a healthy balance between these extremes. That can be a sign that the children no longer need to see her for therapy.
“Any child I’ve seen for more than a couple of months, I’ve been able to observe noted differences in them, primarily in the sense of the ability to self-regulate, the ability to identify their emotions and feelings, [and] the ability to do some developmentally appropriate goal-setting,” Brumfield said.
With her more than 10 years of experience as a play therapist, Brumfield has led many play therapy workshops for therapists and graduate students. This past summer, she taught Immaculata’s first play therapy class. Students took an interest in the discipline, so Brumfield hopes to offer more classes soon.
Her students sometimes comment that play therapy is like magic—it’s surprising that something so simple can benefit children so much, often in ways that are difficult to explain.
“I don’t always know why play therapy works,” Brumfield said, “but I’ve seen it work.” She often says to parents, “I don’t always understand everything your child does, and I’m okay with that. And I need for you to be okay with that, but be able to trust that it all has a purpose, and all of it is working to be able to get your child to where they need to be.”