How therapist Carley Aroldi brings play into her practice
“I think of myself as a play detective… Play, especially for children, is a kind of language. And the more we allow it, the more we can heal.”
Any parent knows how hard it can be to get kids to open up about what’s going on at school, at daycare, or just in their heads. Carley Aroldi does it for a living. After trying the conventional route, she found that the most effective tool to get through to her 7-year-old clients was play.
We talked to her about how she uses play in her practice, how it’s helped her make progress in her own life as a parent and a professional, and why she’s spent entire therapy sessions in toy handcuffs.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Stacie Blanke (Speechless): Let’s start with the basics. How did you become a play therapist?
Carley Aroldi: Well, I was trained in traditional talk therapy, but I knew I wanted to work with kids. And what’s fascinating is that I did years of therapy training knowing I was going to work with kids and no one ever taught me about play. So, I get out into the field and I’m sitting with a seven-year-old asking again and again, “what’s wrong?” And they’re like, “nothing.” I’m thinking back to like the first year of practice and honestly, I just hope those kids are okay [laughs].
It was a year of doing that as a therapist before I said, “you want to play UNO?” Then things started to come out. That’s when I decided to get formally trained in play therapy.
Lindsey (Speechless): So, how does play therapy differ from conventional talk therapy?
Carley: When you’re training in the therapeutic program they’ll you need to hold your body stiller; be a statue. It’s kind of an old-school, Freudian way of thinking, right? Like you are the one with the answers, you are the person that people are coming to to inform or guide them. Like, “I’m going to tell you my dream and you’re going to tell me what’s wrong with me.” And now there’s this understanding of no, it’s about the relationship.
It’s about asking, “how safe does this person feel when they’re with me?” And you feel a lot safer when you’re with a therapist that is mirroring, connecting, and being their genuine selves, not trying to be this perfect, blank slate.
Movement is so important, too. When we train as talk therapists we’re just sitting in a chair, and there’s total value to that. But, now, I do a quick shake out with my clients before every single session. When we move our bodies, we’re so much more accessible, more expressive.
Stacie: What kinds of things can we learn through play?
Carley: Well, we can’t hide in play. As soon as we’re playing and relaxed and comfortable, that’s when kids start to talk about, “oh, this kid at school did this” or “mom didn’t do that.” I think of myself like a “play detective.” I notice what toys they gravitate to. Are they going for aggressive stuff? Are they going for nurturing things?
I’ve done 40-minute sessions where the kid has me in toy handcuffs the entire time. But in that moment, that kid may just need some power. They may not feel like they have power anywhere else their life.
You might ask a kid, “pick out people in your family from my toys.” Maybe the dad is a big dragon and the kid is a little mouse. You learn so much more about their family dynamic and perception than you do sitting for 10 minutes trying to get to their story.
Lindsey: Do you think kids today are play-deprived?
Carley: Yes, particularly unstructured play. So much of our children’s way of being right now is structured. But unstructured time is where they create; it’s where they imagine; where they problem-solve.
We also do so much policing of play. After September 11th, all kids wanted to do is build block towers and fly their planes into them. And sometimes as adults, we want to limit that. We’re like, “no, no, no, don’t play that way.” But play, especially for children is their language. That’s how they’re telling you, Whoa, I’m having a hard time with this. I’m trying to express it. And the more we allow it, the more they can heal.
Stacie: What advice can you give to parents about holding space for play at a time like this?
Carley: Release the need to do everything perfectly — especially with virtual school. Release the need to make sure they hit every benchmark right now and use this time to allow what might come. Allow your kids to express themselves through their play right now. This is golden time. It’s golden to be able to witness it.
So much of parenting (and therapy) is improv. We don’t always know what we’re going to have to bring out. In sessions, I don’t have a lesson plan. I have to ask, “what do we need in this moment?” What is this, what do we need to do right now?
Stacie: What about just generally, for adults (with or without children)?
Carley: Remember the importance of play for yourself. Make that time. Literally, put it in your calendar. Structured, unstructured time. When we think play, we tend to think, oh, you have to get dolls out or play make-believe. But play is anything that brings you joy; anything that lights you up, that’s play.
As adults, play allows us to just be right. We don’t have to do, we don’t have to produce. Not to get too spiritual, but when I think about play, it’s like a path between our knowingness and our being-ness. We’re always rehashing the past or rehearsing the future, but when we’re playing, we’re fully present. That’s where the magic happens.
Carley Aroldi is a licensed professional counselor, registered play therapist and infant/family mental health specialist. She has been supporting individuals and families through play for over a decade and believes that creative endeavors are the best way to access our highest and best selves.
Want to make play a part of your daily practice? Speechless working on an on-demand platform to help you make improv a part of your everyday. Learn more about our newest project, Speechless+ here and join our waitlist to be part of our first cohort of users.