Unspoken Bonds

MSW Grad Malka Plotsker’s Work to Advance Play Therapy

January 15, 2014

The practice of play therapy offers children exactly what it promises: a chance to express themselves through games and toys in lieu of articulating what can be very complicated feelings. Straightforwardness of its name aside, play therapy is an incredibly nuanced method for approaching kids who’ve experienced trauma or are otherwise struggling behaviorally, and one that’s proven historically successful.

For 2010 GSSW grad Malka Plotsker, who was among the first participants in Touro’s Continuing Education Registered Play Therapist certification class, this kind of counseling has been foremost on her mind since she herself was very young. “I always wanted to go into a psychology-related field,” she recalls, adding, “The truth is I think my passion was always play therapy.”

After graduating with a Liberal Arts degree from Adelphi University, Plotsker zeroed in on acquiring her MSW at Touro, and explains that “once I was in the field, I loved all aspects,” and that she’s since worked with adults, teenagers and children. But her concentration has primarily rested in play therapy, which she views as being so important because “kids don’t always have the language to express themselves. Also, kids feel compelled to satisfy the adults in their lives. If a child’s sitting with a therapist and the therapist asks them a question, the child is most likely to answer in a way that they think the therapist will want. Play takes away all those barriers. It’s very non-directive.”

That last part is particularly crucial. The two central modes of play therapy are referred to as directive and non-directive. Plotsker clarifies that the latter is “when the child enters a room that has all the tools necessary to express themselves, such as Play-Doh, dolls, sand tray figures and miniatures, arts and crafts supplies—all different types of things that can be used to stimulate their imagination. The child plays with whatever they feel like in whatever way they want. As the therapy progresses, children often play out themes, play out their problems.”

Directive play, on the other hand, can include teaching relaxation techniques. “I’ll use bubbles very often to teach kids how to do deep breathings,” she says. “It’s done in a very playful way, but there’s a purpose. Very often, the older kids feel more comfortable when the therapist comes in with a specific goal, versus just saying you can play any way that you want. Most of the ways [they] want are not so safe for a 14 or 15-year-old.”

As Plotsker suggests, safety is a huge concern for both patient and therapist. And it’s equally significant for play therapists to remain patient and focused. It can take months or more to see real progress, but Plotsker advises bearing in mind that “it’s a lot about understanding the process. Even within regular therapy with adults, it takes time. So as long as I see [the children] are beginning to develop trust and express themselves within the first three months, I feel safe and secure that this will help them.”

Once her certification is complete, Plotsker intends to move forward with play therapy, not just as a counselor but as an advocate for the method and social work’s mission in general. “I definitely would like to advance the field of play therapy, especially in the New York area,” she says. “I’d like people to know there is such a thing as a registered play therapist. I’d like to shoot for a little bit more education of the general public. They should know that when they’re looking for a therapist for their child, they should be looking for a play therapist. The other goal is really just to give back to the community as much as I can.”