If children are too young to speak, it doesn’t mean that they haven’t
experienced painful and even traumatic events and that their hearts and souls
don’t ache. Play therapy provided by a professional can not only diagnose such
unspoken emotional anguish but can also alleviate and even cure it.
Suzi Kagan, the founder and president of the Association for Play Therapy-Israel
and professional counseling consultant to the popular Channel 2 program Super
Nanny, believes that toddlers as young as two and children up to the age of 10
who can’t verbalize their feelings easily or at all can greatly be helped with
Born and raised in Eilat to parents of Moroccan and
Azerbaijani origin, Kagan served in the IDF as a dental assistant and then
studied physics, biology and chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s
agriculture faculty in Rehovot. Then she and her husband, a computer
expert, went to Texas for his work with an Israeli company and remained there
for a decade. She used the opportunity to earn her master’s degree in school
counselling from Dallas Baptist University and her doctorate in counselling and
higher education at the University of North Texas in Dallas, where she learned
play therapy. They returned to Israel in 2005 with their two sons and one
daughter, now aged 15 to 10, and also recently became foster parents to a
But when they resettled here, they found that the move
had caused a crisis in their children.
“I try to separate my kids from my
work, but I decided to use toys to help them. None of them knew Hebrew
when we came back to Israel, as one of our sons was mistakenly diagnosed as
being mute; we were advised to use only one language so he would not be
confused, so after sign language, we went to English,” she recalls in an
interview with The Jerusalem Post.
But then at one Shabbat dinner, when
the silent toddler was two-and-a-half years old, he suddenly started to
“He said: ‘Pass the salt.’ I supposed he hadn’t needed salt
before,” Kagan recalls with amusement. “There had been an error in diagnosis,
and as I didn’t know how to diagnose language problems, I couldn’t disprove it.
Since that Shabbat dinner, he hasn’t stopped talking. He is now 10 and
A parent, she continues, “can help if he’s a
professional. But if there is no improvement, it is best to go for consultation.
Now all the kids are doing very well and feel completely at home in Israel, they
are even regarded as gifted.”
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During the first three years of life, the
right hemisphere of the brain is dominant; sensory information from the left
side of the body crosses over to the right side of the brain, and the right
hemisphere is the primary domain of play, symbol and metaphor. The left
hemisphere, which is the primary center for logic, language and linear thinking,
doesn’t come online until a year and a half, when children speak their first
words. When no verbal memory is present, toddlers express their experience of
trauma through behavioral memories in the right brain. This is why play therapy
can be effective at a young age when the left brain is only
When Kagan learned of play therapy, she was enchanted by
“Virginia Axline, a student of psychologist Carl Rogers, initiated it
as a theoretician. She regarded the troubled child not as the problem but
as the center. She developed child-centered play therapy.”
Kagans returned to Israel, she found that although the therapy was hugely
popular in the US, it was not recognized by the Health Ministry as a profession
here, even though government offices use it.
“I found that only clinical
psychologists did it; they took a box of toys, gave it to a child did a
dramatization. It was not the focus of therapy but regarded as just another
Kagan decided to develop the field here for a wide range of
difficulties and stress sources faced by young children, including the birth of
a sibling, parental divorce, being in a road accident, and abuse – from the
normative to the pathological.
“I went from being a big name in play
therapy in the US to being a no-name here. I went to Bar-Ilan University’s
School of Social Work, but they said they had never heard of it. But they said
that if 10 students registered, they would agree to open a
Today, there are 100 students, most of them women, as psychology
is increasingly a woman’s profession – a year. There is even a waiting
list, said Kagan, who teaches at BIU’s School of Continuing Education, works
with her non-profit organization and has a private practice. The students
include social workers, clinical psychologists, doctors, nurses and others who
work in public or voluntary institutions or privately. Now the play therapy
association, which gives accreditation to students who earn a certificate after
two years of study, has some 100 members.
Toddlers as young as two and
even speaking children as old as 10 find it difficult to verbalize emotions.
Even teens and adults with bottled-up emotions can benefit from the techniques,
Kagan notes. She and BIU have established a play therapy clinic at the Jerusalem
Haredi College in the city’s Malha quarter for diagnosing and treating children
from ultra-Orthodox families. Kagan established a clinic in central Tel Aviv for
refugees from Darfur.
Her association also initiated a pilot program for
prisoners who are in for life.
“There is a very bad connection between
such people and their children. They don’t know how to speak to their kids even
on the phone. Visits in the institutions are even more difficult. But the kids
are entitled to know they have fathers and build a relationship with them. Women
in prison already receive a lot of help with this, but not the men.”
and her voluntary organization were allowed to work with the most difficult
cases – sex offenders and murderers. Because prison rules prevent taking
children there to play together with the fathers, she had to work solely with
“It’s a security problem,” she says. She and six of her
BIU students went to each prison and held sessions with 50 to 100 prisoners,
including Arabs who were not there for security offenses.
allowed even to bring films. We couldn’t bring plastic toy pistols or
handcuffs to act out; it’s against regulations. We worked with balls,
dinosaurs, markers and drawing boards.”
After six weeks, Kagan found that
fatherchild relationships began to change.
“We saw that communication on
the phone was better. They expressed their love and learned to call and say
goodnight. Even though they had committed horrible crimes and got a life
sentence, they love their kids. Those who go on leave on good behavior
especially benefited. The children could finally be be proud of having a
Among the many cases she has treated over the years, Kagan
recalls the case of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who demonstrated sexual
behavior not suited to her age.
“It was unusual, as her parents were
good-looking, intelligent and well off. I engaged her in play therapy. It turned
out that the father had raped the girl.”
Although Kagan testifies in
court about her diagnoses of abused children, she much prefers to use the
technique for treatment.
“It is short-term therapy, and it
works. Kids don’t have to speak, only play and act out. I quickly see
She notes that Israel has a high rate of selective
mutism – that for psychological rather than physiological reasons, a child
refuses to speak in some environments while talking in others. Play therapy,
Kagan says, can be very effective in resolving their problems.
there are claims of false memories in older children and adults, Kagan said that
play therapy indicating abuse doesn’t necessarily mean a young child has been
“We do check to find out whether they observed disturbing
behavior on TV or on the computer, though. There are children who are
traumatized by what they see on TV. There was an 11-year-old who saw on YouTube
a video of Jellyman who kills Spiderman and was very upset. Seeing Disney’s
with the baby deer’s mother dying in a fire can be traumatic to
children,” she says.
Kagan said she is not sorry that she did not study
to be a clinical psychologist.
“If I had, I would be focused on a problem
and not on the whole child. This shortens the treatment. It allows the child to
grow,” she says. Treatment is for a number of months, up to a maximum of a year.
“It never drags on beyond a year,” she adds.
Play therapy is not needed
for every troubled child, Kagan continues.
“If a child was brought in
because he was angry, wild and threatening to hit another child, I usually find
he doesn’t need such therapy. It is only a certain matter that upset him, for
example, that the other child called him a name. One can give advice to the
kindergarten teacher, to the parent or to the child himself and solve
The typical clinic therapy room has walls covered with shelves that
have a wide variety of toys. Each shelf is for a different category – art,
nurturing, aggression therapy and so on. The child enters and chooses the toy.
Books are not included. Kagan never makes any suggestions about what to choose.
Children angry over their parents’ divorce usually choose dolls to act
out. Sometimes she uses sand tray or sandbox therapy. Abroad, The Sims
computer games are used to construct virtual worlds, but Kagan has not yet tried
working with this.
Her association has set a minimum price of NIS 180 per
hour for play therapy, but this does not include low-income populations who get
major discounts. In private clinics in well-off neighborhoods, the per-hour fee
by therapists can reach NIS 400.
“There is a minimum price, but no
maximum price. We supply services to government ministries and institutions,”
In another decade, she expects there will be many more play
“We will understand the world of children better. We
will know how to pay more attention to them. And I am sure that by then there
will be recognition by the various authorities that play therapy can really be
effective.”Those interested in learning more about play therapy in
Israel can contact Dr. Kagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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