Professor Taps into Therapeutic Power of Child’s Play

Last Updated on May 19, 2016 at 3:41 pm

Originally published May 4, 2016

By Daniel Perez

UTEP Communications

Hortencia Tibuni has been a school counselor for 18 years. By all accounts, she has served her students well, but she wanted to enhance her counseling skills – and she was not alone.

The counselor at Rosa Guerrero Elementary School in West El Paso knew from conversations with peers that there was interest in learning how to better communicate with students. She admitted as much to a student teacher intern from The University of Texas at El Paso, who excitedly shared what she learned about child-centered play therapy from Sang Min Shin, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling.

Sang Min Shin, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling, trains a group of elementary school counselors on child-centered play therapy techniques inside UTEP's Education Building. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

Sang Min Shin, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling, trains a group of elementary school counselors on child-centered play therapy techniques inside UTEP’s Education Building. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

Tibuni said she allowed students to use a sandbox, a doll house and Legos during their sessions, but was curious to learn Shin’s perspective on play therapy. The counselor contacted Shin and the two organized a daylong training for 15 elementary school counselors in April 2016 to study the therapeutic power of play.

Play therapy was developed in the early 20th century as a way to open lines of communication with children ages 3-12 or children who experience emotional and behavioral difficulties. Empirical research supports play therapy as a way to help children address their challenges.

“There is a big need for counseling and our skills need to be up to date,” said Tibuni, who earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1989 and a master’s in guidance counseling in 1996 from UTEP. She said the counselors at the training, most with at least 12 years of experience, were grateful to Shin and eager to implement what they learned. “We’re excited because now we know what today’s (UTEP) students know.”

The counselors sat at several large tables with tote bags filled with selected toys from three categories: nurturing (phones, kitchen sets, doctor kits, babies, doll house), aggressive (guns, knives, toy soldiers, handcuffs, balloon punching doll), and creative (arts and crafts supplies, Play-Doh, bubbles).

Shin used the toys to model different scenarios to demonstrate child-centered play therapy skills and techniques. She also suggested ways to share pertinent information with parents and guardians without breaking confidentiality. The engaged trainees asked questions and often reacted to Shin’s answers as if the proverbial light bulb went on above their heads.

The UTEP professor said her interest in play therapy started as an undergraduate volunteer in the play therapy lab at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea. It is one of the country’s leading institutions in the field. She noticed the play therapy’s positive effects on children. Shin earned her graduate degree in clinical community counseling at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and her doctorate in counseling and counselor education from the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Elementary school counselors from El Paso Independent School District participate in Shin's play therapy training. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

Elementary school counselors from El Paso Independent School District participate in Shin’s play therapy training. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

She said playing is natural to children and requires little to no language. Within play therapy sessions, children have opportunities to explore their own feelings. How they feel about their experiences during their sessions help them to change their behaviors after the session. It empowers the children and encourages them to continue.

“Use the play therapy sessions to build a rapport and let the child lead where the session goes,” said Shin, an award-winning educator, nationally certified counselor and play therapy researcher. “Child-centered play therapy focuses on encouragement that helps children build their own internal evaluation process focused on their efforts.”

Christine Maldonado, a counselor at Guerrero Elementary School since January 2014, said she attended the training to learn more about play therapy. She was most impressed with Shin’s efforts to provide counselors with a worthwhile experience and her promises of follow-up support. The counselor said the experience has given her additional confidence in her ability to help her students by knowing what to say and do as they play with items in her counseling room.

“I have a better understanding now,” said Maldonado, who earned her bachelor’s in psychology from UTEP in 2006.

Alejandra Sanchez, one of two graduate assistants who helped Shin at the training, said she became interested in play therapy after taking a course with Shin during the fall 2015 semester.

“I thought it was fascinating,” said the first-generation college student who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2014 from UTEP. The El Paso native expects to earn her master’s degree in counseling in May 2017. “It’s an effective way to communicate with children.”

Shin said she looks forward to additional opportunities to share her expertise. One example is a May 2016 training with staff from the City of El Paso’s Parks and Recreation department.

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