Powerful Play

Nazareth expands much-needed children's therapy through a pilot with Greece, New York, schools.

by Sally Parker

Shae D'Arcangelis playing with a young child

Shae D'Arcangelis ’21, ’22G demonstrates play therapy at West Ridge Elementary School, Greece, New York. To protect confidentiality, this photo does not include a child served by the program.

Social work graduate students at Nazareth College are using play therapy techniques to help young children who are struggling with mental health issues. Their work is at the center of a pilot collaboration between the College and Greece Central School District, a large, diverse, and growing district.

Alarmed by the rising level of distress many students are exhibiting, Greece district administrators reached out last year to Leanne Charlesworth, chair of the Social Work Department at Nazareth, to discuss ways of working together. Stephen Demanchick, professor and chair of Nazareth’s creative arts therapy department at Nazareth, was recruited to help.

Demanchick supervises Greece’s play therapy practicum as well as Nazareth’s play therapy program and clinic. The clinic has a waiting list; demand for these services is at a critical level, with few community therapists equipped to work with children. With Greece, Demanchick saw an opportunity to greatly expand access.

“We pitched the idea to them,” says Jim Garner, a district social worker. “They not only took it and ran with it, but they let it grow.”

In a dedicated play therapy space at West Ridge Elementary School, children in pre-K through second grade express emotions through fantasy or pretend play, in solo sessions with a counselor.

“Kids this age don’t always have the cognitive ability to say what’s on their mind, but they have a whole host of things going on,” Demanchick says. “We let them show us their world. We look for themes in the play, offer empathy, and encourage self-direction and autonomy.”

Toys help children share the feelings they keep inside. A shark with big teeth can represent aggression, and a doll can bring up nurturing. The space is also stocked with art and music items, building blocks, and sand trays.

“The idea is that as kids play things out in the playroom, they gain mastery over those difficulties,” Demanchick says. “If a child is anxious, for example, they can play out their fear and gain support for being powerful over that fear.”

Nazareth social work students can take the MSW program’s three-course specialization in play therapy. With Demanchick’s guidance, MSW students Izabella Kimber ’21, ’22G and Shae D’Arcangelis ’21, ’22G built the Greece program from scratch. They quickly became part of the faculty team, providing crisis intervention, creating a dedicated space, giving presentations on play therapy to teachers and social workers, setting up a referral process, and participating in student support meetings. Feedback from staff and teachers has been enthusiastic.

“Not a lot of college students get to create and start up a program from nothing. That was what excited me the most,” Kimber says.

The pandemic has intensified what was already a global crisis in children’s social and emotional health, D’Arcangelis adds. “Growing up in a COVID world,” she says, “children need to learn the proper skills to be successful, and play therapy is a great opportunity for that.”

Demanchick hopes the Greece pilot will spur more awareness and services, starting with training social workers and equipping more MSW students with the specialization. Charlesworth adds that the project could expand to other districts.

“Greece has provided a great deal of support, and they’ve leveraged the resources we need to make delivery effective,” she says. “It’s been a wonderful reciprocal relationship this year and, we hope, for years to come.”

Sally Parker is a writer in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley.

Izzy Kimber playing with a young child

Izabella Kimber ’21, ’22G at West Ridge Elementary School, Greece, New York. To protect confidentiality, this photo does not include a child served by the program.

Wider Connections

Play therapy is one part of a new Naz-Greece School District partnership created to support children and school families, drawing on Naz expertise in education and health/human services. Nazareth education students have taken college courses in Greece elementary schools. College and school district leaders presented about the collaboration at a 2021 statewide conference on educational innovation for equity and excellence.

Award winning: Greece Central School District honored Nazareth May 3, 2022, with a Power of Partnership award for teaming up to support children and families through multiple interprofessional initiatives.

Izzy Kimber and Shae D'Arcangelis

Izabella Kimber ’21, ’22G and Shae D’Arcangelis ’21, ’22G