Play therapy at Minwaashin Lodge lets indigenous children act out traumas in order to heal

In a play therapy room at an indigenous women's shelter in Ottawa, children are allowed to act out whatever they need to in order to heal.

'It can stop you for a moment, when you see what children have experienced'

Children place their figures in a sand box, and play with them there under Toni King's supervision. They'll often act out scenes from their lives, King says. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

In Toni King's play therapy room at Minwaashin Lodge, anything goes.

The big shelf holds the figurines for the children to choose from — dragons and dinosaurs, fighters, castles, babies, grandparents, nurses — anything they might encounter or imagine.

There are bakers and cameramen, police cars and fire trucks. Handcuffs. Wine bottles. Social workers. Knives. 

The children choose, and they take the figurines to the sand box.

What happens there can be called play, but it's really a lot more.


As long as they're using an inanimate object, the children are allowed to act out and show King whatever they need to.

"They are telling you a story. It's not just random play. They are telling you about their experiences, about their life, about what they're facing each day," King says.

King was surprised to learn that toy handcuffs are actually recommended for use in play therapy rooms. But she's glad she bought them — she says they're used quite a lot in her therapy room. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

In a 50- to 60-minute session, there might be five minutes that a child really gets down to telling their own story. King pays close attention, watching for the change in them.

Sometimes a child's face will turn red. Other times they might stomp their feet. Sometimes they hit a puppet, or bury them.

And sometimes, all a child can bring him or herself to do is lay down in the sand tray clutching a doll, covered in a blanket, for an hour.

"We just sit, however it needs to be," King says. "It's very, very powerful."

'You can just feel it in the room'

"The children that come in here, they've been exposed to or they've witnessed a violence within the home," King says. "It can stop you for a moment, when you see what children have experienced.

"It's a way of letting them really just release it, and I've watched them ... you can just feel it in the room ... And then they're done, and it's, 'what can I do now, Toni?' And they're just ready to go on."

We're not meant to have children, eight years old, 12 years old, taking their own lives. It can't be like this. It's got to stop.- Toni King

Sometimes what the children show her shakes King to her core, and she has to take a few moments to process it herself when the children leave.

King says she was adopted by a non-indigenous family, and that while she didn't experience domestic violence, she did experience a lot of racism.

"I suffered abuse in that home, and myself turned to alcohol to try and deal with the pain."

It was a sand tray play therapy training program that saved her, she says.

King funded to work part-time

Her play therapy program, called Children Who Witness, has been running in Ottawa since July after it received funding from the United Way. The money allows King to work part-time and she says there's already a waiting list.

King also lets children draw themselves and their feelings onto chalkboard figures. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

There's a play room at Minwaashin Lodge and another at a shelter.

The children King sees are often upset, she says, a product of "the historical trauma that our people have had and are continuing to deal with."

"I would say that often they're angry, ... and they have difficulty expressing the anger in appropriate ways because they have not witnessed it being expressed appropriately. So I give them the tools to express it in here, to try and teach them what's appropriate," she says.

When it's over, the children are given time to calm down. Sometimes she performs a smudging ceremony on them and the room. They also read books about anger and other feelings, how to let them move without hurting people or themselves.

'It can't be like this. It's got to stop'

"It is sad. It's tragic. It's hard to understand how we are at a point in this society where this continues to go on, where there aren't enough programs like this to help children. And then we wonder why children are having difficulties in school, why they're fighting, why there are bullies," King says.

Children can choose from dozens of figurines of people, or they can choose more figurative representations, including dragons and warriors. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

She's hoping she can eventually be funded to work full time, and that more programs like it get funding.

"Sadly, there is such a need. We need more programs like this, we need more funding, we need to help our children because they're in pain. ... There just needs to be more help," she says.

"We know, with the history we've had — the residential schools, the '60s scoop, which is what I'm from — there's been such a disconnect for our people, and we need to all work hard, because we just can't let ourselves continue like this. It's too sad. We have a culture so rich, we have our medicines, and it's important that we embrace all that we have and get back to those teachings where children are gifts. We are gifts to one another.

"We're not meant to abuse one another. We're not meant to put bruises and cuts on one another. We're not meant to have children, eight years old, 12 years old, taking their own lives. It can't be like this. It's got to stop."

Books on emotions and dollhouse rooms are also available for the children to choose from. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)
King has been operating the program part-time since it received funding from United Way last summer. She says there's already a waiting list to get in and that more programs like hers need funding. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)