Teaching and Healing Through Play

By Lara Cannon, MA, LPC

A parent once asked me a serious question after one of our play therapy sessions, “all we do is
play together, when does the real work begin?”

I loved that question and I’ve spent several years coming up with the following response.

How do children learn best?

It turns out that children learn best when they are calm, curious, engaged, and safe. Imagine a
sleepy mother bear sunning herself in the forest while her cubs tumble and roughhouse around
her. This is an ideal learning environment for bears. The cubs are playfully learning and
rehearsing survival skills with one another under the watchful protection of their very chill
mother. If she senses danger, or stands up in alarm, her cubs will instantly stop playing and
move to her for protection. Our mammal body and brain function in a similar way. When we feel
safe and at ease, our body does a lot of important work, even repair work on a cellular level.
Play can even help our skin glow with health! It also creates space in us to explore and
imagine. When we do not feel safe, emotionally or physically, our sympathetic nervous system
(or fight or flight) jumps into action. The more stressful the situation, the more our open, thinking
and curious mind powers down.

When a child is spending too much time in fight or flight, they are not spending enough time
playing and creating and discovering the world around them. Play is real work for children. In
fact, the more play we see the more brain development we know is going on inside.

How to raise a problem solver

If you want to raise a good problem solver, create opportunities for your child to play with their
hands. Tinkering, poking, stacking, stretching, building, and re-building…all of these skills
support our adult ability to solve problems in the future. The ability to consider different
perspectives in our mind begins with turning real objects with our hands. Building forts, stacking
blocks, sculpting with clay, and creating with LEGO are great ways to raise a human with the
ability to solve complex problems in the future.

Play is the best teacher

Play is also an ideal way to teach children with ADHD the skills they need to manage symptoms
or get along better with others. Playful interactions with a loving and calm parent opens a child
to learning and growth. It also soothes emotions and reduces defensiveness-or a disengaged

If your child is feeling closed off, detached, hopeless, withdrawn, or lonely a wonderful way to
begin the healing process is through play. A child will often be willing to take greater risks when
it is “just for fun.”

As a professional observer of play, I am constantly amazed by what play reveals. I have never
seen the same play twice. Each child brings with them their unique blend of creativity and play
that gives us hints about the adult they will become. Some children are storytellers, others are
movers, competitors, leaders, or collectors. Some are artists or inventors. Some are
adventurers or comedians. The blend tells us what uniquely motivates and inspires them.

It turns out that love and play are one in the same. We love because love feels good. We play
because play feels good. When we laugh with friends we bond with them. When we are at play
we are sharing love.

I sometimes imagine what a gift it would be to give every adult a recording of their childhood self
at play. In those moments, we see our true nature and what it feels like to be fully present and

In a similar way, when we begin a therapeutic relationship, it sometimes takes a lot of patience
and practice to help a child (and parent) open up to play. When we get there it feels so good–
and the real work of learning begins.

Why is it important to learn about ADHD?

By Adam Graves, LPC

There are a lot of myths about ADHD: “it only affects boys”, “kids grow out of it”, ” if my teen would just
try harder they would be successful”, “it only impacts school performance”…

Much of what we know about ADHD today is dramatically more advanced than what we knew – or
thought we knew – 20 or 30 years ago. We now know that ADHD impacts people of all ages, sexes, and
ethnicities. It is a complex, chronic problem in the brain that impacts all areas of daily life. AND, there is
tremendous variability in symptoms. Stand three people with ADHD side-by-side and you will see three
very different sets of ADHD symptoms. The magnitude of the variability and complexity can be

You might be asking: “How can I learn about ADHD?”

There is a tried and true therapeutic method called “psychoeducation” which describes the process of
teaching clients with mental health challenges and their family members about the nature of ADHD,
including its causes, progression, consequences of inadequate treatment, prognosis, and best
therapeutic practices. Not only do psychoeducational methods IMPART knowledge but they also help
parents and youth APPLY that knowledge in their daily lives.

Learning as much as you can from your therapist and other reputable sources can help you and your
family understand your child’s “brand” of ADHD. Gaining understanding increases feelings of
empowerment and mastery. Taking a “learning stance” will help you face the challenge of growing your
skills for supporting your child.

What resources are available?

ADHD Child and Family Services has a series of parent education groups that can be accessed virtually.
Your child’s therapist is an especially good resource about your child’s particular “brand” of ADHD. There
are resources online and in written form – consult with your child’s therapist at the next parent-only
session if you have questions about a resource you found.

Summer and Schedules

By Sarah Moyer, MA

There are many things that go together, and many things that do not.

Summer and schedules — don’t. Summertime is renowned for freedom and fun. I encourage families to take advantage of the countless opportunities the Oregon summer offers, such as
family vacations, camps, and outdoor activities including hiking, biking, swimming, and playing
at the park.

I also believe schedules are important, even during this season. Regular routines embedded
into our daily schedules allow for predictability. Predictability promotes a sense of order,

As a parent of a child diagnosed with ADHD, you may be thinking:

“My child is hyperactive, impulsive, and actually likes spontaneity.”


“The mundanity and boredom is my child’s worst nightmare!”

While this may be true, it is also true that children with ADHD (and without ADHD) benefit from
predictability. Predictability promotes a sense of order, familiarity, and safety. As a result, the
brain, more specifically its executive function system, is not highly activated; meaning the brain
does not have to expend much energy or effort to organize thoughts, feelings, and actions.
The inverse is also true: unpredictability requires the brain to expend more energy or effort to
organize thoughts, feelings, and actions.

To simplify this idea, the analogy of a gas tank is often used to demonstrate how the brain’s
executive function system operates. In a day, the tank has a certain amount of fuel, which is
dependent upon a number of factors including sleep, nutrition, stress, genetics, and more.
Throughout the day fuel is being used. Predictability established by schedules and routines
require minimal fuel, whereas unpredictability, such as anything new and/or different, requires
much more fuel.

How much “fuel” is being used? Maybe this summer you have noticed that your child seems
more emotional, easily irritated, or overwhelmed? Their tank may be nearing empty, and they
could benefit from conserving fuel and refueling. A way to conserve fuel may be to (re)introduce
some schedules and routines. Below is a short list of ideas to consider:

  • Consistent bedtime and wakeup time. It is known that sleep is important for health and
    wellness, and is even more so important for children and adolescents. Oftentimes, bedtime tends to be a little bit later during the summer as a result of the longer days. A consistent and reasonable bedtime may result in best outcomes. Wakeup time seems to vary significantly by age, whether you have a child who wakes up at the crack of dawn or an adolescent who can sleep until noon. Again, consistent and reasonable wakeup times may result in best outcomes.
  • Morning routine. With no school during the summer, most children are not racing out
    the door in the morning. As a result, it is common for morning routines to slip, including
    those around age-appropriate self-care (dental care, dressing). If you notice this may be
    the case, fine-tuning the first ten minutes of the day will help conserve fuel. It may be as
    simple as a 5-10 list of tasks to complete, depending on your child’s age and ability. Start
    with fewer tasks and then add more over time. Visuals can also be used, such as simple

    • Morning Routine: 
      1. Go to the bathroom
      2. Brush teeth
      3. Brush hair
      4. Get dressed
      5. Breakfast/medication (?)
  • Screen Time. Screen time is often a contentious topic with children and adolescents,
    and understandably so, is a conversation parents are usually not eager to have with
    them. During the summer, screen time tends to increase amongst children and
    adolescents as they have easier access to screens and usually experience more
    boredom. They play video games, watch YouTube or TV, or scroll through social media. If
    you notice your child is engaging in more screen time than you feel comfortable with, it
    may be helpful to not only revisit family expectations or rules around screen time, but this
    is also an opportunity to provide some more structure and support for your child. Together
    brainstorm a list of ideas for combating boredom. This will look different depending on
    your child’s age and interests. Some ideas may be: take the dog for a walk, take the
    neighbor’s dog for a walk, go to the park, do an art project.

Again, this is a short list of ideas to consider. Hopefully it sparks some ideas for your child.
Because really, summer is an excellent time to have a little extra fun and sometimes that can be
challenging to do when your child’s fuel may be nearing empty. Hopefully some small changes
can make a noticeable difference! Enjoy!

Sarah Moyer
Professional Counselor Associate
ADHD Child & Family Services