School uses play therapy to help kids from struggling families
Structured Play

School uses play therapy to help kids from struggling families


SIOUX CITY -- The students at Hunt Elementary School may be the most challenged kids in the Sioux City Community School District, even before they get to school each day.

"Our kids struggle with things most kids take for granted," Hunt's principal, Amy Denney, said. "They don't know how to play. They don't have a backyard. They're doubled-up in houses or are refugees from a place where children couldn't play outside safely."

Denney said some of her students have seen a number of traumatic events before they even start kindergarten: a parent abused, deported or evicted, a family member murdered in another country, or they may have lived in a refugee camp.

Perhaps understandably, their parents may not play with them at home, or even teach them games to play.

Ninety-three percent of Hunt students qualify for the free-and-reduced-price lunch program, meaning their families likely struggle daily with such concerns as housing, transportation and food. And an increasing number have fled with their family from Ethiopia to take refuge here. In addition, more than half of Hunt students are likely to move out of or into that school before the end of the academic year, adding instability to their children's lives.


The Junior League of Sioux City aims to change that. It is partnering this year with Midwest Trauma Services Network and Morningside College. Five students of Morningside nursing professor Jackie Barber volunteered to implement a play-to-learn therapy curriculum in Maureen Vandenbroucke's first-grade classroom, one of three first grades at Hunt.

The curriculum, called Structured Play, was developed by Sioux City-based Midwest Trauma's mental health professionals for children who have been traumatized. Director Frank Grijalva, who has a master's degree in public health with a focus on child mental health, adapted the play therapy for use at school, where all children seem to benefit.

"Essentially, it's designed to increase socialization skills for children," Grijalva said as he watched the nursing students lead a recent Structured Play session involving a colorful parachute in Vandenbroucke's classroom.

"Socialization precedes learning," he explained. "Children who don't play well don't learn well."

"Hunt has high turnover. Some children barely have time to adapt," he said. Children from low-income families are also likely to have more exposure to violent and traumatic events. They tend to be on guard and to develop behavior problems, Grijalva added.

The parents of William Francisco, 7, emigrated from Guatemala to Sioux City. He lives with them, his brother and two sisters in a one-bedroom apartment, where room for play is scarce.

"We just watch TV," he said. Mostly it's DVDs, such as "Alvin and the Chipmunks." When it's not cold outside the kids might play tag or hide-and-seek, he said.

This is William's second year in Maureen Vandenbroucke's first-grade class. He chose not to talk in kindergarten and then had trouble taking in all the new material last year.

But he has blossomed since the twice-weekly Structured Play sessions began this year. William is learning well and has become good at helping other students. He doesn't give them the answers, Vandenbroucke said. He prompts them until they figure it out themselves.

"That came from Structured Play," she said, where everyone has to do his own part and encourage others in doing theirs.

Perla Jaramillo is 7 and in her first year at Hunt. She has a brother, 8. But when she plays at home it's by herself, on her pink NintendoDS. "My new dad doesn't play games together," she said.


The Morningside nursing students spent three days this fall training with Grijalva and then worked with the first-grade class twice a week over five weeks, ending a week ago.

"They're trying to help the highest-risk kids to be able to adjust to new situations, work with each other and to respond appropriately," Grijalva said, noting that teamwork is increasingly important in the world these students will enter.

One game they play is to stand in a circle with each child holding the edge of a parachute with a ball in the middle. Each one must work as part of the team, raising and lowering their arms in the right sequence to make the ball roll around in a circle near the edge of the parachute. "One! Two! Three!" they count together. When someone is distracted or doesn't raise his or her arms in time, they simply laugh and start again. No blaming. Another game is to lower and raise a horizontal Hula-Hoop as a team while touching it only with straightened fingers.

"At the same time, the kids aren't hearing criticism or feeling fear," Grijalva said as he watched. "They hear laughter and they're having fun. They begin developing speech around feeling connected. They feel joy and success. That feeds our central nervous system, also our esteem."

The students even learned that it's OK to say goodbye. That's what they needed to say to the Morningside students on Nov. 11, after their last Structured Play session. Professor Barber said the pilot project was so successful that she will teach the Structured Play techniques in her community health course next semester.

Before that, the nursing students who worked with Hunt this semester will test the children in all three first-grade classrooms. They'll compare information from all three to determine the effects of Structured Play on Vandenbroucke's students.

If the mighty hugs the students used to greet the nursing students and to say goodbye to them are any measure, Structured Play gets an A+.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the educational background of Frank Grijalva. It has been corrected in this version. 


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