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Exploring a child's world through play

CMU has mid-Michigan’s only play therapy graduate course

Contact: Dan Digmann

​​​Excitement would light up any child's face if they were to be introduced to Central Michigan University's play therapy training program. Toys of every kind line the walls and shelves in the colorful, fun space within the College of Education and Human Services. Excitement, joy and a spectrum of other emotions are exactly what registered play therapist Darlene Chen aims for.

"Play is a child's language," said Chen, CMU assistant professor of counseling. "Play therapy can address a lot of concerns such as anxiety, depression and behavioral issues."

Play therapy is an approach used to help children express themselves and explore their world through play. CMU's play therapy training course is the only one of its kind in mid-Michigan. Chen, also the clinic director at CMU's Center for Community Counseling and Development, said the unique training practiced here can have big benefits.

"We provide a safe and therapeutic environment for children to express a variety of emotions and communicate how they are feeling by playing," she said.

The clinic, staffed by graduate students in the professional counseling program, serves children, adolescents and adults. It serves a dual purpose as a training facility, providing CMU students an opportunity to advance counseling skills by working directly with clients. The clinic has the capacity to serve about eight children at a time each week, and the play therapy process benefits both children and their families and counselors in training.

"Students who have this type of hands-on experience are well-equipped to go into their profession," Chen said. "Depending on their interests, they have the potential to go into a private practice, work with community agencies or join the staff at hospitals or schools."


Zoe Lincoln, a CMU student pursuing her master's degree in professional counseling, relished the opportunity she had to work directly with children through the program.

"Someday I'd like to be a play therapist within a school or school district," said Lincoln, a Fremont native. "I like having the ability to reach those students who need it the most, and unlike the children brought to a private practice, many parents don't know play therapy is an option or resource in schools."

Chen started her career in a school as a kindergarten teacher. She was challenged by her students when they had emotional and behavioral issues before she discovered play therapy.

"I love working with children, but I didn't have training to deal with behavioral or emotional issues when I was in the classroom," she said. "I want to help more mental health professionals, school counselors, teachers and parents learn how to work with children when they express those same issues."

More information about CMU's Center for Community Counseling and Development is available on the Counseling and Special Education department website.​

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