Play therapy sounds like fun, but Jennifer Baggerly takes it very seriously.
Baggerly, a psychological and social foundations professor at USF, uses play therapy, a mix of games, puzzles and skits, to help kids deal with traumatic events and anxiety in a fun and stress-free environment. In her role as a play therapist, Baggerly has helped children dealing with abuse in Florida and children in Sri Lanka traumatized by the tsunami. This year the USF professor will use the technique to help children deal with the hurricane season.
Being involved in a process that helps children deal with fears has exposed Baggerly to some unpalatable truths about children’s home lives. The USF professor and her students were using the therapy in Sulphur Springs when they discovered that many of the children had encountered sexual abuse — the children acted out abuse through play.
“We recognized that many of the children had been exposed to sexual abuse, and we were concerned that it was going to be an epidemic,” Baggerly said. “One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress after an abuse incident is that children will act out on other children.”
Her experience at Sulphur Springs led Baggerly to obtain a grant to help. “Part of the project was developing a hip-hop song that would help children with sexual abuse safety and a puppet show that would help children learn the ways to keep themselves safe from sexual abuse.”
The program teaches kids when to recognize abuse, where to recognize abuse and what to do if they are in danger. Sulphur Springs was originally targeted due to the high number of sexual predators and children, but it isn’t related solely to that area.
“It is basically something the schools can implement. It is a stand-alone program, so I don’t have to be an integral part of it,” Baggerly said.
Copies of the program were given to the Hillsborough County child abuse council, the Sulphur Springs school system and the Sulphur Springs Community Health Center.
After the tsunami disaster in December, Baggerly was asked to join a relief mission in Sri Lanka to help children cope with the catastrophic events they had witnessed.
“It was very gratifying to be able to take what I have learned with the children here in Sulphur Springs, and also at the Metropolitan Ministries homeless shelter, and give it to the children in Sri Lanka,” Baggerly said. “It was satisfying to see that some of the same things from the interventions I used could be used over there.”
Baggerly was one of 17 play therapists who went and, although saddened by the state of things, she was happy she could help the children. “The children were beautiful kids and responded well to our play therapy techniques, and teachers responded well to the training we provided,” Baggerly said. “Now I am working with a USF Sri Lankan professor — Dr. Manjriker Gunaratne in civil engineering — to develop a long-term grant so that USF can do long-term rehabilitation and intervention in Sri Lanka.”
With this long-term plan, Baggerly aims to bring over Sri Lankan teachers, health professionals and engineers and train them so they can go back to Sri Lanka and become trainers themselves. Even though this program is in the planning stages, two teachers from Sri Lanka are coming to USF this summer to learn from Baggerly.
“Teachers from Sri Lanka that we worked with are coming over this summer to take a workshop that I am doing with the College of Public Health,” Baggerly said. “Two Sri Lankan ladies are coming over this summer for that.”
While keeping one eye on places abroad, Baggerly will focus on Florida in the upcoming months, where she plans on training the public health community to use play therapy techniques during the upcoming hurricane season.
“We are using the same play therapy interventions to train public health professionals here in Florida to intervene during the upcoming hurricanes,” Baggerly said. “So we are also applying this to hurricane intervention, anticipating a lot of hurricanes this year.”
Baggerly also plans to use her experience both in Sri Lanka and in Sulphur Springs to help children deal with the aftermath of the Florida hurricane season.