Let Your Life Speak Interview: The Healing Power of Play
An interview with Marit Appeldoorn, MSW, LICSW,RPT-S
What is the Let Your Life Speak Interview?
Carefully choosing who you surround yourself with is one of the most important things you can do to develop constructive habits, reduce stress, and increase longevity. Integrity is a habit, just like any other behavior that you engage in repeatedly. It is not an attitude or a belief; it is a practice. I depend on surrounding myself with people who are pursuing lives of integrity in order to continue learning how best to cultivate my own integrity.
Focusing your media consumption— what you read and watch— on people and stories that grapple with how to practice integrity also has a tremendous effect on the likelihood that you can successfully cultivate your own integrity. We are a species that learns by example, so increasing the examples you encounter will, inevitably, increase your learning.
Because I’m a bit of a data geek, I’ll be asking the same basic questions in my interviews over and over again. What that will show is there are many different answers to these questions because showing up with integrity is not belief-specific per se. We don’t have to believe the exact same thing, but we do have to all develop the habit of reflecting deeply on ourselves and what we believe, acting intentionally to live those beliefs out into the world, and then periodically assessing if the life and world we are creating by living those beliefs is actually the life and world we want to be in. A pattern of practice is the key.
Talking to Marit Appeldoorn, MSW, LICSW,RPT-S
I wanted Marit to be my first interview because I want to establish from the beginning that cultivating integrity can be playful. It can be joyful. It can be fun.
Marit is a psychotherapist, registered play therapist supervisor, and consultant in private practice in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a past president of the Minnesota Association for Play Therapy (MNAPT) and is a co-founder of Safe Haven, an organization providing comprehensive professional support to therapists including supervision, coaching, consultation, and training. She is also the co-author of the recently published book Moving Mountains: An Integrative Manual To Help Youth With Intensity, Reactivity, and Anxiety.
In a handful of sentences or less, can you tell me who you are underneath all of your professional accomplishments, or perhaps as the foundation for all of them?
I have always loved spending time with children, and I was a huge theater and speech team kid in high school. Play and storytelling were natural, intuitive ways for me to communicate and cope, and stepping into a role onstage helped me ‘practice’ emotions and skills my painfully shy teen self could never process directly. At my Quaker college, I designed an interdisciplinary major combining peace and global studies and psychology—a reflection of my growing understanding that interpersonal relationships are a transformative tool in social justice work. That led me to a degree in social work and my first jobs supporting extremely stressed, high-risk families in Massachusetts, California, and Minnesota. When I discovered developmental theory and play therapy, I felt like I had come home.
What is a core belief that you carry— about people, about relationships, or about the world— that you feel really shapes your life? How did you come to believe it?
I have a deep belief about play, which is that it is one of the most transformative tools human beings possess. You’ll notice I didn’t say kids; I said human beings. There’s a common misconception that play is a fun, superfluous activity little ones do until they get big enough to sit still and work a day job. But what I’ve learned in 25 years of working with children is that play is not superficial, and it’s often not random or in any way accidental. Kids play to efficiently process through enormous amounts of information and emotion, often things too big for them to handle head-on. Simply put, play is a crisis survival skill we innately possess, and my belief is that even though our brains mature we adults have not outgrown our capacity or our deep need for it.
This is that wonderful sort of belief that I’ve always known somewhere deep in my bones. It’s been awakened and confirmed by experience and training, but also by being around a while and using the lens of that belief to pay attention. If you know how to look for it, you see adults playing everywhere, all the time! Adult play doesn’t always look like child’s play, so we may not know we are doing it but we’re drawn to it just the same—because it works.
Play dissolves barriers of fear and contempt between us, it shrinks overwhelm, it makes us feel like we’re good at stuff, and it increases our sense of connection to each other. Regaining a sense of mastery and increasing social connection are, as the research now tells us, the two best ways to heal from trauma. So, even if we aren’t conscious of it, we follow our innate need for play in order to find that healing. Grownups become sports fans, we create ridiculously elaborate TikToks, we take improv classes, laugh at inside jokes, have holiday traditions and game nights and video gaming guilds. It’s all play, it’s everywhere, and knowing that can unlock enormous potential for transformation during challenging times.
What helps you to live this belief?
My story so far has been a long journey of learning to give myself permission to connect deeply with who I am—my authentic professional voice, my experience, my skills, all that good, juicy stuff—and to use those to create a path as a therapist and trainer of new therapists. What allowed me to first step onto that path was a huge helping of economic and educational privilege, seasoned with a pinch of dumb luck finding the right people, programs, internships, and opportunities at the right time. What keeps me moving forward is the deep and rich community of people I’m a part of, both professionally and personally.
What gets in your way of living this belief?
Oh, plenty! My years of being a therapist, teacher, and trainer (also the theater background!) mean I’m comfortable and happy in front of groups of people, but I’m still fundamentally an introvert. When I’m tired, it’s easy for me to fall back into logic-based, “left brain mode”. What doesn’t help is that much of the world over privileges that way of being, and stigmatizes play as babyish and immature. Additionally, all helping work (teaching, counseling, caregiving, and play) is underprivileged and under-resourced because of historical issues around gender, race, and socioeconomic class.
I push back on this in myself by working play regularly into my daily personal life, like impromptu solo dance parties, telling funny stories, hosting Zoom bingo with party hats, etc….all of which rebalance my brain and reconnect my mind and my body. That, plus having a vibrant, amazing professional community to collaborate with, inspires and refuels me to integrate play into my work.
What is the joy, or satisfaction, or benefit, for you in doing the work to live into this belief?
I’m lucky enough to be at a point where I can design my work life more or less the way I’d like it to be, and so I integrate my ideas about play into all levels of what I do. I continue to be a play therapist for children and families, but I also use play with my trainees and students in a way that honors the fact that they are adults. I’m doing a lot of training right now, for example, about ways to intentionally use telehealth and at-home neurobiologically informed play to cope with a pandemic winter.
Play is all about helping people tap into resources they need in their own individual nervous systems, so it can be tailored any way we like. It can be rowdy, or quiet, or artistic, or structured. When that happens, it never ceases to amaze me how the intentional facilitation of play feels like one of those time-lapse cameras which speeds everything up. Play unfolds development, creates trust, solidifies learning, solves problems. At a time when the veil has been pulled back on a lot of ugly fear, inequity, and reactivity in this society, we need that, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
Thank you, Marit! And thank you to all of you, my dear and wonderful readers. None of this would be possible without you. If you enjoyed this, please feel free to like and share it. And don’t forget to comment below! I’d love to hear your thoughts.