Psychological First Aid: Remember to Play

“The opposite of play is not work, it is depression” – Brian Sutton-Smith

Posted by Sabrina Marie Hadeed, Ph.D., Assistant Clinical Director & Therapist at Cascades on September 04, 2017

1sabrina resizedFlooded with images of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in Houston, Texas, we know that psychological trauma will be an inevitable part of the storm. It is nearly impossible to comprehend the magnitude of pain connected to the grief and loss that the residents of Houston are experiencing. Among some of the most vulnerable victims are children.

In an article exploring the ways natural disasters impact children, Kousky (2016) lists three primary examples of the impact:

  1. Physical injury or death (this may include non-disaster related issues such as lack of a clean drinking water or medical treatment after exposure to contaminated water).
  2. Mental health problems (this can include experience of stress and fear during the disaster but also after as the result of loss of home, death of a loved one, witnessing parents or other family members undergo stress).
  3. Disruption to education (displaced families and school building destruction).

In the wake of a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey, the idea of play can seem trivial. Play often gets bumped to the bottom of the proverbial “priority list” especially during a crisis. However, after initial crisis stabilization, opportunities to play are an integral part of the healing process. It is now common practice for immediate disaster relief services to include this kind of “psychological first aid”. Play should always be considered necessary rather than a luxury or privilege.

It should also be noted that stress reactions after a traumatic event like a hurricane are normal and individuals will often end up coping and adapting in healthy ways. The ways that individuals respond to the experience of a trauma will differ depending on many existing vulnerabilities or strengths such as socio-economic status, previous exposure to trauma, resiliency, cultural practices or norms, family support, and perception or understanding of the event.

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) recognizes play as an essential component of child development and health. Play is also an evidence-based practice in healthy human development and mental health with massive amounts of research spanning across disciplines. There is even a National Institute of Play, which incorporates science to help understand the benefits of play throughout all stages of life. Countless examples of the benefits of play include: development of imagination, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength, diffuse anxiety and fear, hone mastery skills, boost confidence, strengthen social skills, inspire curiosity, increase problem solving skills. Play often promotes laughter, which boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and reduces stress hormones (Hall, 2017). Additionally play offers an ideal opportunity for parents and caregivers to engage with children and participate in play themselves. This is of particular importance amidst a natural disaster, where families are experiencing severe disconnect.

Play can be many things including games, dance, music, humor, storytelling, creative art, physical exercise, etc. It can facilitate an important component to the trauma healing process for children and adults by “reestablishing a sense of safety through family connection and to regain a sense of mastery and control over their life” (Shonfeld & Demaria, 2015, p. 1127).

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After immediate safety needs are met and the dust settles from something like the tragedy of hurricane Harvey’s destruction, may we all remember to play.


Hall, K. (2017). Play rewires your brain. Stress Institute. Retrieved from

Kousky, C. (2016). Impacts of Natural Disasters on Children. The Future of Children, 26(1), 73-92. Retrieved from

Reyes, G., & Elhai, J. D. (2004). Psychosocial interventions in the early phases of disasters. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, & Training, 41(4), 399-411.

Shonfeld, D., & Demaria, T. (2015, October). Providing Psychosocial Support to Children and Families in the Aftermath of Disasters and Crises. American Academy of Pediatrics, 136(4), e1120-e1130.



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