by Louise E. Wright
“I was a reluctant author,” admits Dottie Higgins-Klein, director of the Family & Play Therapy Center in West Mt. Airy. “I never thought I’d write a book; I didn’t see that in my future.” Years of providing other therapists with postgraduate training, however, convinced her to undertake the project. Earlier this month, W. W. Norton & Company published “Mindfulness-Based Play-Family Therapy: Theory and Practice,” the result of more than a decade of hard work.
The title accurately reflects the three components that make up Higgins-Klein’s approach, one whose origins date back to her graduate school days at Hahnemann University, where she earned a Master’s degree in family therapy. Thirty years ago, the 65-year-old author recalls, family therapy and play therapy were “very separate worlds,” and many teachers advised against crossing barriers. Higgins-Klein, however, was determined to find a way to integrate the two.
“It just made sense,” she explained, “that parents needed to be involved in play therapy, and family therapists needed to be open to the value of play therapy.” With the blessing of the program’s director, Rob Garfield, she found herself a placement, or internship, at a mental health clinic in Broomall, where she began to pursue her goal.
Although Higgins-Klein takes credit for coining the term “play-family therapy,” she sees her approach as one phase in an evolutionary process that has integrated the two therapies. Describing her technique as “unique in the field,” she readily acknowledged its roots “in previous methods [of play therapy] that gradually included family and parents.”
The therapist’s interest in play is hardly surprising. As the mother of two young children intent on honing her parenting skills, she enrolled in a child development program at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute in 1979. “I felt inadequate often enough in how to parent,” she recalled, something she hadn’t expected. Growing up in East Falls, she’d run a babysitting business in high school; however, living with babies 24/7 presented “a challenge.”
While the program provided a grounding in child development, it paid little attention to the family component, something Higgins-Klein wanted to learn more about. She regards her time at the institute as “a stepping stone.” Only after she’d finished the course did she say to herself, “I want to be a family therapist.”
In 1986, Higgins-Klein became involved in mindfulness meditation. Ultimately, this formed the third component of her approach, one in which a state of “deeper awareness” plays a key role. “Children have a natural ability to go through metaphor to their deepest hurts and pains,” she explained. “The play therapy experience allows them to externalize it.”
Higgins-Klein requires that the play a child engages in remain in the realm of “pretend.” In this way, the child can arrive at a “healing state,” which Higgins-Klein recognizes as “comparable to mindfulness meditation.” She elaborated: “I realized that, when we’re doing mindfulness meditation, it’s the same as the healing state the child is in when working through traumas.”
In 1995, after spending a decade practicing in Chestnut Hill, Higgins-Klein moved to Mt. Airy, where she opened the Family & Play Therapy Center. The positive response to classes geared toward parents and teachers, which she had offered at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree, as well as inquiries from other therapists convinced her of the need to share her approach. As a result, the facility not only offers counseling services but also functions as a postgraduate training center.
Media-based therapist Barbara Nagel describes the center’s Advanced Child Development Course as “the most valuable course I’ve ever taken in terms of how much I’ve learned that I can directly apply to my practice.” Students enrolled in the classes hail not just from around the country but from around the world and need not be physically present to participate. Thanks to a state-of-the-art live online classroom—iLOC—developed and set up three years ago by Luke Klein, Higgins-Klein’s son, therapists from as far away as Australia, India and Japan have taken part.
The need to make her approach accessible to others also prompted Higgins-Klein to write the book, which she began to write at a Zen Buddhist center in 2001. Just three months after she began, her grandson, Hayden Walker, was born. As a result, she likes to think of the book and the boy as being the same age.
Although she points out that her name is on the cover, Higgins-Klein is quick to acknowledge the contribution of others. Of the dozen or so therapists—all of them women—whom she singled out at a recent event celebrating the book’s publication, seven have studied with her for 15 years. Most of those seven also teach graduate and postgraduate trainings. “It’s your book, too,” she told them. “I want it to grow inside of you.”
Recognizing her primary audience as specialists in the field, Higgins-Klein nevertheless strove to make the book understandable to non-therapists, thinking perhaps parents might want to read or skim through it. As for the success of the “Mindfulness-Based Play-Family Therapy,” she hopes it will have “a ripple effect that will benefit families and children of all ages.”