Healing Children with Joy

By Emily Clark
Posted Jul 08, 2010 @ 06:00 PM

That’s why he founded Life is good Playmakers – a nonprofit organization that travels the world, seeking out children devastated by trauma and planting the healing art of play in the minds of the community leaders and child care workers that oversee those children.


Gross and his team have just returned from Haiti where they trained Haitian leaders to be bona fide Playmakers.


The concept of “teach a man to fish” is at play here, literally. Steven Gross and his Playmakers didn’t arrive in Haiti last month and commandeer an orphanage where they helped heal children through play. They arrived and connected with Haitian community leaders and childcare workers, whom they personally trained in the healing art of play. Then these leaders led healing playgroups for children.


Gross knows that an American visiting for a few weeks or a month can have only a limited impact on the kids. But pass these lessons on to the adult leaders of that community and those lessons are taught from that day forward with or without the presence of Gross and his team.


As part of the company’s first-ever Plymouth Rock Comedy Festival, Loretta Laroche Productions is honoring Gross with the Ruffled Feather Trophy for his selfless dedication to healing children impacted by poverty or trauma through Life is good Playmakers. He will be honored at 8 p.m., this Saturday, July 10, at the Ruffled Feather Gala at Memorial Hall. Loretta Laroche Productions President Erik Christensen said Gross was the obvious choice for this award since Laroche has been touting the healing art of humor for decades. Joy, play and humor all go hand in hand, he added.


And, like Laroche, Gross lays a lot of groundwork before flying the plane, so to speak.

“The first step is doing a lot of community organizing – looking for the most influential people in the lives of children,” Gross said. “There’s an intentional way to use play as a healing tool – as a way to help kids to overcome a traumatic experience and promote healthy development on a physical and social level.”


For it to work, the game has to allow the child to feel a sense of social connection, that he or she is part of a loving community. The game must also allow the child to feel safe and in control in addition to giving the child a sense of empowerment on a physical and emotional level.


For instance, a parachute game where a group of children hold the ends of a parachute is often used to give a child the sense of flying. One child lies down in the center of the parachute and the children and adults raise their ends so the child lifts into the air. Only children who want to “fly” in the game get this experience. Children that opt to try it are asked how much of a lift they want before the group fulfills that wish. What this accomplishes is several fold. The child that doesn’t want to do the stunt doesn’t have to and is commended for their honesty, Gross said. If this child changes his or her mind later, that’s fine, too. Also, the lift is controlled and it is always totally up to the child how high they want to go. 


Playmakers uses song and dance in addition to games like this one that help children feel a sense of community and connection, help them feel empowered and in control and also give them a feeling of shear joy. You can actually see the healing that takes place for children involved in Playmaker programs like this, Gross said, and that makes every line at an airport worthwhile.


“We understand the neurophysiology of trauma, but oftentimes we don’t understand the neurophysiology of joy and love,” Gross said. “Disaster response focuses on the negative. I’m not saying you ignore that. But what you pay attention to grows. If you work with children and all you talk about is fear, loss and sadness, and you don’t try to tap into joy you’re never going to help them heal.”


Gross has a master’s degree in clinical social work. Life is good Playmakers travels all over the world; Gross and his team recently trained Denmark community leaders to help Afghanistan refugees.


 For more information on Gross and the Life is good Playmakers, visit www.lifeisgood.com/foundation/playmakers-initiative.

For more information on the Plymouth Rock Comedy Festival, visit www.PlymouthRockComedyFestival.com. The events and shows continue through Saturday.