HE was an adventurous and independent toddler who loved spending time in the great outdoors.
That was when Farin Mikhael Farid, who turns four this year, resided in Texas in the United States.
In 2017, his family moved back to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for an opportunity in career advancement and that was when his behaviour took a 360 degree turn when he struggled to adjust to life here.
From being a “curious little explorer”, Farin Mikhael became aggressive and clingy.
“He did not get the chance to do whatever he was used to back in Texas when we settled down here. Our culture and way of raising children tends to be always indoors, formal oriented kind of learning.
“The relocation took a big toll on him and he began to withdraw himself from society. People raised concern on how he behaved wherever we went. He became timid and anxious up to a point he will scream and throw some serious tantrums when he felt threatened with unfamiliar situations,” said mother Nina Syafina Mohamed Shukor, 28, who was working as an engineer in the US.
Devastated to see the drastic changes in Farin Mikhael, the mother of two resorted to multiple methods - including consulting a therapist, enrolling into different schools - to return her eldest son to his former cheerful and active self.
“He hated therapy and refused to cooperate. Then I introduced him to outdoor messy play. It was a miracle to see how he began to channel his energy through play. It took us about six months with constant commitment to finally see him shine again,” said the engineer-turned-fulltime-mother.
This inspired Nina Syafina to start WhatAMess Kids, a company that organises outdoor programmes for children (10 months to seven years-old) based on creative messy play.
The activities are conducted on a weekly basis. Activities for special needs children are conducted as well.
“All our programmes, which are held in a safe, controlled environment, are designed for play therapy and sensorial development. Children get to play with sand, mud, water, paint and all sorts of activities that will spark their development.
“Playing is crucial for children seven years and below to develop confidence.
“It also enables them to pick up valuable life skills such as resilience, bravery, curiosity, adaptability and social skills that they can’t get from formal education,” said Nina Syafina, the creative director of WhatAMess.
She added that WhatAMess will soon be opening an outdoor sensory park in Kuala Lumpur.
Parents, she said, gave positive feedback but one in particular stood out.
“There was this sweet little four-year-old boy who wasn’t doing well in school, showed no interest and was unable to focus in whatever he did, until he joined messy play activities.
“We noticed that he became a completely different person - curious, adventurous and would actively participate in the activities,” she shared.
Noting that the concept of learning through play is relatively new in Malaysia, she said it is time for parents to “strategise” on current teaching methods so that a well rounded generation that can strive in school and out of school can be raised.
“Play is never a waste of time and money,” she said, adding that it is important for parents to be “part of the equation” in a child’s development journey.
“Not all parents have the opportunity to have playtime with their children, thus we create a platform where parents get to spend solid time to play with them under a controlled environment,” she said.
Parents Naleni Selvaraja, 38, and Nur Fairuz Mahusin, 36 - both who have sent their children to take part in WhatAMess’ activities - shared Nina Syafina’s sentiment.
Naleni, who is expecting her second child, enjoyed watching her son, Sajjviin Saravanan, three, “make a mess” during outdoor activities organised by WhatAMess as well as other establishments.
“He knows that it is alright for him to do so at such activities, and he knows the house is not a place to make a mess in,” she said.
Playtime, she added, helped develop Sajjviin’s communication skills besides enabling her to realise he has a knack for transportation vehicles.
“Children imitate only what they see in vision. Parents wouldn’t be able to tell the internal talent of children - each one is special with various talents.
“I think these activities are brilliant as they keep the children occupied as well as allow their creativity to flow,” said the finance analyst.
She encouraged parents to sign their children up for more outdoor activities.
“I find Sajjviin to be happier when he is spending time outdoors,” she said, adding that outdoor activities were also a great “distraction” from electronic gadgets.
“It is hard to prevent children from using gadgets because we are also using them. If we keep him in the house with a gadget, he might not learn as much as when he is exposed to a real thing,” said Naleni.
Enrolling her only child Putra Shaffy Firaas Shah Fezan, 7, into WhatAMess’ activities was also Nur Fairuz’s way of keeping his contact with electronic gadgets to a minimum.
“He needs to know that he can have fun outdoors. Besides, it is also a good bonding time between parents and the child,” said the mother of one.
Nur Fairuz encouraged parents to adopt a more open mindset towards learning through play.
“Such programmes allow children to explore and express creativity freely because the environment at home does not allow mess. It coaxes the children to come out from their comfort zones, break out of their shells to get to know others, besides clinging onto the parents.
This is good for only children like Firaas as he can mix around with his peers,” she said, pointing out that children nowadays often spend their playtime at indoor playgrounds in shopping malls.
She also noted that programmes such as WhatAMess is a “2-in-1” where parents and child get to enjoy.
“This programme is of course for the children to enjoy the fun, it is also a meeting point for the mummies to have a get-together. It is a destresser for mothers, especially those who are juggling packed working schedules,” said Nur Fairuz.
A healing mechanism
On a more serious note, play therapy (see table for more information) is a proven method that allows children to discover how to express themselves through play.
According to one of its pioneers Virginia M. Axline, “play therapy is a vital opportunity for children to ‘play out’ those feelings - hatred, loneliness, anger, fear, failure or even feelings of inadequacy”.
Hils Learning principal Tracy Ho said the common misconception parents have towards play therapy is that they think it is teaching through play.
“What play therapy does for the children is to provide a platform to express themselves and tell their story, it’s not to help them improve their academic results directly,” she pointed out.
There must be a reason why a child is not falling for adults’ tricks to do academic work and are not responding to other interventions, she noted.
“Play therapy is used to address the root cause of the issue, which is more or less an emotional blockage to learning.
“It is also about letting children try new things and taking risks rather than saying I don’t know how to do it so I’ll avoid doing it, or completely shutting down from a particular subject or activity that doesn’t tickle their fancy,” she said.
Ho added that play therapy is especially helpful to children who have experienced some form of trauma, were bullied, or struggle with self confidence because they have learning difficulties or are struggling academically.
“It is much more helpful than thought counselling especially for young children who may not be able to pinpoint the exact emotion they are feeling.
“Through play therapy, they are able to express their story through toys (characters),” said Ho, a qualified and registered play therapist at Play Therapy International, Academy of Play and Child Psychotherapy and Play Therapy United Kingdom.
Play therapy is also helpful to those who have language development delays or are on the autism spectrum because they can tell their story without the need for them to talk, she added.
Hils Learning is a centre in Kuala Lumpur that specialises in providing learning support services to children.
It offers services from educational testing, learning support, social thinking, counselling, training programmes, play and filial therapy, among others.
Play therapy also ties in well with social thinking, which Hils Learning also provides.
Zac Mu’tamir, the centre’s expert in developing social awareness in children, noted that social thinking can help a child understand verbal and nonverbal social cues; understand and regulate emotions; foster and maintain peer relationships; work in a group; comprehension; understand a different point of view; and initiate and maintain conversations.
He said he goes by his “bible” - the Zones of Regulation (see table) to help children express themselves better.
“We get a lot of children who come to us not knowing how to express themselves. They will have a meltdown, break something or shut down because they don’t understand how to tell an adult what’s going on.
“We teach them how it feels like and what your body does when you are angry, or other emotions. Does your heartbeat race, do you clench your fist when angry? This way, children can better identify the emotions and body language tied to it, then we move onto helping the child calm down,” said Mu’tamir who was trained under Michelle Garcia Winner in the Social Thinking® Clinical Training Programme 1A in Santa Clara, US.
However, Ho recommends filial therapy as the best way to help a child.
“Filial therapy is a relationship therapy in which the therapist uses the parents as the main agents of change in the lives of the children.
“Filial therapy has the highest efficacy. When parents apply what they’ve learnt from it at home, it permeates into the family system which is very powerful. However, filial therapy requires effort, time and commitment from the parents,” she said.
She explained that in filial therapy, parents receive training from a registered play therapist to conduct special non-directive play sessions with their children.
Initial play sessions are held under the therapist’s direct supervision.
Once parents are competent and confident in conducting play sessions, the therapist supports them in transitioning to unsupervised play sessions at home.
Eventually, the therapist supports parents in generalising skills and approaches they have adopted during the play sessions to the broader home environment.