Katie Vander Zwaag play therapist

Katie Vander Zwaag, a registered play therapist with Creative Living Center, demonstrates how she may incorporate a sand tray in a play therapy session. A child could use the figures in the tray to act out a scenario they may have recently experienced.

REGIONAL—Katie Vander Zwaag recalls the moment she read in a college textbook how long the process of becoming a registered play therapist would take her.

“I remember looking at the criteria and thinking, ‘Wow, that will take a really, really, really long time to get a bachelor’s degree and get a master’s degree and get a license a then work for three years and then become an RPT,’” said Vander Zwaag, a student at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls at the time.

On Jan. 1, however, the 30-year-old’s dream came true when she received her license as a registered play therapist with Creative Living Center, a counseling and mental health agency based in Rock Valley with locations across N’West Iowa.

As the name suggests, play therapy involves children playing as a way to express and process events happening in their lives.

“Play is a powerful tool in my work with children,” Vander Zwaag said. “As a licensed and registered play therapist, I provide a safe space and materials that are conducive to helping a child work through aspects of life that cause them difficulty.”

The Rock Valley native explained a play therapy session can look different for every child, although the first session usually involves her meeting with the child and his or her parents or guardians to learn basic information about why the child could benefit from play therapy.

Subsequent meetings then take place in the playrooms, where the children are given the freedom to play with a variety of toys or do activities such as drawing or painting. Their parents or guardians can choose to sit in on the session or even play alongside their child.

“Parents are the experts in their child’s life. No one knows them better,” she said. “So it’s extremely valuable to have a lot of input from parents.”

During the initial play sessions, Vander Zwaag said she typically sits back and observes the children to identify behavior areas in which they need to grow. Sometimes, children can come to conclusions on how to achieve that growth on their own during the play sessions.

“My job is to really start to see and help the child see that probably isn’t the best way of being,” Vander Zwaag said.

“But that’s way more powerful if a child can kind of come to that conclusion through their own processing and playing, rather than a parent saying, ‘Well, stop doing this, this isn’t helpful for you.’”

Vander Zwaag has worked at Creative Living Center’s offices in Rock Valley and Hawarden since 2017, where she has counseled people of all ages using cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance commitment therapy.

She also works out of the West Sioux School District based in Hawarden and is an adjunct professor for the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, through which she teaches an online speech communications course.

Vander Zwaag earned her license in play therapy through Creative Living Center, in which she attended an intensive, four-week training program in Cedar Falls with registered play therapist Terry Kottman.

Kottman founded a specific type of play therapy called Adlerian play therapy, which emphasizes how a child functions in the context of their family.

Play therapy also lets children know they do not have to be alone in dealing with problems they may be facing and can safely confront them in the space the therapy provides.

“That’s a space that I feel very honored to be able to be a part of, to be able to build a safe and trusting space for kids to work through the difficult things that they experience,” Vander Zwaag said.