There's a room in Cathy Figgins' California counseling practice with a sandtray in the center. Lining the walls of the room are hundreds of figures and statuettes, all waiting to help someone tell their story — Figgins asks her clients to "build their world" when they work together in this space, using the objects scattered across the periphery of the room to say what sometimes can't yet be expressed in words.
On one occasion, Figgins is working with a mother and child and asks for each of them to pick one figure that, to them, describes the other. The child picks up a larger statue of Atlas from a bottom shelf and places it in the sand.
"That's Mom," they said. "She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders."
This is sandtray therapy, a method that ties into the broader story of who Figgins is, what she does, and why she's so passionate about it all — she is a registered play therapist-supervisor (RPT-S), and one of few in the immediate area.
According to the Association for Play Therapy, play therapists are licensed mental health professionals or school counselors/psychologists who have earned a master's or doctorate degree in a mental health field or school counseling and have obtained considerable clinical experience and supervision. In turn, an RPT-S, like Figgins, has additionally obtained specific play therapy education, training and supervision.
Figgins said she has been a licensed professional counselor since 2012, a registered play therapist since 2015, and recently added her supervisor credentials — this allows her practice to function as a site for others who are pursuing their RPT certification to log clinical hours. To become an RPT-S, applicants must have earned a traditional master's or higher mental health degree from an institution of higher education, 150 clock hours of play therapy training, five years and 5,000 hours of post-master's clinical experience, 500 supervised and 500 additional hours of play therapy experience, and be licensed or certified by their state boards of practice. This sheer amount of training shows in her work, as Figgins was awarded the Kathryn Boone Outstanding Play Therapist Award by the Missouri Association for Play Therapy last June.
Play therapy, according to the APT, is a powerful tool for addressing cognitive, behavioral and emotional challenges — licensed professionals can use play therapeutically to help clients process their experiences and develop more effective strategies for managing their behaviors.
Figgins said she's the only RPT-S in California — she's possibly the sole RPT-S in all of Moniteau County, and said the next closest might be as far as Columbia. She said receives many referrals for clients from Jefferson City and has even had clients come to her in California from as far as two and a half hours away.
Figgins said she sees about 25 clients a week, typically for 45 minutes to an hour each session. She said she could see more but doesn't want to get burned out by stretching too thin. In her eyes, the process is all about helping her clients to heal without turning simply to medicating children and moving on — for that reason, the time she spends with clients is especially important.
"Instead of (suppressing them) with medication, I'd (rather say) 'Let's listen to them, let's get in their world and find out what's going on.' And play is their world," Figgins said. "Think about it! How do we release stress, as an adult? We go out and play tennis, we run, we play."
She said in this regard, play is a child's language, and toys are their words. This ties directly into the space Figgins has on offer in her practice — her aforementioned sandtray room, and a larger space filled with toys, games, puppets and a child-sized playhouse tucked in one corner.
Figgins said when she works with clients in her sandtray room, she's asking them to approach trauma they can't explain and heal. She works with all ages — Figgins said she started out working with children before taking an interest in teens and also works with adults. On top of play and sandtray therapy, Figgins is also certified in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a method originally used with combat veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder.
She integrates EMDR with play therapy to help clients of all ages overcome their past trauma. For adults in general, Figgins said, the idea is to work with their inner child — "the parts that did not get healed, all of the experiences they went through in life (that cause) anxiety disorders and depression, (and other severe disorders)," she said.
"And at the time I tell them 'Don't think about it — just let the eyes speak,'" she said. "And when they put (figures) in there, it's like, 'Wow, this is why I'm feeling like I am.'"
Sandtray therapy is just one part of the whole of play therapy — the larger room in Figgins' practice is a dedicated play therapy space, where the idea is for children to come in and feel safe to freely express what they're feeling. That feeling of safety is especially important in getting clients to open up, Figgins said, because children are sharply attuned to their own sense of safety and comfort. She said there has to be a connection on that level to even start approaching therapy. Once she's made that connection, Figgins said, she takes clients through two types of play therapy in this space: non-directive and directive.
"Non-directive is where I just let them go, and I track and reflect what's going on in (their) world," she said. "Then as they're healing, we can do a more directive (approach), based on what's going on with them."
Figgins said at the directive stage, she gives her clients more prompting and guidance to relate directly to what they're processing, be it anxiety, depression or other more specific aspects of their mental health.
She said one of the more important parts of what makes play therapy work is participation from a client's family. She said if family — like parents — aren't willing to change, it makes it harder for children to do so. She said this is because, in many cases, the challenges younger clients have to sort through are tied to their environment.
Though Figgins has been licensed since 2012, her ties to play therapy extend back further. She and her husband have adopted five children, all through the foster care system. Figgins said seeing their struggles as a result of their backgrounds is what gave her the passion to explore healing through play. And on top of that, Figgins said once she started, she just wanted to learn more.
"This is a continuing education — you learn constantly," she said. "And I'm not done yet."
As for what may come next? Figgins said she'd like to find opportunities to work with students in area schools in a clinician role, hopefully being able to work in a space where her clients can do some of the non-directive therapy Figgins described. That way, she said she could still have her own space in her practice while being able to be mobile when working at schools.
At the end of the day, Figgins said, she has a passion for helping people — this is readily apparent as soon as she starts talking about her work, in the way her eyes light up and flicker as she talks about how play therapy helps people to express and sort through their feelings. She makes a beeline for the sandtray room if you ask how it all works because showing you firsthand explains it the best.
She said she could probably tell you a story behind just about every figure on every shelf in her sandtray room, and odds are, she'll likely accumulate countless more stories as she continues. For her, knowing how they've each helped her clients is one of the most important parts of her work.