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_UWO1484_A study by two University of Wisconsin Oshkosh researchers indicates that play time helps reduce stress for both children and their parents living in homeless shelters.

UW Oshkosh faculty members Fredi Giesler and Lenore Wineberg combined their expertise in social work and early childhood education, respectively, to examine whether parental play therapy could be used as an intervention to decrease the negative effects on children living in homeless shelters.

Those who worked on the project also included UWO alumna Lisa Mader ’93, of Kaukauna, and two UWO students who have since graduated Aimee Pitney ’14, of Green Bay, and Matthew Wolfert ‘14, of Sheboygan Falls.

Children who lack a stable home life are at risk for violence, poor health, mental illness and developmental delays.

Parents, usually mothers, living in homeless shelters often are focused on their financial worries and the basic needs of how to feed and clothe their children. They also lack access to parenting education. In addition, crowded shelters typically offer limited opportunities and space for the children to play.

In general, parents need to be less authoritarian and more tuned to their children’s feelings and emotions during play.

“Our goal is show the women how to relax, connect with their children and be good mothers,” Wineberg said.

Using a similar approach—the filial play therapy model— that helped families traumatized by Hurricane Katrina, the researchers worked with six parents living at a homeless shelter in the Fox Valley.

In weekly parent-child play groups, the parents were taught to be accepting, reflect their children’s feelings and set limits, Giesler said. Each family received a toy box filled with a variety of toys. The parents were encouraged to practice the new skills.

Although this initial research involved just a small sample of families and further study is needed, the researchers said they are encouraged that the play therapy model can increase self-esteem in the homeless children and decrease stress for both the parents and their children.

“All parents need some guidance in how to play with their children if they want them to grow,” Wineberg said.

The researchers recommend the following strategies for playing with children:

  • Let the child take the lead.
  • Join in the child’s play as a follower.
  • Reflect the child’s feelings (“You sound disappointed.” “That kind of surprised you.”)
  • Encourage the child’s efforts but don’t praise or criticize their play. (“You figured it out.” “You worked hard on that.”)

Giesler and Wineberg’s study, “Parent-Child Relationships in a Homeless Shelter: Promoting Play,” is in press with the Advanced Generalist: Social Work Research Journal. The work was funded by a UW Oshkosh Faculty Development Grant.