Drama therapist taps role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons to build up social skills.

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If you were to peek into a therapy session at Wheelhouse Workshop, you’d be surprised to see a room full of wizards and elf princesses.

The kids who arrive are usually struggling with life-challenging issues related to autism, ADHD and social anxiety, but you wouldn’t know it based on their behavior.

That’s because they’ve taken on new identities in a game of Dungeons and Dragons and their fantasy characters are collaborating to solve problems together.

It’s a creative way to help troubled kids practice good social skills and it’s proven to be extremely effective.  At the Wheelhouse Workshop, therapy is quite literally fun and games.

The person organizing their role-play is Antioch University alumnus Adam Davis, a drama therapist who creates imaginary worlds while sneaking in life lessons that will help kids in their daily lives.

Davis gives an example of a young man at a recent session whose body language was keeping him from making friends at school.  He sat in a chair with his legs folded in front of his face, mumbling his words.  His teachers said it was hard to understand him, and his classmates were keeping their distance.

But in his game, his character was a loud and bumbling dwarf barbarian – the type of person who would knock things over and slam his fists on the table.

He and the other kids had to infiltrate a fancy dinner party disguised as royalty, and whenever the young man acted regal, Davis used the characters he invented to praise the young man and reinforce socially acceptable behavior.

“He got a chance to play with his body language and how his character’s body language could affect other people,” says Davis.

Kids may not realize their game is actually an exercise in relating to others.  But by using a fun format, Davis is teaching skills they can adopting and translate into real life.

“The magic of what I do is that it doesn’t really feel like a therapy group,” he explains.  A lot of players have been in group sessions their entire lives, and they lose interest when things start to sound like therapy. By maintaining a fun and enthusiastic environment he’s able to hold their interest.

Davis founded Wheelhouse Workshop while he was working on a master’s degree at Antioch University.  His career has proven to be challenging, creative and fun but finding his path took some time.

In his undergrad years he didn’t even know drama therapy existed.  He studied theater and political theory, later working as a teacher and freelancing in political theater and activist theater.

But when he decided he wanted to do more for the community, he was drawn to Antioch’s Drama Therapy program – one of only five in North America.

“I realized I was more interested in psychological aspects of theater, and how I was using theater to help kids, instead of just training little actors.  I got really excited about how I could help kids who were disadvantaged or struggling with things in their lives,” he says.

Davis credits much of his success to Antioch University’s model which focuses on being culturally responsive.  It’s not just about seeing the person for the particular challenge they face, but also seeing them in the context of their entire community.

“A person isn’t just a problem to be remedied.  There are a lot of different systemic factors going on.” Traditional therapy often takes a linear approach: you have this problem because in your childhood you had this thing happen.

“At Antioch there’s a holistic sense of who a person is,” says Davis. “We learned to look at the family system, the school system and the cultural values that are being replicated on young people.”

With his creative approach, he’s changing lives and making the world a better place – one dwarf barbarian at a time.

Every year graduates from Antioch University find fulfilling careers through their degrees in psychology, counseling, teaching and social justice. Start your own journey.