'You can’t play unless you feel safe. And if you can’t play, you can’t learn new things.'

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It’s nap time, but three-year-old James isn’t asleep. He’s standing in front of the Childhaven elevator with a big smile on his face.

“Say the magic words,” his teacher tells him.

“Abracadabra!” James whispers — and, as if enchanted, the elevator doors open.

James snorts with laughter and claps his hands. “Again! Again!”

When James arrived at Childhaven, playing “magic elevator,” or any game, was unthinkable. A nonverbal toddler who had experienced great hardship — and whose father was incarcerated — James could only communicate by crying, shouting, or using physical aggression. He spent most of his time standing in the corner, quietly holding a toy car and avoiding other children.

“Because of their traumatic background, many kids come to Childhaven not knowing how to play,” James’ teacher explains. “You can’t play unless you feel safe. And if you can’t play, you can’t learn new things or interact with others. Children use play to explore their surroundings and themselves — it’s a crucial part of development.”

Treatment for James involved both speech therapy and Childhaven’s early learning day program, where his teacher would sit on the floor with him and show him how to manipulate different toys. But progress was slow. On many days, James would retreat to his safe corner with his plastic car again.

James’ teacher came up with “magic elevator” after observing his reactions on a walk around the building. “He was afraid of the elevator at first,” she says. “But now, whenever the elevator doors are about to open, he says the magic words. It’s a safe and predictable cycle, and he gets enjoyment from it.”

James loves the elevator game, and it has allowed him to experience play in a safe environment while developing trust in a caring adult. Today, James no longer qualifies for speech therapy, and one of the first words he spoke was the name of his Childhaven teacher.

Learn more about the therapeutic impact of playtime at Childhaven.org