This winter, I decided to make a shift out of the adult psychiatry field and back into schools with a population that I hadn’t worked with since I was an eager new drama therapy graduate. Since joining ENACT, I have had the joy of being reconnected with the vibrant and dynamic energy that fills the hallways of our public school system. At PS 811, I run four small drama therapy groups per week, two for girls and two for 8th graders transitioning into high school. The amount of creativity and passion that my students bring to these groups each week continues to be awe-inspiring. In my 8th grade groups, we tackle issues that students may be facing as they prepare to transition into high school, including self-esteem, personal responsibility and being able to access internal resources to help manage overwhelming emotions. Through collaborative theater games and role-playing exercises, my students have had the opportunity to sharpen their interpersonal skills and practice various responses to difficult situations in a space that is safe, supportive and most importantly, allows them to have fun and to be themselves.
Throughout this process, I have been consistently reminded of just how powerful imagination and play can be in breaking down barriers and cultivating connection. In my 4th-6th grade girls’ group, many of the students have had ongoing conflicts with one another. These students were individually chosen by school staff to participate in the ENACT drama therapy group in order to strengthen their peer connections. At the beginning of this process, it became increasingly clear to me that the girls had minimal tolerance for a group in which they were going to be forced to share their feelings with one another and somehow magically become best friends by the end of it. After observing this dynamic for several weeks, I entered one of our sessions and excitedly explained to the girls that we would be going on a camping trip. Of course, it was an imaginary camping trip but nonetheless several of the girls expressed their excitement to get the chance to do something they had never actually done in their real lives. To my amazement, these girls who had had such difficulty getting along in the weeks prior were somehow working together to gather supplies, set up tents, tell spooky stories around the campfire that they had built, and even fight off a monster in the woods. Group members shared responsibilities and supported each other in showcasing their individual strengths. The world of imagination had opened up a door of connection for them that had not been there before. They were allowed to lower their defenses and take off their armor for just a moment while in the playspace. There were no reputations or social hierarchy to worry about in the woods – they were all in it together and imagination was their universal language.
Moments like the camping trip have become incredibly important to me throughout my time at PS811. I’ve been collecting them in my memory bank as one might pick up small seashells along a vast shoreline, and I am grateful to my students everyday for reminding me never to take these moments for granted. Because amidst the colorful, confusing and often chaotic world of middle school, having the opportunity to explore life through imagination and play alongside such passionate and creative students has been absolutely priceless.
Natasha Amendolara is a Drama Therapist and Teaching Artist at ENACT. While she is not working with ENACT at various schools around New York City, she also works as a Drama Therapist for The Animation Project, a non-profit organization that uses digital art technology as a therapeutic medium to support the social, emotional and cognitive growth of put at risk youth. Natasha is a New York State Licensed Creative Arts Therapist (LCAT), a North American Registered Drama Therapist (RDT), and a Certified Contemplative Psychotherapist. Natasha received a BA in Theater and Psychology from Skidmore College, an MA in Drama Therapy from Concordia University, and received a certification in Contemplative Psychotherapy through the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science.