Gabrielle Podvoiskis moved to Scotland from New Zealand in 2014 with an open mind on where her career would take her. With a background in rehabilitation programmes in correctional facilities in New Zealand, she was keenly interested in supporting children to understand their emotions and experiences to help guide them down better paths as they grew up.
This passion led her to roles at two children's charities - one of which introduced her to the concept of play therapy. After learning of Queen Margaret University's (QMU) MSc Play Therapy course, she leapt at the opportunity to study this challenging and rewarding profession and hasn't looked back.
Tell us a little about yourself such as your hobbies/interests that are related or not related to your course of study.
If I could put all my favourite things in one day it would include seeing a movie at the cinema, patting dogs while drinking coffee, buying a book in a second hand book shop, going for a swim at a warm beach or at my local pool, reading about mysteries and crimes (my first master’s was in criminology and I remain fascinated by the topic), and then lighting some candles and having a nap.
Why did you choose to study at QMU and what attracted you to the course?
I moved to Scotland from New Zealand in 2014 and had no clear idea of what I would do here. My partner and I both have grandparents who were born in Scotland and so we decided to come back to where they started and see what we could find.
In New Zealand I had been working as a programme facilitator for The Department of Corrections, facilitating a medium intensity rehabilitation programme within prisons and probation in Wellington. This work had left me feeling that much more needed to be done to help children understand their experiences and emotions to help them before things become dire. Knowing how to manage emotions and having someone accept you and care about you is wonderful but it shouldn’t take thirty years and being imprisoned to get there. I wanted to explore working with children to see what I could do to help earlier in people’s lives.
When I first moved to Edinburgh I came across the With Kids website and arranged to meet up and volunteer. This was how I learnt about play therapy which I had never heard of before. It made complete sense to me; it’s a way to be with children and enter their worlds. I was also working for the Children’s Parliament and learning about children’s rights and the importance of listening to and talking to children, and so when I discovered the upcoming first play therapy master’s course at Queen Margaret University, I decided to apply and see what would happen!
What have you most enjoyed about your course? What has been your highlight?
My favourite part of this course has been the way it has changed me as a person. Learning about how we develop as people and exploring my own childhood experiences has helped me understand myself better and consider ways I need to improve and change. It is an intense course and while it is part-time it requires a lot of focus and additional time put in to do it right. This has been a bit exhausting but also life-changing. Before I did this course I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work with children and that I love being creative and working with tricky ideas and situations, but I had no clue about a ‘career’ or a real focus. Now I know what I want to do and it is play therapy.
There is something so incredible about being in the play room with a child and being allowed into their world and feeling their experiences. Something I really enjoyed were baby observations. In our first year we had to observe and then write about observing an infant for an hour a week for 20 weeks. This was such a strange and wonderful experience, and when I think about it in hindsight I can see how much this experience supported the future work and the ability to watch and really see another person without inserting yourself in the situation.
How have your lecturers supported your learning?
The lecturers on this course and the course director have been pivotal in supporting me through this process and I think that part of this is due to their experiences as play therapists.
Being taught by experienced play therapists, working directly with them, means that you get to benefit from not only their knowledge and experiences but also their particular brand of focus, care and acceptance which they practice with their child clients. You get a sense of the containment and security they create with their children when you need support from them, and this in itself is not only comforting (and emotionally and mentally good for you) but is also an experiential teaching opportunity.
During the course of my study our family suffered a bereavement which meant my husband and I had to return to New Zealand, and throughout this time the lecturers and course director were central to me being able to keep up with the course work during this time.
What have been some of your challenges with the course and university life? How have you overcome them?
I think the most challenging part of studying has been to maintain focus and motivation over three years of part-time study, and learning to fit this within other ups and downs of life. The work can be emotionally taxing - you are exploring your own core experiences, beliefs and emotional triggers while working with children who have experienced varieties of trauma and negative experiences. This means you can be taken to difficult and dark places in your own life and experiences through your work. Supervision and support from lecturers has meant that this is manageable but I think I underestimated how emotionally exhausting this learning could be. Being able to hold on to outside comforts in my life helped me overcome this, keeping up with enjoying other things and not just living play therapy 24/7 is important. Sometimes taking a break and giving yourself a bit of space is necessary self-care.
Did you take part in a placement as part of your course and if so, what was your experience?
I had a placement each year of the three year course, which was an integral part of my learning. The placements were terrifying at first. I remember the first one seemed so close to when we had just started and I felt very out of my depth however this is, perhaps, the only way to learn. I know, for me, I learn by doing. My experiences on placements have been really energising and I am excited because the school I was on placement with for two years will be taking me on as a paid play therapist, one day in a week in the new school year which will be great because I have loved working in the school and want to do more there!
Any advice for students who might be interested in this course?
My advice for students who are thinking about doing this course is to take a breath – and do it! If it is right for you then you will make it work, and although it is difficult and you may feel overwhelmed at times and like it will never end, it will. And when it does you will be a better person in more ways than you could ever have predicted when you began.
Life as a Student at QMU
What’s your ‘top tip’ for making the most of being a student?
My top tip would be to choose to study something you actually enjoy and, if you are lucky, something that you love. If you are lucky enough to be able to choose your life’s direction, then I think you owe it to yourself to study something that makes sense to you and makes you a better person, not just more employable.
I would also say don’t worry if you change your mind or end up somewhere unexpected. Sometimes you don’t know what you are good at until you are doing it!
What has been the most valuable lesson that you’ve learned at university?
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned at university is that learning is a gift and it is our responsibility to do good with that gift and to take it out into the world to share it. Also, going to the movies on cheap days is very good and affordable self-care therapy!
What are your plans after graduation? Tell us about your ambitions and where you see yourself in the future?
After graduation I am planning on relaxing a bit over the summer and then in August I will begin my part-time work as a play therapist working for With Kids where I will be working three days a week in two different schools and with some private referral clients.
I will also be continuing to work two days a week at Children’s Parliament where I have been working for the past five years. My work at Children’s Parliament is a programme called Seen + Heard Fife, a project in collaboration with Fife Council focused on working with two groups of children with care experience to explore their rights and ambitions through art and creative activities. My learning through the play therapy masters has brought a level of depth to my work which has allowed us to focus on providing trauma informed group practice within the programme. In my role at Children’s Parliament I am on the Love Work Group for the Care Review and so I hope to support our Seen + Heard children to continue to impact the Care Review and share their voices to support making life better for children with care experience.
In the future I would love to combine my play therapy work with the work I have been doing with Children’s Parliament to work within a creative therapy space doing both individual and group work. I would like to learn more about working with trauma and the body and using music, drama and dance to support healing.
I have always loved reading and creating and so I would love to create books or resources to support children and their families. My hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand has had a lot of really hard stuff to deal with in the past while. The earthquakes in 2011 caused devastation and trauma to so many people, and earlier this year the Mosque shootings were a terrifying and incredibly sad crime so I also have been thinking about how play therapy can support mental first aid relief after traumatic events. Whatever I end up doing I know that play, creativity and children will be the common thread.
"My favourite part of this course has been the way it has changed me as a person. Learning about how we develop as people and exploring my own childhood experiences has helped me understand myself better and consider ways I need to improve and change."
[Published in July 2019]