Thirty-six year old Gavin Menzies has come to Queen Margaret University through a rather unusual route. Running his own businesses for children in Edinburgh, he noticed that many of the children he was working with were dealing with complex challenges that he simply hadn’t the tools to help with. So, he started to look at ways that he would build their confidence and provide opportunities to support their development.
Despite having no higher education experience, Gavin dived straight into Master's programme in Play Therapy at Queen Margaret University. Studying part-time has given him the flexibility to work alongside his degree and he has welcomed the support from the academic staff, who have provided a flexible study option and supported his very unique journey into academia.
Indeed, Gavin is no ordinary student. During his time with QMU, he has put his life on the line to help others while juggling his move into postgraduate level education. But in doing so, he has developed an insight into childhood development, trauma and resilience which will no doubt stand him in good stead as he advances through his Master’s Play Therapy and develops as a practitioner.
At the start of the Russian invasion, Gavin travelled to Ukraine to volunteer and help refugees flee the country. Since then, he has returned multiple times and has most recently been supporting refugee children in a camp along the Polish-Ukrainian border. He even worked with local toy shops in Poland to raise money and give hundreds of refugee children Christmas presents.
What were you doing before coming to QMU?
Before I came to QMU I was running my own businesses in Edinburgh. I run a basketball academy and holiday camp for kids in and around Edinburgh.
Why did you choose to study Play Therapy at QMU?
Through my basketball academy and holiday camp, we often build links with the communities we are working in, and I was developing a lot of health and wellbeing activities throughout Covid. I was finding that there were a lot of kids coming into the academy with complex needs and difficulties. Far more complex difficulties than the engagement in sport could solve or that I had the skillset to support.
Children were becoming quite withdrawn, were regressing from where they typically “should be” for their age and were experiencing quite significant issues around confidence. It was clear to see that Covid was an issue, but the varying degrees of how children had been affected, I feel, will ripple on for many a year to come.
I have never been a big fan of just referring people on to someone else or another service and so I wanted to see if I could develop new skills to better support the children that were coming into the academy, or at least be confident that I was referring them to the right places. That’s why I got involved in doing the MSc Play Therapy.
How have you found doing your master’s part time?
I have found the level of academia quite difficult as I don’t have the foundation built through a degree. It’s quite an unusual situation, a Masters having left education in high school behind almost 18 years ago. I knew this would be a real challenge when I started this journey, and it definitely is.
However, the QMU course is delivered in collaboration with the organisation ‘With Kids’ and having experienced lecturers who are actively practicing the content that they are teaching us, really connects us to this material.
That’s what has made the course thoroughly enjoyable - our lecturers really understand what we are experiencing and why Play Therapy is so important. I think that’s why we all got involved in this kind of work - we see how the therapeutic space and relationship can support the child’s healing process.
It will continue to be a challenge to juggle my work, family responsibilities and education, however, the only way I would be able to do this is by studying part-time and the academic team have been really supportive of that decision.
How have you found the collaboration between QMU and With Kids?
The With Kids staff have been on hand whenever we need them to speak about our concerns. I can see and resonate with their passion for Play Therapy, not because they wanted to be academics, but because they wanted to practice and support children and their families.
"It’s amazing to be around such seasoned professionals and it continues to scaffold my learning. Their wealth of knowledge and level of compassion has become a pillar of support, not just for myself but for all of the students on the course."
What have been the course highlights?
Language is always going to be a barrier for children. We, as adults, can develop the necessary vocabulary and confidence to verbalise our feelings but children haven’t developed those skills yet. A lot of what we do is learning how to be present, be non directive and how to actively listen to children.
One thing I found when I went to Ukraine to support those children is that I didn’t speak their language. The skills I am developing on the course, like the ability to be present, was something they cherished the most. Not because I could engage with them verbally, but because I could attune to how they were feeling. I will forever carry experiences like this with me and know that I would not have been as effective had I not been given the opportunity to do the MSc.
What do you hope to do after graduation?
It’s such an interesting time right now. The cost-of-living crisis is really a ‘cost of everything’ crisis where schools have less funds and increasing pressure to offer additional support like Play Therapy. I’m unsure now as to how Play Therapy is going to fit into future developing models in education, but I find myself being invited into the conversation and with that level of consideration brings me hope.
I am now a firm believer that every child can benefit from having someone be present, congruent and who will actively listen and that might not always be possible in a classroom setting. If parents are having to look at increasing their working hours in the current economic climate, this might not always be possible in the home either.
I’d like to champion these values of Play Therapy into the future after I graduate. That may involve upskilling again and looking at how I can push Play Therapy forward through doing a PhD or push for it at a government and policy development level.