A playful new approach to criminal rehabilitation

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At a time when Australia is putting more people behind bars than ever before at a cost of $2.6 billion per year, one Deakin academic is taking a radical new approach to tackle criminal rehabilitation. Bachelor of Social Work Course Leader at Deakin University, Dr Sophie Goldingay believes the key to rehabilitation isn’t punishment – it’s play.

Repairing a problematic system

Dr Goldingay’s flash of inspiration came when she was a social worker managing young offenders in the women’s prison service. ‘One of the things I noticed was that their perspective on what caused their offending was really different from what the criminal justice system thought. Lots of women would say things like – “Oh, gee I don’t know why I did that”, “I wish I didn’t do that”, “I couldn’t stop myself”, or “I couldn’t see what was going to happen as a result of doing that”,’ she says.

It’s then that she started to think about what it was that was causing these women to find themselves in these situations. And she began to see some common themes: not anticipating consequences, not being able to control emotions and actions, and not being able to problem solve to avoid coercive situations and relationships. Rather than accepting a tired method of retribution, she considered new possibilities.

The existing treatments available to those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law seemed often ineffective, with many past offenders returning to police custody again and again. It was then that she knew she needed to tackle the problem with a creative solution.

Playing with the consequences

After consulting with colleagues, Dr Goldingay began working closely with Learn to Play program pioneer and occupational therapist Professor Karen Stagnitti, Associate Head of School (Research) in the Faculty of Health at Deakin University.

‘Play is essential for children to develop and most children engage in play naturally’, Dr Goldingay explains. ‘They learn negotiation, empathy, consequential thinking and self-regulation. Some children may not have had the opportunity to play in their early years however, and don’t develop these skills. This could be due to the experience of trauma, grief and loss, or due to disabilities.’

Together with Prof. Stagnitti, Dr Goldingay has developed an early intervention program that aims to teach potential young offenders the skills they need to stay out of trouble. ‘People’s brains are plastic, so even if you missed out on important milestones in your youth, you can still develop these aspects in the future,’ she says.

Program participants are placed in the role of a movie director and asked to create a character. Then, together with other students, they develop a story around that character and then go on to film it.

The program is currently on trial in two Victorian secondary schools where it’s already showing early promise with Dr Goldingay observing, ‘We found that our play-based program improved empathy, flexible thinking and self-regulation amongst the participants in our pilot study.’

'We found that our play-based program improved empathy, flexible thinking and self-regulation amongst the participants in our pilot study.'

Dr Sophie Goldingay,
School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University

After further trials, the hope is the program is rolled out across more schools to target youth at risk of offending, and also made available to people already in the criminal justice system. While play may not be an obvious solution to rising crime rates, Dr Goldingay hopes that more people can adopt her open-minded attitude and provide young people with opportunities to evolve and succeed, rather than writing them off.

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Dr Sophie Goldingay
Dr Sophie Goldingay

Bachelor of Social Work Course Leader, School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University
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