Dr. Robert D. Nolan: A Champion for the Value and Benefits of Play TherapyPublished Monday, November 07, 2011
Dr. Robert D. Nolan, the 2011 David Lawrence Jr. Champion for Children, has served as the executive director of the Institute for Child & Family Health (ICFH) for better than 35 years.
Under his directorship, ICFH clinicians have provided mental health services for hundreds of thousands of local children, and Dr. Nolan has personally trained hundreds of mental health professionals. Yet to this renowned children’s advocate, that’s all just child’s play.
Play Therapy is at the heart and soul of Dr. Nolan’s treatment approach to helping children heal psychologically. A nationally and internationally recognized expert, Dr. Nolan is the founder and first president of the Florida Association for Play Therapy (FAPT).
“I noticed how therapeutic play was. Whether the therapist was there or not, the children were playing out a lot of their anxieties and their conflicts,” he said, noting a study of a playroom setting where children were left alone with only a few limitations to ensure safety.
The domestic unrest, complicated by early vision problems, affected his education. He failed first grade three times and struggled in school. By the 10th grade, he decided to drop out to enlist in the military. Years later, his service commitment nearly finished, Nolan sat chatting with some service buddies in Okinawa about their future plans. Most planned to go on to college. “What are you going to do?” they asked Nolan. “I’m going to become a child psychologist,” he replied confidently. With a passion for play and a desire to help children, he set out to fulfill his dream.
Educational benefits from the armed services helped Nolan finish high school and go on to college, then grad school. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Florida State University in 1959 and received post-doctoral training in child psychology at the Judge Baker Children’s Center, a Harvard Medical School affiliate, in 1960.
In 1962 he was named chief psychologist at ICFH (formerly the Children’s Psychiatric Center), which started as a small clinic at Jackson Hospital in 1945, among the first facilities in Florida to provide mental health services and the first to do so locally. In 1976 he became the director.
Life has changed dramatically over that time, especially with the encroachment of technology. Children no longer have the chance to play sandlot baseball with no parents around, dig holes in their backyards waiting to hit water or gaze with wonder up into a night-time sky filled with stars as he did himself and also encouraged his own children to do.
In his mind those changes have heightened the importance of play and experience to the outdoors.
“Those things are still available if the parent has time to expose the child to them. Kids have lost contact with nature, and that’s a big mistake,” he said.
The facility he has directed for nearly four decades has undergone a multitude of changes, yet its dedication to providing critical mental health services to children has remained constant.
“It’s a structured system now, lots of paperwork and more bureaucracy. Yet we still use play therapy; the theory and concept are the same, yet we’ve had to find a different way to approach,” Nolan said. ICFH provides play therapy services for children at 100 different area schools.
In addition to his impact locally, Dr. Nolan has played a prominent role in helping to shape policies pertaining to children’s mental health in Florida. A representative of Florida’s Multiagency Network for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities (SEDNET) and Miami Dade County agencies, Dr. Nolan travelled often to Tallahassee over the years to address legislative planning forums and individual legislators and advocate on behalf of children and families. In 1997, he presented the Children's Mental Health Bill (Lacosta Bill) at a Senate Hearing in Tallahassee and has been one of the forces behind the creation of Linking Forces, a multi-agency children’s mental health conference that launched in 1992.
As an educator, he has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University, and offered lectures, workshops and consultations in Florida, across the United States and internationally, including Africa, China, England and Morocco. In 2007, he received the Viola Brody Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field of Play Therapy.
What have the years of service taught him? “Without question, the most important thing I’ve learned through the years is that we therapists often underestimate the impact we have on the life of a child. In the same way that a teacher can have a life-long impact, for a therapist the realization is that what they did with the child may have changed the life course of that child, that they’ve gone on to succeed in the world.”
For a lifetime of achievement and dedication to children, Dr. Robert D. Nolan is the 2011 David Lawrence Jr. Champion for Children.
Written by Michael R. Malone