Cooperative Play in Nature at Camp Klicek, Czech Republic

the volunteers!

Photo credit: Jiří Královec

(Thanks to Jiří Královec for many of the photos! The best ones are his and noted beneath each photo. The rest are my amateur work.)

At Camp Klicek in the Czech Republic, a place where children and adults affected by illness and loss gather, activities run the gamut from a tiddlywinks tournament to bussing campers to a Shakespearean play.  The Accace Corporation provides tax advice to the foundation during the year, but they look forward to visiting the camp in person to have fun with the children and families each summer. This July, a fabulous group of volunteers  arrived with a day full of activities to engage us all. Their choices promoted creativity and cooperation amongst the campers, and nature threaded its way through the day’s activities. The volunteers brought their A game to the endeavor – with wonderful materials and activities – but more than anything, they brought their hearts.

They kicked off the day by setting up several activity stations in the courtyard between the hospice building and the summer kitchen. Children soaked up the beautiful summer sun while they decorated their own rucksacks, baked berry muffins, posed for photos in silly costumes, and became experts in Origami through skilled instruction. The corporation brought enough materials so that the parents, grandparents and volunteers could create alongside the children.

Decorating Rucksacks

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Jon

Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

 

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Baking Muffins

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muffins!

Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

Origami

 

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beautiful origami swan

Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

Silly Photobooth

props

Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

 

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Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

 

Fun in theForrest

Following a delicious lunch and a break, the afternoon kicked off with a short journey across the main road and into the surrounding woods. During the post-lunch break, the volunteers had been hard at work setting up a series of task stations in the forrest.

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Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

The volunteers provided the children with preprinted passport cards. With each task they completed, they’d get a stamp on their card. When all tasks were accomplished, they would be awarded their “driver’s license.” The kids hiked and biked via roadster peddle cars to the forrest, not really knowing what to expect. When they arrived, the adults paired the children into play partner teams. The teams had 6 stations to work their way through.

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Station #1: Flat Tire

The first task: inflating an inner tube, because a driver never knows when she might have to change a flat tire!

Right side Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

Station #2: Navigation

We don’t always have access to GPS, so it pays to be prepared for getting lost or off course.  For this lesson in navigation, each child/teen blindfolded their partner, and then led them through an obstacle course.

navigation

Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

helping blindfolded

Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

return help

Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

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Station #3: Traffic Signs

In order to be a safe and good driver, one must know how to read road signs. This station required play partners to match common signs with the appropriate written descriptions.

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Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

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Station #4: First Aid

Even under the best of conditions, accidents can happen. Knowing some basic First Aid skills can save life and limb. At station #4, kids learned how to make a sling out of a bandage, and immobilize their partner’s arm.

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Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

 

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Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

Station #5: Sobriety Checkpoint

Drunk driving is no joke, but this station was downright hilarious. As children approached the checkpoint, two volunteers dressed as police officers greeted them and asked for a kiss. When the child leaned in to plant one on the cop’s cheek, she backed away and exclaimed, “Ooof! You smell like alcohol! Have you been drinking?!” The cop then led the child through their version of walking the straight line. The driver had to bend over at the waist as the police spun them around 10 times. After spinning, the offender had to walk along a line in and around stanchions, and nail a tree with a pinecone thrown from a pile gathered at the end of the obstacles.

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Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

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Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

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Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

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Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

Station #6: Beating the clock

At the last station, kids either rode a scooter or ran a course of stanchions while the volunteers clocked their time. There were definitely only winners in all of these activities. Everyone received a lovely diploma “license” at the end of the run, along with a reflective bracelet to be worn when walking at night.

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Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

tobias running

diplomas

Photo credit: By: Jiří Královec

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Fairy Homes

While each team took their time at the stations, the children who finished first had one last activity awaiting them. There are fairies in the forrest, and they all need homes. While some of the campers gathered kindling for that night’s bonfire, others set about gathering natural loose parts with which to build fairy homes. They are so well constructed that some had outlasted the winter snow from last year’s building.

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When all was done, Csaba (Klicek’s executive director) and Hugo the dog set up a barricade of brush to signal traffic on the main road to stop, and we all headed back to the camp as twilight descended over Malejovice.

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For more information about the importance of play in childhood, please see this article and website Why Play is an Essential Part of Childhood Development by 

Making Hospitals More Hospitable with The Tongue Depressor Challenge

 

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My colleague, child life specialist Jon Luongo, is one of the most playful professionals that I have the pleasure of knowing. He taught me all about the “tongue depressor challenge”, which is described in detail in our co-authored chapter in the Handbook of Medical Play Therapy and Child Life.  Below is a brief introduction to the activity by Jon:

I encourage the doctors to tap into their imaginative playfulness to complete what I call the ‘tongue depressor challenge.’ The task is to co-construct a teaching tool alongside a patient to explain a part of the body, a particular medical condition, or piece of medical hardware. The challenge for doctor and patient is to use at least one tongue depressor in their design; like a single LEGO brick in a set of construction toys, the tongue depressor represents a humble piece of medical paraphernalia with limitless creative building potential.

 

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As with many great ideas, I borrowed Jon’s and tweaked it a bit. This past July, I brought the activity with me to the Klicek Foundation Summer Camp in Malejovice, Czech Republic. Camp directors Jiri and Marketa Královcovi graciously allowed me to lead the campers in a slight variation on Jon’s theme. Continue reading

Children Ponder Good & Evil at Camp Klicek

 

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We are all capable of good and evil.  People do bad things – sometimes they make mistakes that cause harm unwittingly. Sometimes they hurt others purposefully. Sometimes, doing nothing causes more pain for others than we can possibly imagine. At Camp Klicek in Malejovice, Czech Republic, founders Jiri and Marketa Královcovi make room for children to discuss and think about tough issues. They want kids in their care to be more than followers and simplistic thinkers, to see the humanity in everyone and the possibility that although conflict might be inevitable when a large group of people gather, people can make mistakes and still not be bad people.

And so, on one bright summer morning, following a hearty breakfast of porridge, bread, tomatoes, peppers, tea and hot carob with milk, the adults at camp led the children in an activity that reverberated throughout the week. The children gathered in small groups by age bracket. Some sat in the meadow, some under the mess tent, others in the courtyard. With adult guidance, they contemplated these questions:

  • What are bad or evils things?
  • Why do people do them?
  • What can be done about it?

The children took the assignment seriously, taking notes and including the voices of all. I moved amongst the groups, catching a snippet here and there from a kind translator. The children mentioned everything from the past and present atrocities of the world to the more mundane, including genocide, torture, terrorism and bullying on their lists. The youngest camper, when asked why people do bad things, answered, “Because they don’t love each other.”

At the end of the small group conversations, each group reported out to the whole camp, as we sat in the shade of the mess tent and processed together. The discussions were the scaffolding for the real fun. The next step of this activity involved each group choosing one of their examples, writing a play script to demonstrate the concept, and videotaping the enactment. The kids were deeply involved in this process throughout the day, and that night, they set up an outdoor theater in the courtyard, complete with a movie screen, the moon shining down upon us, and homemade apple strudel made from the summer apples, the Klicek version of popcorn. We smacked our lips and licked our fingers as we watched the completed movies, along with some movies created in past years.

My favorite play depicted two different families heading off to summer camp.  One family had no luggage or sleeping bags, just the clothes on their backs. The mother handed her children 10 crowns apiece and kissed them goodbye. The other family stood in front of a Mercedes Benz with their fancy clothes, belongings, cell phones, and the mother dolling out hundreds of crowns to each child. The scenario played out with the rich kids arriving at camp, immediately making fun of the poor kids, an act of kindness when one of them falls down and the other helps them up, and all of the kids ending up playing a game of football (soccer in the US) together.

A simple message, but one not lost on any of us. The campers did indeed come from a variety of backgrounds, and would probably not be interacting at school or in social circles outside of this camp environment. When I think of acts of evil, I think about how we create separation by dehumanizing people who we label as “other.” It is harder to keep these stereotypes and misconceptions in place when we wake, sing, break bread, play, and rest our heads together in the same teepee. I saw many acts of kindness each day between campers, whether it was an older child helping another child navigate steep steps, the hard work of the volunteers in our kitchen, or folks pitching in to help a teen search for her lost eyeglasses.

The thoughtful planning applied to activities that built community astounded me. Along with a mess kit and clothes, the camp packing list asked each child and adult to bring a glass jar with a lid to camp. The campers decorated these jars with their names and artwork, and hung them by ribbons on the branch of a low tree in the meadow behind the house. They left messages of appreciation in each jar, to adults and kids alike throughout the weeks. At the end of camp, they each took their jar with them, with strict instructions to hold off on opening it until they had arrived home. Marketa said that this is a concrete way to further the bonds created at camp. “Some of these children are isolated because of their illnesses. These jars and their notes are a lifeline for them throughout the year.”

My jar sits on my desk at home and reminds me of the generosity of spirit that children share so willingly. I can see why these campers return year after year to the meadow, the tree and the love.

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Camp Klicek: A Dose of Nature and the Universal Language of Play

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I remember the endless swath of time that summer brought when I was a young child. Unstructured free time in nature, with neighborhood kids, and my family. I also played alone, exploring the back roads on my bike and the woods on foot. At the age of seven, I would be gone for hours, playing in brooks, creating forts under the shelter of giant boulders, climbing trees, making up stories in my head, and writing poetry.

These days, we are hard put to find children at play in this kind of open-ended, unsupervised milieu. Their play is planned, highly structured by adults, and often close-ended. When left to their own devices, kids often choose tablets, smart phones and video games as their go to. Child life specialists and hospital play specialists know the value of deep, open-ended play that encourages self-expression, exploration, self-regulation, social development, and problem solving. My friends at the Klicek Foundation in the Czech Republic provide these play opportunities at their summer camp for children and families affected by illness and loss. This year, they invited me to partake in a unique camp experience, and I immersed myself in the healing environment of Camp Klicek, which has been in operation since 1992.

 

Children after a long-term therapy (and sometimes even patients under treatment, if their health allows it) take part in the camp, as well as their friends, siblings, parents and pets. Several bereaved families come too.

Our camp activities began as an attempt to offer a two-week stay in beautiful natural surrounding also to those children who couldn’t participate in a “normal” summer camp. We have always tried to create a friendly, open-hearted and open-minded atmosphere in our camps, and we hope that the camp program gives its participants enough opportunities to have fun, to do some useful work, to talk about things that are important to them, to simply be with friends.

The camp games and plays (mostly non-competitive) follow the make-believe story of a man who decided to spend some time with nature and is thus confronted with new situations and thoughts and starts to meditate on his own life and on the civilization he lives in.

Children live in big Indian “tee-pee” tents which are able to accommodate up to six inhabitants and have a fireplace inside.

Since 2000, we organize our camps on a meadow just behind the respite hospice building at Malejovice – thanks to this, children whose condition requires special attention can also participate in the camp program, backed by the safe environment of our house.

 

    klicek.org

 

Indeed, I found myself amidst a remarkable mix of campers and staff, a combination of people and circumstances that is hard to imagine anywhere else. The youngest camper was seven years of age, the oldest, twenty. The children’s diagnoses differed significantly, as did their abilities, disabilities, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. There were children undergoing treatment, survivors of serious illness, siblings, friends, parents, and bereaved parents who had lost a child. The camp leaders, Jiri and Marketa, are purposeful in their choice to bring children and adults together where they might not otherwise interact in larger society. Watching connections form between the campers and staff of varied backgrounds was a blessing on so many levels.

The focus of our days involved living in nature, eating good, healthy food, exploring tough topics such as “What is evil?” and “How can we make the hospital experience more pleasant?”, and above all, building community. The virtual lack of technology at camp was so refreshing. I felt myself detoxing from my smartphone addiction as I wrapped myself in nature, old fashioned, simple play, and grand company.

Many friends have asked me what it was like for me to be surrounded by children who spoke Czech. Did I learn any Czech? How did I communicate with them? Well, I was immersed in a foreign language – of that there is no doubt. Most children spoke no more than a few words or phrases in English, and my Czech is abysmal. But the children understand more English than they speak, and play is a universal language.  The children’s welcoming of me was profound, inviting me into play, making me feel immediately part of the group. “Frisbee?” “Will you play?” “Come play football.” “Ping pong?” “Draw.” Once engaged in a game or project, there was much good will and laughter as we all tried our best to communicate.

I too, grew my Czech vocabulary one word and gesture at a time. I made it my goal over the week to learn everyone’s name – a challenging feat with names that were not familiar to me.  But with each name and greeting, I could see the rapport growing, the shy kids responding, the teens warming. Some of my favorite moments were when I would board the 1970’s retro bus for a field trip, and a kid would smile at me and pat the seat beside them to show they’d been saving it for me. Or that wonderful moment, when the quietest camper, one who spent much time alone and looked down or sideways rather than meeting your gaze, took my hand as I stepped off the bus and walked quietly with me to our destination.

It’s the small stuff, really.

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Children berry picking on a picnic in Czech countryside

 

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Klicek Foundation cofounder Marketa leading us in a trivia game in the camp’s mess tent, where we ate all of our meals.

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Handgames

In my next several posts, I will dive deeper into some of the activities we did, the games we played, the lessons I learned.

 

Playroom Design Made Easy

 

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Auckland, New Zealand

In my career as a child life specialist and educator, I have seen many hospital playrooms throughout the country and across the globe. In my mind’s eye, I have an idea of what makes a playroom wonderful, combining the best parts of every playroom I have ever seen. My imaginary perfect playroom is a large open space, filled with natural light, a warm, cozy atmosphere, comfy furniture, child-sized sinks and work areas, and a working kitchen. The toys are within reach so that all children can

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Mural in Mexico City

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Playspace in Mexico City

play freely. There is a well stocked medical play corner. There are safe spaces for infants to have tummy time and room to crawl. There are climbing bolsters for toddlers and a wheelchair accessible playhouse for preschoolers and young school-aged children. There are riding toys and sensory play tables. Ping pong and pool tables are there for teens and caregivers to gather around.

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Czech Republic

The best part about this imaginary playroom is that it is staffed with child life specialists, or hospital play specialists, who have been trained in play theory and play techniques, including the child-centered approach and the Floortime approach. They have also undergone training in racial literacy, and speak many languages. There is cleaning personnel on staff who disinfect toys and surfaces as needed. The playroom has daily programming that includes expressive art. medical art, and medical play. Outdoor playspace is available for children and families facing lengthy hospitalizations.

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Japan

In order to make my fantasy one step closer to reality, I designed the Vilas Playroom Assessment Rubric VIPAR to guide hospital staff in creating new play spaces or revamping existing ones. I recently updated it with the help of Meagan Roloff from the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP). It is a fillable pdf document that you can download and use to assess your current playspace, or give you ideas for how to design new space. Many hospitals have funding from big corporations to build dramatic and eye-popping play spaces in hospitals. But it isn’t always about the glitz. Sometimes it is the simplest of things, like the sensory room filled with homemade sensory toys in Japan, the custom designed foot high cushioned wall to protect an infant/toddler area from exuberant older kids in New Zealand, or a set of wooden blocks for children to create their own miniature worlds. A doll bed and medical supplies to encourage medical play in Iceland. A wooden playhouse whose door can accommodate a wheelchair and IV pole in New York City. And often, it is about the policies, programming, and training of the staff that make the space a truly child-centered place of healing.

Think outside the box and see where your imagination takes you. And please, drop me a line to let me know how it turns out — I would love to see more photos from around the world!

 

 

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Bethlehem

 

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Iceland

 

 

Be a helper: Responding to the separation of children and families at our borders

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The images of immigrant children separated from parents and the sounds of their cries are permeating my days and nights. For many parents, grandparents, teachers, child life specialists, and mental health professionals, the cruelty and violations of human rights being committed against innocent children are leaving us reeling and wondering what to do. For me, it brings to mind children of the Holocaust, including the Children of Lidice whom I learned of during my work in the Czech Republic. When dehumanization is a matter of government policy, how far are we from the atrocities suffered by children during World War II, and by children today who flee with their families for their safety from countries torn by war, terrorism, and poverty?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a statement opposing the separation of children from their families at our borders. They refer to the actions of our government as child abuse and speak to the long-term damage that this will cause to the developing brains of these children.

“Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians – protecting and promoting children’s health. In fact, highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health. This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress – known as toxic stress – can carry lifelong consequences for children.”

 

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https://www.technicalfriends.com/immigrant-children-can-shelter-staff-hold-comfort-those-separated-from-parents/

 

Many professionals and lay-people are wondering what we can do to help. Many of us are signing petitions, calling our senators and representatives, and coordinating to demonstrate in Washington, DC and in our own home states.  The Association of Child Life Professionals  ACLP issued this statement opposing the traumatic separation of children from their families by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ACLP shares the concerns outlined in the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Policy Statement on the Detention of Immigrant Childrenand urges that all children housed in government facilities receive evidence-based, developmentally appropriate care in order to minimize the negative psychological impact of family separation. Any facility housing children should be staffed with professionals trained in child development and the emotional and psychosocial care of children. ACLP urges the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to limit family separation and encourages U.S. policymakers to advocate for the emotional and physical safety needs of all children.

 

I reached out to  Child Life Disaster Relief , and they have released this statement:

Child Life Disaster Relief is currently working thoughtfully to determine how we can support children and families being effected in a purposeful, sustainable, and effective manner.  We will provide updates on this progress as soon as any are available. In the meantime, if you are looking for action to take, please contact your state representatives and express your professional opposition to this crisis.

Some of my Bank Street College colleagues are volunteering with the New Sanctuary Coalition to support immigrants and families moving through the NYC court system, an extraordinarily dehumanizing encounter in and of itself. Add to it the fact that family members (including children) are afraid to show up to support their detained loved ones, for fear that they too will be detained and shackled (Yes, detainees, some who have lived in this country for many years, are dressed in orange jumpsuits and shackled for court appearances and transportation!).  Mayor DeBlasio spoke out about NYC’s role in the federal process. We have over 200 children in East Harlem, a stone’s throw away from where I live, being dumped into an over-saturated fostercare system that is broken in the best of times. The federal government refuses to tell the mayor and our governor where these children are being held

As if that weren’t enough to shatter these children — THERE IS NO PLAN IN PLACE TO REUNITE THEM WITH THEIR FAMILIES! It feels unspeakable to even write that down. The damage that has been done to these children will affect them the rest of their lives.

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http://www.newsweek.com/jeff-sessions-children-parents-border-912972

It is disturbing to write this — to choose images to portray the depth of this cruelty — to not have easy answers to warm our hearts — Let our hearts not be warmed — Let them instead be ignited in flames of outrage! Let our voices be heard – to amplify the cries of the children. Let us not be bystanders. Let us communicate our horror to our representatives in government. Let us step in and vote in ways that will not allow for this kind of thing to become another Holocaust. Let us search our communities for volunteer opportunities to offer direct aid to these children and families. Let us lend our financial support to organizations like the ACLU that has the clout and structure to approach this disaster. Check out individual families in need on sites like https://actionnetwork.org/groups/raices-refugee-and-immigrant-center-for-education-and-legal-serviceshttps://www.gofundme.com, and https://www.crowdfunding.com/

Our children ARE our humanity – and all children are OUR CHILDREN.

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Kiddos

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A headline caught my eye this morning:

Miss USA 2018 Sarah Rose Summers on Her New Job, #ConfidentlyBeautiful, and Working with ‘Kiddos’

I searched the article to see if she was quoted as using the word, “kiddo”, and couldn’t find any reference to it in her eloquent and passionate description of her work as a child life specialist. So I am going to put the use of the word down to creative journalism.

But I do read and hear that word often in the vocabulary of child life specialists far and wide, in person and in writing — and it has never fallen easily on my ears. I wonder sometimes if I am being nitpicky. But I looked it up on the internet and my intuition was backed up, first by the definition I found, and secondly by several conversations in the media by everyone from teachers to business women and journalists.

Here are two definitions I found:

Google Dictionary says that it is “used as a friendly or slightly condescending form of address.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary describes it as a term of affectionate address sometimes mildly patronizing

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THAT is the nuance that has always been pricking the back of my brain. It is the fact that there is such a thin line between an affectionate colloquial term and one that imparts a power deferential, demeaning the individual to whom we are referring.

In an article entitled “The word every boss should ban“, Leigh Gallagher says, “But kiddo can also be patronizing and condescending, and while the person using the term may think of it as an expression of benign affection, it doesn’t always come across that way. For a young woman who is trying her best to be taken seriously, ‘kiddo’ can very quickly wipe all that away.”

In a conversation between teachers, the opinions are all over the map, but the underlying message for us is one of being conscious of the language we use, and how it informs our professional relationships with children.

When I think of children in hospitals, I think about how disempowered they are by virtue of being a patient in a medical institution. It seems that anything we can do, including refraining from using unintentionally demeaning language, can usher in more humanity to an inherently dehumanizing environment. Calling children and parents by their given names, even asking how they prefer to be addressed, taking the time to note names and refer back to them, seems like the least we can do to show children and families that we see them for the unique individuals they are – beyond the confines of the hospital.

 

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Child Life Cooperative: Learning One Child At a Time

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This week we welcome Allie Jones, the founder of the Child Life Cooperative- a website and podcast with the mission to advance the child life profession by learning through reflection, uniting for support and equipping students. Follow on Instagram or email at allie@childlifecooperative.com. I invited her to share a story about her work with you all.  Take it away, Allie

 

Deb may not remember this, but when I began my very first child life job I desperately reached out to her for help. The job I had been dreaming about turned out to be a job that I dreaded going to each day. I am pretty convinced that I developed a reputation on the commuter train as being “the girl that was always crying” before and after work in the city. 

Within a short week of starting a one-person child life program, I quickly got the sense that child life was an unwanted and misunderstood service. The rehabilitation hospital wanted a person who would organize fun activities for the therapists to do with the patients during therapy. Staffs’ expectation was that this person would then stand off to the side—no talking, no co-treating. In their minds, child life was a party planner and recreational therapist. And if I tried to advocate and educate staff of more appropriate ways to utilize child life, then I would be at risk of being fired. On my first day as I shared ideas of how to develop the child life program, a behavioral therapist looked at me square in the eyes and said, “just do what they tell you to do. Tread lightly, Allie, or else…”

I felt intimidated. I felt overwhelmed. I felt defeated. And, I felt utterly alone.

I decided to email Deb Vilas, someone who I had never met, but whose name continued to pop up in child life forums and articles. I wanted to see if she had any advice on how to proceed in such a discouraging job.

Deb encouraged me, providing alternative approaches I could try. She reminded me to gently educate and model for staff what child life truly was. She pointed me towards focusing on connecting with the patients personally and spurred me towards pressing onward with confidence and conviction.

Which I did. And to be honest, every day was a battle.

Not only were the expectations of party planning incredibly taxing and difficult to carry out as a one-person program, my patient population also proved to be a challenge. Many of my patients were from the inner city and had come to the rehabilitation hospital due to injuries related to gang violence.

One patient, we will call him “Devon”, is a young man I will never forget.

I met Devon one afternoon during rounds. He had just been admitted and I could hear him shouting and swearing down the hall.

I heard staff whisper, “he is 16 and was shot 6 times trying to steal a car. This will be fun, won’t it?”

I knocked. “Devon? I am Allie, my job is to—“

“Hey, you know what? I don’t care. Go f*** yourself.”

“Alrighty, then. Good talk. Until tomorrow, Devon.”

I didn’t feel it was the time to keep pressing at that moment with Devon. Instead, I tried to break down his walls by showing up at his room every. single. day. The kid was going to be here until further notice, so I figured I had some time to connect with him.

And so. Every. Single. Day. I kept at it.

Day 2.

“Hey, Devon. Allie, here.”

“Get out. Go f*** yourself.”

Day 3.

“Devon, I just got this new video game and—“

“Would you shut up? Leave!”

Fast forward to approximately 15 days later.

“Hey, Devon.”

“Allie, right? Word is you have some McDonald’s gift cards you give out to kids and can take them across the street after therapy is over.”

That was true. I actually received training in order to be able to take kids on outings.

Yet, hearing him actually initiate made me speechless at first.

“I like hot fudge sundaes,” Devon continued.

Finally, I responded, “I do, too. Let’s go get you one.”

From that day forward I sat in disbelief as I saw D’s walls slowly start to come down.We began a weekly ritual of going across the street to McDonald’s. And boy, it must have been a sight to watch us even try to get there! Devon was paralyzed from the neck down and was cruising in an extremely heavy and finicky power wheelchair. I was the lanky young-looking girl who would try to push said power wheelchair when it would malfunction!

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But we would make it. And we would sit and actually talk. Devon began to open up to me about the life he lived from foster home to foster home. He shared with me the loneliness and abandonment he faced that pushed him to join a gang, his only sense of “family” and “belonging”.

Devon came to our hospital as a raging, angry, bitter and violent teenager. Yet he transformed into a gentle, kind and respectful young man. He even befriended another patient, a young 5-year-old girl who had a diagnosis of selective mutism. Yet Devon swore that she would talk to him. Sometimes when Devon was upset, he would have the nurse cover his face with his blanket so he could shut out the world. And then, this little 5-year-old friend would wheel up to him, rip off his blanket and smile at him. They would talk for hours. A true picture of “the lion” and “the lamb”.

Though the child life job description never seemed to get better at that hospital and the staff continued to be resistant, no matter what, meeting Devon and the relationship that budded made all the tearful train rides worth it. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Choosing to zero in on each individual patient ended up giving my work so much meaning and fulfillment, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time and even if I was still expected to solely plan parties. Because those patients didn’t just need a Halloween party or a fun game to play during therapy, they needed a child life specialist.

So for all of you who may be in a job that you hate, or be longing for a different opportunity, take a minute to look around and try to find your “Devon”. It will be worth it.

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Someone Who Looks Like Me

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Early morning this past Tuesday, I squeezed onto the uptown #5 train on my way to the Immaculate Conception School in the South Bronx. The morning rush crowd swept me off the train at 149th Street and Third Avenue, and up the steps to a busy thoroughfare, where several streets spoked out in various directions. I made my way up a hill, heading north and west to where the school backed up against a Catholic church. The main school entrance opened onto a set of stairs, leading to a hallway where a receptionist at a small school desk pointed me up another two flights to the science room. Paper signs with arrows and CAREER DAY in bold print showed me the rest of the way, and I climbed the freshly painted cement steps, taking in the familiar smells and sounds of institutional cooking and children’s voices echoing through the high ceilinged halls.

The principal, Sr. Patrice, a longtime friend, and an avid Yankee fan, set down her coffee to greet me with a warm hug. My life partner is the school’s Board president, and this was not my first visit to the grammar school that holds a great reputation for its students continuing on to high school and college. In a neighborhood with highly segregated, low resourced public schools, this school provides an alternative pathway to children of all denominations.  Several other visitors, business people and alumni, sat at the round work tables on an assortment of chairs and stools, sipping coffee and nibbling at sweetbreads that I was thrilled to see. Breakfast had eluded me and I was starving.

I looked up from my croissant to see my friend enter the room. “Hey, Cassandra!”  I waved her over to my table. Cassandra is the executive director of the 163rd Street Improvement Council. They provide housing and supportive services for people with a variety of special needs. Cassandra is a fan of women’s basketball and attended Liberty games at Madison Square Garden in seats next to my partner. I’d met her when she invited us to her 60th birthday party, and we’d been Facebook friends ever since. I didn’t know her well, but I thought of her when I’d accepted the invitation to career day. At a previous career day, I’d noticed that there seemed to be a disproportionate amount of white speakers given the fact that most of the students were kids of color. I reached out to Cassandra in a transparent way, telling her I thought the kids might do better seeing more adults who looked like them. (See The Danger of a Single Story.) She accepted immediately, and here she was, excited and nervous about addressing the kids.

Sr. Patrice had us each booked in separate rooms with half hour talks over a two hour period. I began with the fifth graders, who were eager to learn about the wonderful profession of Child Life. I began by asking them how many of them had ever been hospitalized. Every hand in the room shot up, making me think about the healthcare disparities in poorer neighborhoods — chronic illnesses such as asthma being a common scourge.  I shared some stories about playing with sick children and showed them the ultimate child life fact — how once an IV is inserted, the needle retracts into the plastic holder and only a flexible plastic tube called a catheter remains in your vein. I brandished a real IV start to demonstrate, causing several kids to cringe in fear. Reassuring them that no one would get stuck with a needle by me, I passed around the catheter for them to examine, showing them how it was so small that a mouse could probably drink a milkshake through it. They brimmed over with questions.

  •  What do you do if a child doesn’t want to play?
  • Are all the kids really sick, or do some of them have like broken bones?
  • Do you sometimes feel sad?
  • What do you do when it is really hard?
  • What do you do if a child doesn’t get better?
  • How do you become a child life specialist?

Our time together had one dramatic interruption when a bird flew into the room and many of the children panicked and lept shrieking from their chairs. Sr. Patrice came to see what was causing such a commotion. Her calm and authoritative presence quieted the room so that we could continue. She gave me credit, saying how lucky it was that a child life specialist was there to calm the children, but I knew that she was the one with the magic powers.

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My next gig was a classroom of sixth graders. They’d been hosting several speakers before me and were a bit wound up by the time I arrived. So I got them out of their seats for some stretching before beginning my talk. This group had some questions, but they were more interested in telling their own stories of hospitalization. I listened as several children quietly shared about their medical encounters, which sounded scary and unpleasant. Some of them had met a child life specialist, but many hadn’t. One girl said, “Child life needs to come to Lincoln Hospital.” That was a great segue for me to talk about why the profession needed more people like them, who understood what their communities needed.

After our time with the kids, Cassandra and I met up back in the science room and trekked down the hill to part ways, she to her car and I to the subway. Her enthusiasm and joy for the day were clear – She’d had a blast with the students. We celebrated and documented our day by posing for a selfie in front of the church. IMG_5559

Two days later, Cassandra reached out on Facebook with this post:

Today I got a call from a parent of one of the kids from yesterday (Some of the kids asked for my business card). She called to thank me — her 14 year old came home excited about this person who was passionate and accomplished and “looked like me.”

I am so grateful to have been used in this way.

I am thinking that next year, I need to invite more people of color to join me, including child life specialists. Anyone want to join us? In the meantime, consider a  visit to your own neighborhood public schools to spread the good word and ignite the fire in the next generation of child lifers.

 

Equity During Transitions

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At the 2018 commencement ceremony of the BankStreet College of Education this past week, graduates weren’t the only ones juggling feelings of excitement, nostalgia, and anticipation. Cheering on our Child Life Program students brought forth memories of some watershed moments in my own career. When a colleague reached out to the Child Life Forum today asking for child lifers to share thoughts about advocacy and empowerment in times of transition, I began to think more deeply about who and what supported me as I pursued my passion to work with children in hospitals.
As a career changer, I  worked as a coordinator in the volunteer department (a paid position) at a large cancer hospital for over seven years. I discovered the field of child life while attending a professional development workshop at my workplace. A participant introduced herself as a child life specialist, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the lightbulb that went off in my head lit up the whole room. I had found my calling.   She recommended the BankStreet College, and I enrolled soon thereafter,  minoring in child life within a masters in early childhood special education. The hospital paid for my degree, and it took me almost 4 years to complete as I worked full-time.
When I finally graduated, I very much wished to work in the same hospital on the pediatric ward where I had placed, trained, and supported over 125 volunteers. My colleague, the director of pediatric recreation, (child life wasn’t yet in existence there) told me that although she would enjoy working with me, she felt that if I didn’t leave the hospital and spread my wings that I would regret it. I listened to her and left for a large city hospital, working in the emergency department, pediatric wait and play room, and the child abuse clinic, where I learned more than I ever could have imagined. It was a very important time of growth for me and my colleague had been so right.
Another moment of transition came when I took on some of my first private clients. Two professors from my studies at Bankstreet referred me to work with children in their homes, to help them cope with medical procedures and the loss of a family member. My mentors provided supervision for me as I tackled this new and exciting challenge. They showed faith in me where I had little in myself, and they made it possible for me to take this next step. I am forever in their debt and I do my best to pay it forward in my work now as a professor in child life. My mentors’ investment scaffolded me to accomplish far more than I ever could have managed alone. It makes me think of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, and how children can accomplish more within a trusting and supportive relationship with an adult than they can on their own. But what does that mean for people who may not have access to these kinds of helpers?
With each step I have taken in my career, someone has always stepped forward to show me the way, cheering me on and acknowledging my abilities and place in the world. Some mentors have been teachers, some colleagues or friends. But that feeling of having someone opening a door for me and having my back as I walked through it, is something I have perhaps taken for granted. I may have always been grateful, but it never occurred to me that all this support could be the result of White Privilege. In her Integrated Masters Project study of Diversity and Social Capital in the Field of Child Life, BankStreet graduate Madalyn Marshall examines the obstacles for people of color entering the field of Child Life. Her research shows how social capital paves the way for White women in our profession. Given the fact that Child Life is dominated by White women, it behooves us to consider ways in which we can take action to change the face of our profession to include more people of color, to better meet the needs of the diverse populations we serve.
In the words of one of this year’s student speakers at commencement, Elise Hebel, “BankStreet’s mission and creed call on students, graduates, and teachers to enter with all five senses alert, to never stop learning, to be flexible, creative, gentle, and just, and to advocate for the rights and dignity of all.” She further entreats us to “nurture tolerance, understanding, and appreciation for the many differences and similarities that unite us, not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but stepping into the role of giant and empowering the vision and actions of others.”
Are we ready to take this first giant step? Recognizing our own positions of privilege is a start.
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