Undo Racism Every Day: Exclusive Interview with Children’s Author Anastasia Higginbotham

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ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM has written a courageous children’s book that seeks to dismantle institutionalized racism and white supremacy, one conversation and action at a time. Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness  challenges adults to face their own discomfort and biases in order to validate the truths that children intuit. In this exclusive interview, Anastasia discusses her process of expanding her world view and becoming a disruptor of the very best kind.

Deb: “What prompted you to write this important book?”

My answer is a who and a what. Who inspired me were Black women: Noleca Anderson Radway, Brooklyn Free School Executive Director; Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Zen priest and co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation; and Anyanwu Uwa, The Human Root Co-Founder and Executive Director. Noleca made me see white power in action and in myself; Rev. Angel dared me to connect with my deepest conditioning into whiteness and grow from a place of heartbreak; Anyanwu insisted I view myself as worthy. What inspired me is everything that the Black Lives Matter movement shows us about state-sanctioned murders of Black women, men, trans people and kids by police, plus no accountability for those crimes and new ones committed against the BLM activists themselves. Continue reading

Kenya Child Life Program Spotlight Continues: Liz Kabuthi

 

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Liz Kabuthi prepares children for surgery using a book of photos

Last week, I spotlighted the work of Child Life Specialist Jayne Kamau at the Sallie Test Pediatric Centre at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kenya. This sustainable Child Life program is one of a kind in East Africa. The Child Life staff and founder Morgan Livingstone are especially proud  this year to be working with Courtney Moreland of  Child Life United to offer child life practicums in Kenya.

This week, we hear from Liz Kabuthi, who I had the pleasure of meeting when she represented her country as a delegate at the Child Life Council International Summit on Pediatric Psychosocial Care in 2014. Her reflections on her child life journey and work are deeply moving, and give us a glimpse at how this profession influences and betters our lives even outside of the actual hospital work. Continue reading

Sustainable Child Life Services in Kenya

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The Sally Test Pediatric Centre in Kenya is proud to have the first sustainable child life program in East Africa. By sustainable, I mean that rather than mission-based services that come and go, it is staffed by citizens of Kenya who have obtained child life certification through the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP). Morgan Livingstone of Toronto, Canada, saw the need of such services and has worked tirelessly over the years to train and support the staff at Sally Test.

Over the next several blogs I am spotlighting the work of the child life specialists in Kenya. The team has faced many challenges in becoming child life specialists, and they are doing extraordinary work to humanize medical treatment for children and families in their care. A special thank you to Morgan Livingstone and the Sally Test Child Life team for taking the time to answer my interview questions and send along great photos.

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Jayne Kamau

 WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BE A CHILD LIFE SPECIALIST?

I had worked in pediatrics unit as a social worker and was so comfortable and passionate with the children and their families. I had not heard about the Child Life profession until when Morgan Livingstone (CCLS Canada) came to Kenya for a one day workshop and introduced the concept of Child Life. An interest was triggered there and then and my mind and heart were in agreement that this profession though new to me was what I wanted to do. I started doing my own research about the profession and what qualification was needed to become a certified child life specialist.  So when the program was set up in our hospital and people were called for interview, I was among the very first to apply and now here I am. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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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