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.

 

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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.

 

Over the River And through the Woods to the Czech Republic I Go

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I greatly anticipated my fourth visit to collaborate with the Klicek Foundation in the Czech Republic. The cold weather brings to mind the song from my childhood of traveling via horse and sleigh through the woods to grandmother’s house. For me, it meant taking a new route flying to Prague via a stop over in Zurich, which provided me with my first glimpse ever of the majestic Swiss Alps. I had no idea they covered such an expanse.

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Our adventures began immediately, as Jiri and Marketa Kralovec included me in some important errands along the way from Prague to their home in the small village of Malejovice.  The Klicek Foundation has secured a plot of land close to the Motol Hospital, on which they will build a new hostel for parents of sick children visiting Prague for specialized medical care. Our assignment for the day was to measure the distance between several trees and a wall, so that an engineer could design the parking lot to meet the requirements of the environmental council.

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And so, armed with measuring tape and a clipboard, we gathered the necessary measurements. We then wound through the city, making stops at two publishing companies and an electronics store, where we gained sustenance in a lovely cafe to tide us over before the hour long trip home to the village.

Molly the dog and the many cats greeted us, and there was hot homemade soup waiting on the stove and a crackling fire in the green ceramic fireplace. Having missed a night’s sleep on the plane, I was happy to fall into bed in the dark country night, and I slept deeply without remembering my dreams until rising early for a full day’s work the next morning.

The first scheduled event was a gathering of three schools that are housed in one building in Prague. There are two secondary schools, one for nursing and one for social work, and a college of nursing. The students came together in a chapel at the school of nursing Jana Paula 11, and we presented a workshop on the value of play and the psychosocial needs of children in hospitals. The room was jam packed with young people, and the more interactive we got, the more engaged they became.

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Following this seminar, I accompanied Jiri and Marketa to a city council meeting where they advocated for permission to build upon the plot. There are many steps to take before they can announce the council’s approval and begin fundraising for their project. A well known actor, David Vavra,  who also happens to be an architect, is designing the building.

Following a challenging meeting, we headed over to the famous Old Town Square, to the medieval building that houses the Skautsky Institute. There we hosted a gathering of hospital play specialists that also included the medical director of a hospital on the northern border, a book publisher, and a British law student studying abroad at the Charles University. We discussed the challenges facing the profession, many of which involved issues of racism regarding the care of Roma families. The thorough marginalization of the Roma leads to trust issues between the families and the staff. The play specialists often feel overwhelmed by the intersectionality of the many societal factors that impact the lives of Roma families.  They feel helpless in the face of such poverty and hopelessness.

The law student, of Roma heritage, adopted by a British family, is researching the educational inequities and racism that Roma children face in Europe. He hopes to champion their cause as he progresses in his profession. He had connected with me after reading my blog about the children of Chanov — such a small world after all

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Child Life & Nursing: Practicing pediatric psychosocial support in Novy Jicin

 

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My recent visit to the Czech Republic, sponsored by the Klicek Foundation, included a return to the Mendelova Nursing School in Novy Jicin. This time, Maria Fernanda Busqueta Mendoza joined us from Mexico, and 50 students participated in our seminar, making it a great opportunity for global learning and a multicultural exchange of ideas. As you can see from the first photograph, the students were a lively bunch, and they eagerly participated in the highly interactive time we spent together. Jiri Kralovec served as our interpreter and his son, Jiri, touted  by Foto Video Magazine as this year’s hottest photographer on Instagram, documented our learning. Most of the photos below are his work.

Jiri and his wife, Marketa, started us off by sharing information about  the importance of play for hospitalized children and the history of their efforts to bring hospital play to the Czech Republic.  It has been a slow, uphill battle to change the hierarchal and disempowering bureaucracy of their medical system.  I followed with an introduction to the field of Child Life, the role of child life specialists in hospitals, and the possibilities for collaboration with nurses. I spoke about the role of play and community in the healing process, before moving on to some illustrative activities.

Sharing our own memories of play is one way to deepen our appreciation for the role of play in our lives and in the lives of children. I asked the class to think about their own childhood memories, using their five senses — what do they remember about their play environment? Did play occur inside or outdoors, or both? Were they playing alone, or with others? Did they play with toys, loose parts, or their imaginations? Are there sounds, smells, tastes or textures associated with their memories? What feelings are evoked in sharing them? The students paired up and took turns both sharing and listening to one another.

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Armed wth a deeper awareness of the value of play, the students were now ready to learn a bit about how to make procedures less frightening for children. I have always wanted to use role play as a way to demonstrate all the things that can go wrong during a procedure, and how minor changes can make things easier for medical staff, children, and caregivers. I took this opportunity and asked for volunteers. One young man played the patient. We instructed him to lie down and asked three others to pin him down to the table, much like medical personnel are likely to do when a child receives an IV. We demonstrated how the very act of being forced into a prone position increases one’s sense of vulnerability and loss of control.

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Add to that several adults talking at once, loudly over any protests you might make, telling you to stay still, not to cry, to be a big boy, not to look…. and you get the picture. Chaos, stress and shame accumulate to make for a disastrous experience for all.

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But there are some simple things that nurses can do, either alone or in partnership with play specialists, to change the outcomes of such procedures. It doesn’t mean that the child won’t cry, but it is more likely that the child won’t suffer emotional trauma, will return to baseline quicker, and the nurses can feel more successful and less like they are causing the child undue suffering.

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With these tips in mind, the students enacted a better case scenario, where the parent has a supportive role in positioning the child for comfort. The child is upright and held in a calming hug, rather than being restrained on the table. The child is given some choices, such as which hand to try first for the IV (the non dominant hand is preferable), and whether to watch the procedure or use a toy or book for distraction.

  • Electing one person to be the voice in the room,
  • encouraging the child to breathe deeply and slowly,
  • narrating each step of what the child will feel,
  • explaining how a tiny plastic catheter, not the IV needle, remains in the child’s hand to deliver medicine,
  • staying away from comparative or shaming statements,
  • and showing empathy

are all ways to provide psychosocial support, making the experience less traumatizing and painful for the child.  Accumulated painful and traumatic medical experiences can make children phobic and avoidant of medical care.

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We also spoke about non-pharmacological pain prevention and reduction. The interactive component of our lecture surely made our important information memorable. The action and laughter surely made more of an impression than a power point! We all reflected together about  how even adult patients can benefit from choices, information and empathy.

Back to the topic of play, we explored ways for the nurses to instill playful interactions into their communication with pediatric patients. Rapport building and distraction through the use of hand games is one way that they can put a child at ease. I demonstrated several hand games, and asked them to show me some of theirs as well.

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Our time with these wonderful students ended all too soon. We posed outside of the school for a photo with some of the Klicek Foundation hospital play specialists before heading to the historic square down the street. Around every corner of this country is a beautiful scene, no matter where you are!

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Growing Play Work in the Czech Republic

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The red rooftops of Prague and the Malejovice countryside were a welcome sight this week as I rejoined the Kralovec family in their dream to grow Hospital Play Work in the Czech Republic .

As the Klicek Foundation enters their 25th year, they celebrate not only their anniversary but their entry into a new phase of their mission. In collaboration with Charles University and the Plzen School of Nursing, they are developing a college level program on Play Work, the first of its kind in their country. This is all in addition to the work they do in hospitals for ill children and their families, and the summer camp they run for these families each year. (Click on “summer camp for a beautiful view of the property where they live and work in Malejovice, filmed by Jiri Kralovec, Jiri’s son).

As part of this vision, they invited me to consult with them about curriculum and to teach two seminars on child centered play, a topic that Marketa Kralovec says is much needed in their culture.

“It is such a necessary but unheard of thing here, to follow the child’s lead in play,” she states with feeling.

And so we got down on the floor with play dough, Legos, army figurines and plastic monsters, demonstrating child centered play techniques and then practicing them together.  We also drew play maps, shared stories of our childhood memories of play, played hand games and blew lip whistles –  the hours passed quickly

The Caritas School of Social Services hosted our first seminar. The head of the school, Martin Bednar, welcomed us warmly, expressing his gratitude by presenting me with the book Destinies as hard as stone,  about a sculpture in the school courtyard – The Monument of Stories.  A wooden series of towers house stones from around the world on many small shelves.  Students bring stones from their internships to represent a story that affected them deeply in their learning.  The school gathers for each installment to hear and record the student’s narrative. It is an incredible tribute to the work of students and the people who’ve shaped their lives.

“We are like stones in a river. If alone, the water will wash us away. Together, however, we make up a dam.”

 

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Our second  day of teaching took place in a medieval building overlooking Wenceslas Square in the heart of Prague. Throughout our seminar occasional strains of church bells and the hoofbeats of horse-drawn carriages drifted up to the windows from the cobblestones below. I couldn’t take my eyes off the ceiling of the room, which was crossed by beams of ancient wood and hand painted panels depicting whimsical animal scenes.

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Our students in these two venues included  both undergraduates and working play workers. They showed great passion for the children and families in their care, and a willingness to ask tough questions and share painful memories and struggles. Throughout the students’ stories ran a common thread of the childhood desire for self expression, adventure and kind attention from adults. Child-centered practice definitely fits in with this ideal.   The participants truly brought all of themselves to the learning.  I couldn’t have enjoyed a more engaging and thoughtful group. Not to mention Jiri Kralovec, who was a tireless interpreter, translating my every word.

Please enjoy the photos below, and remember the Klicek Foundation during this holiday season. If you wish to make a donation to this humane and critical work, you can contact Jiri & Marketa, the founders, at klicek@klicek.org for more information.

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Thanks to Jiri Kralovec Junior for capturing our seminars with his wonderful photography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Playwork in the Czech Republic

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I could not have asked for a more thoughtful welcome to the Czech Republic. Disembarking the plane in Prague after my overnight journey,  I was greeted by the Královec family bearing an American flag and sweet smelling purple flowers from their garden in Malejovice.IMG_3975

Jiri and Markéta Královec, the founders and directors of the Kliček Foundation, generously sponsored my visit to teach play techniques to hospital workers at several locations in their lovely country. I had the honor of teaching one seminar at Charles University in Prague. Founded in 1348, it is the oldest and largest university in the Czech Republic and Central Europe. I was also welcomed at the Mendelova nursing school in Nový Jičin. My students ranged from a mixed group of working hospital play specialists, nurses, teachers and social workers at the university, to young students at the nursing school (our equivalent of high school students). All of the students were bright and enthusiastic learners.

Work felt like play as we all rolled up our sleeves for some interactive lessons. I demonstrated loose parts work as well as activities to share with angry or withdrawn children, such as making volcanos and oobleck, as well as toilet paper targets. Continue reading