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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Whose Woods These Are

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I awoke to my first snow of the season dusting the rooftops, fence posts and trees of Malejovice. The woods called to me and so I donned hiking boots and set out over the fields to the forest. The snow sifted quietly, the mud of the unpaved road sucked at my feet and the utter silence filled my heart.

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Arriving in the forest felt like entering the haunts of Hansel and Gretel.  I stepped past the trickling brook and into the peace of the sheltering pine trees. The pine needles cushioned my steps and the trilling of birds and patter of melting snow the only sounds. I passed a fallen tree, it’s root system an earthy sculpture.  Pine cones and balsam branches decorated the forest floor.  Mossy tree stumps stirred memories of nature walks with my dad when I was very young. He used to point them out to me and tell me that they were fairy castles.

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I stood still and closed my eyes and listened. The first poem that I learned and memorized at age seven welled up from within.
“Whose Woods these are
I think I know.
His house is in the village though.
He will not mind me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sounds the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely dark and deep.
But I have promised to keep
And mikes to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Robert Frost

Indeed I knew that friends and breakfast awaited. I reluctantly left the silence of the woods and headed back to the warmth of Malejovice over fields glistening in the melting snow.

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Restoring my Soul: Recipe for Self Care in The Czech Republic

 

 

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We all need time to restore our energy and feed our spirits. It is not an easy task during the workaday world of most of our lives. For anyone in the service professions, self care is a necessity, not an option. As a professor teaching Child Life graduate students, my calendar revolves around the academic year, and by the time the end of May rolls around, I am usually quite exhausted and spent. An invitation to teach in the Czech Republic came at a very good moment for me  – after graduation and at a beautiful time of year.

Recipe Ingredients:

Knowing what to expect

The recipe for filling my well was a simple one, but I could not have done it without the friendship and nurturing of the Kralovec family. Marketa graciously and painstakingly created a hand written and illustrated book telling the tale of all we would be doing together in the next two weeks. The guide was especially helpful in letting me know what to expect, as we traversed the country and visited Poland and Austria.

A Warm Welcome

But the whirlwind began with a gentle, warm welcome back to Malejovice, the home of the Kralovec family and the Klicek Foundation Hospice. My third excursion from New York City to the Czech Republic felt like returning to the home of my soul. Marketka, their daughter and a highly skilled artist, documented my arrival by depicting the short emotional distance between our two homes. What’s an ocean anyway when like minds and hearts connect?

Bright and cozy bed linens and wild flowers from their garden greeted me in the guest room. The sounds of the birds sifted in with a gentle breeze through the open window.

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Wonderful Home Cooked Meals

Each meal was prepared from local ingredients and cooked with love. The eggs from their chickens (rescued from terrible conditions in a chicken mill), fresh herbs from their garden, homemade soup, duck with dumplings and sauerkraut, fresh bread and danishes, black tea and local beer…….. my palate fairly exploded from the goodness of it all. The family would not allow me to wash a plate or rise for a napkin. The nurturing wasn’t just about the food, but the care with which they served it.

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Four Legged and Winged Friends

Animals are therapy, and a wide variety of animals inhabit the pastures surrounding the 100 year old schoolhouse. Each morning began with a chorus of birds at about 4 AM, followed by the harsh and comical braying of Donkey (his name is Donkey) at 7 AM. The sheep served as the snooze alarm, sounding off a few moments after Donkey. Mollie the dog was the night time alarm system,  and the chickens cooed and clucked whenever we approached them. The cats draped themselves over windowsills and plant boxes and moseyed up and down the driveway throughout the day.

 

Nature

Nature is what grounds us and reminds us of the cycle of life, our smallness, and the beauty of creation. The surrounding forests of Malejovice, the wild flowers and rolling hills and pastures, the lush ponds and hidden villages of the country………  all served to quiet my gerbil wheel mind.

Solitude

I get plenty of time alone teaching online from my apartment, but there is something different about being alone with nature in wide open space. Nothing to distract me from the sun, breeze, scents and light.

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Wonderful People

Solitude is always best when you return from your walk to a household filled with joy, love, laughter, and music. The time spent with these people, and all the people we met on our travels, energized me and acted as a balm to my tired soul. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you – and these words will never be enough to convey my gratitude.

Instructions:

Repeat whenever able.