Brian Gannon and Jeanny Karth
Last month we considered some of the goals of activity groups, we noted the importance of planning, and we looked at some helpful categories of activities. This month we concentrate on two aspects: involving the children, and “the props that invite”.
Involving the children
Many children will jump at the chance to be involved in planned activities; others will tell you to jump in the lake. Those who are unwilling to participate present a dilemma for the child care worker, because children who are admitted to expensive programs must at some point become involved in the interventions offered. Otherwise we will just be running dinner-bed-and-breakfast hotels! There are a number of considerations to be borne in mind:
The right time
We are all sensitive to the needs and feelings of troubled and anxious kids, and we know that timing is important. Most will agree with the idea that newcomers to the program need some time to 'settle down' or 'find their feet'. This is especially true for youngsters in crisis, those who have just been through some significant loss or trauma like a family breakdown or a court appearance. However, it is crucial to judge this time accurately. We don't want to expect too much too soon from youngsters who still need some respite or time to reflect on their changed circumstances. However, we also don't want youngsters to wind themselves into a protective and too-comfortable cocoon from which they will soon be unwilling to leave. Child care workers must carefully set the time at which we decide that 'life must go on', and when children can be expected to 'get with the program'.
One aspect of contracting is letting children know from Day One what will happen in your program. It is not helpful to surprise a child, three weeks or three months into his stay, with the news that you have new plans he never heard about. So essential are planned activities that we need to inform youngsters about them up-front. "In this place, each child participates in at least three activity groups every week; there is a good choice available (the list is at the ready) and we all take part in at least three."
Staff need to 'book time' with kids in this way. This ensures that we will get the opportunities we are going to need to do things with youngsters, to interact with them, to observe, to model, to train, to counsel - in smaller or larger groups.
Couch potato or hideaway?
A common animal to be found in many children's institutions is the child who burrows his way into a defended position (this can be a place, a role or a routine) from which it becomes harder and harder to dislodge him. Some children can manipulate their environment quite powerfully to retain their way of functioning and to palm off any attempts to challenge or change them. They leave us in no doubt that they are very comfortable thank you just where they are, and they will growl at those who approach. We have allowed many of these kids to set up these fortresses - and sadly it may be too late to do anything about them. Others are simply frightened to re-engage with life and people. They have been hurt, they feel that they have failed, and they would prefer not to go though this again. They do not trust, but they would like to. Child care workers generally know how to start rebuilding this trust, and to get children to the point where they can re engage.
Many of these children show the classic signs of anxiety in the face of challenge or change. Anything which seeks to stimulate them to new growth, to let go of long-standing defences and angers, is going to be unpleasant. It is always messy to sift through stuff we don't feel good about; it is always scary to let go of old ways; it is always challenging when confronted with new learning. Again, child care workers must work at understanding the unwilling child so as to know how best to proceed. What they must never do is leave the kids where they are.
Going with the flow
With many youngsters it is a mistake to think that we can start with nicely organised group activities. Just as they will test any bridge we ask them to cross, they will try their damnedest to wreck our group. It will be sissyish, boring, a 'con', for babies or idiots, inconvenient. So, instead of trying to start new things, often we have to start with what the kids are already doing.
If they are eating at table, that's a group. If they are watching TV, that's a group. If they are playing a rag-tag game of football, that's a group - and a toe-hold for us to engage with them. Suggest that they invite someone to dinner (family, friends, special guests, whoever) so that there is something to work towards, to plan. Get them to agree on a video to rent, so that there is a discussion, some negotiation needed. Think of a team (from school, from another children's home) they can play football against, so that there is a challenge to sharpen their skills, build teamwork.
The point is that many troubled youngsters are engaging in activities passively, or in some way going through the motions of living through the day. The child care worker tries to turn even these seemingly valueless things into opportunities - for relationship building, for challenge, for positive achievement. We go along with the immediate gratification for the time being, watching for the chance to turn it into something which needs work, which develops, requires planning.
It is a good idea to offer activity groups which expose children to different experiences and roles. For example, plan a group in such a way that a child can be a leader and coach; plan another where he must compete with peers, and plan yet another where he is a beginner or has to learn new things. (And never forget to include the activities which are just for fun.)
But these changes in status and role can be the way to involve the unwilling. Asking older kids to help by teaching one of their own skills (knitting, cricket, fixing the iron) to younger children is an excellent start. From there, it is an easy step to involving them in planning something for the younger kids -a personal goal, a practice or learning course, some event - and so to understanding the value of these things in their own lives.
To leave youngsters where they are is to fail dismally in child care work. They came to us for something different and something better. Once we have secured their safety and a caring environment, it is fundamental to our practice that we move children onward to re-engagement with life, to getting in touch once more with the realities, the demands, the efforts and rewards of life.
There are two important aspects of resources:
equipment and materials; and
It would be nice to be able to say that we can always use the material resources which are free, lying around in our homes and neighbourhoods - the leaves and flowers, blank walls, empty yoghurt cups. This is only partly true. The reality is that many other materials have to be bought ... or, better still, begged! It is amazing what you can get if you take the trouble to ask. Any printing company will always have paper and cardboard scrap of all sizes - the essential starting point for many activities. Nurseries will give you seeds and seedlings, schools have old sports equipment and balls, bead shops have slow moving stocks and clothing and textile factories have off cuts of all kinds. Probably you will have to buy certain equipment, and it is great if your Director or Management Board recognise the need to budget for paint brushes, hiking boots, baseball bats, etc. Our responsibility, in turn, is to ensure that materials and equipment are properly stored and cared for - things are only useful when we can find them.
Staff teams should make lists of things which can be kept at the ready - tools of all kinds, how-to books, games (look for so-called 'New Games' which are marvellous for engaging youngsters in non competitive social games), toys, bicycles, menus, patterns, clay, paints... add your own ideas. Essential anywhere that kids live is a basketball hoop, a volleyball net (can be used for badminton, quoits - or anything else), a wall against which a tennis ball can be hit (put a grille over that window so that it's not "impossible").
The grounds of your campus themselves can be a help or a hindrance. One, huge open space (so that one child care worker can supervise all the children at play?) is the height of institutionalism. A campus which is broken up (by walls, shrubs, different levels) into a number of different-sized play and activity areas - for three kids or thirty kids) is ideal.
While writing this, we read an article on the curriculum for child care worker training in Germany, which included nursing, cooking, handicrafts, arts, music, youth literature, painting, gymnastics, guided play... and why not? This builds a repertoire for child and youth care workers, with the guarantee that children will find them interesting, resourceful and engaging people.
Some organisations may choose to have an Activities Co-ordinator (or some such word) but the actual activity programmes should include aas many staff members as possible. Many of our children are into boredom and passive enjoyment; we teach them not to be bored and to be resourceful within themselves when the adults around them have the skills and enthusiasms to do things with what's at hand - and to go out looking for what isn't! Sometimes this means finding more human resources: A child care worker went to a local school to ask for old cricket bats, tennis racquets and footballs for her kids but then also had the foresight to add that she knew nothing about these games herself ... could they help? Next thing she knew, some of the children in the school offered to come along and coach her children, and (here is the crucial point) to work towards getting them involved in local clubs and teams.
The point about human resources is that they add life and purpose to the material resources. A pile of wood off-cuts from the sawmill will become nothing but ammunition in destructive war games if there are not skilled adults around -
who help children with vision and skills to turn them into objects and ornaments;
who give them the ability to fantasise and play, and to turn the dead pieces of wood into cars, planes and houses.
One of the most rewarding jobs for the child and youth care administrator is to plan and manage the resources needed for activities - the venues (with or without running water? for a large or small group? with formal sports equipment or creative play?) and the scheduling which make the venues available as needed.
It is the activities oriented child care worker who turns empty institutional grounds into small garden patches and painted walls; who turns empty afternoons into target practice, exploring walks or dinner plans. One hears so many inspired throw-away lines from child and youth care workers which prove to be catalysts for activities: Won't you help me choose an effective light to put up out here? I wonder if we can get to Morgan's Pool and back by supper time? What could we do to cheer up that blank wall? Could someone learn to play three chords on this guitar? Wouldn't it be great to build a dam across the stream here? And so on.
Few of these challenges end up with a "finished product" by supper time. But they generate talk and teasing, they generate planning and dreams, they generate energy and learning and forward-looking.
The inventive staff team, also, will map out the coming year to ensure that its time is marked by seasons and events. How do we celebrate the fact that autumn is different from spring? How will we observe Valentine's Day (the teenagers get involved here) and Halloween (the little kids love this). Mother's Day is often a poignant mixture of reflection, yearning, making cards ... The end of the year is a time of parting (plaster-of-Paris face marks to remember each other by) and celebrating achievements (exhibitions of craftwork, prizes for teams).
But where are we actually going with our activity groups? They are not meant for winning tennis leagues or knitting competitions. Rather, they serve their best purpose when the youngsters learn something about their own worth, and the value of effort and reward; when they can accept their own differences and express themselves with pride; when they develop the confidence to try something new, and learn enough skills to get into a school ball team. All of our children have needs as they work at successive developmental stages. In most cases we can devise activities which deal with these needs - using the ordinary things of life, together with each other.