Making theatre more accessible for anxious children and their families through Explore & Experience events
thAt present, I work one day per week for The Place theatre in Bedford providing support and consultancy around marketing and PR; as well as driving sales, this role is also about developing audiences too.
With the Christmas season fast approaching, and with The Place programming so much good children's content during December, it's a great time to look at how I can use my specialist skills to widen access and participation in live theatre for children with anxiety and/or complex needs; many of the productions are providing Relaxed Performances too.
The Place has always offered familiarisation visits for families, however these are by appointment so families need to ring up and arrange a personalised visit. There hasn't been much uptake of this offer, so to ensure this is because there's genuinely no need for it rather than it being that families don't want to trouble the theatre, or feel that a personalised visit might be too intense, I've begun organising an Explore and Experience morning instead.
On November 18th, the theatre will be opened up to families to come and have a look round the public areas of the venue - the auditorium, bathrooms, foyer, etc; and then to stay for a FREE winter-themed sensory music and play session. While the event is specifically targeted at children with anxiety, ASD, or complex needs, it's open to all; there's no obligation for participants to buy tickets to see a show afterwards either, it can be a visit just for curiosity and fun.
Very much looking forward to designing the content of the event: I will be providing a social story about the theatre for participants to take away, and working on creating a sensory guide to the theatre for future use as well.
Although free, the event is ticketed: www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/explore-experience-the-place-tickets-39298477805
I've had a lovely time over the past few nights cutting out shapes from 'novelty' tea towels and turning them into a sensory star...yes, really!
Milton Keynes celebrated its 50th birthday this year, and the MK50 rolling festival has resulted in a number of events and activities of every scale in the city to celebrate the diversity, history, and culture of Milton Keynes. As it's our nearest city, and as I've worked in the community there for over 15 years now, being part of MK50 is only right and proper.
One of the recent MK50 opportunities for participation was a Tea Towel Challenge. Upon application, you receive 3 free MK50 branded tea towels featuring beautiful illustrations of some of the city's most famous landmarks, and have a few weeks to turn them into a 3D object of your choice. Photos of the objects will then form part of an exhibition.
Of course, my object had to be multi-sensory! So, I've created a weighted, scented and tactile star suitable for age 7+ (due to the buttons used); see the pictures for more detail on what it contains and why.
Can't wait to see what everyone else has created: really hoping to see some fashion items as the fabric print would work so well for a Mod-style skirt...sadly, seamstressing is beyond my skills so I'm hoping someone else has brought that idea to reality!
In it, I reflect on my own language experiences, my sons' experiences of learning Spanish through their preschool and how their stage of brain development and, for one of my twins, how a hearing impairment, impacted on being able to speak and understand another language.
I still recall vividly my A Level French exam - I was totally unable to answer any questions due to a complete disconnect between the way I'd been taught and the way the exam was phrased. To cope with my despair, I wrote notes to the examiner instead including - in immaculate French - "I have the honour of presenting you with this mostly dead chipmunk." There was an accompanying illustration too...#oddkid
To read the blog, click here: http://www.bambolango.com/en/early-years-development-language-julia-collar/
How walking to school saved the day!
How was your school or nursery run today? Here's how ours went, but first some background...
My four-year-old twins started school for the first time in September, and only a few days after moving house to a completely new area too! Their school also offered no transition beforehand, and very little during the first few days: the children were in, full time, straight into timetable, from the first moment. That's tough for any child, let alone ones with high anxiety!
We spent several weeks with both children feeling very distressed in the morning - waking up crying, physically resisting going into the classroom, clinging and crying, and then we had terribly distressed, aggressive and anxious behaviour at home in the afternoons too. That is, until we began walking to school.
The school run has become our salvation.
It's 1km to school and 1km back, so a pretty long walk for little legs! And, in preparation, I spent time walking the route on my own to discover several landmarks that would help my children to notice when they were getting closer to school, and things in people's gardens that we could look for and smell: smelling flowers, gently and respectfully as they're overhanging the pavement from people's homes, is a great way to get some deep breathing into the day!
These pictures are from our walk this morning - Monday mornings can so often be a harum-scarum hurry, and by the time we're organised and out of the front door we can all feel a little frazzled! But, we have so much to see and do!
So, the ball chrysanthemum at the top we've been looking at for several weeks since it was in bud; each day when we walk past we look to see how it's changed, if we can guess what colour the flowers will be and now, as it's in full bloom, we admire its cheerful colours.
We smell the roses as we pass, lifting the blooms up using the back of a little finger, and, if petals have fallen on the pavement, we pick them up to feel how silky-soft they are.
We wave to this bed of Sunflowers every morning and say 'Hello! Have a good day! See you later!', and we say 'Hello! Have a good evening! See you tomorrow!' on the way home - my children now do this without prompting and are very enthusiastic about it. These simple words help my children remember that they're not being abandoned at school forever: I will be coming back to get them in a few hours, and then they will becoming home. Likewise, saying 'See you tomorrow' helps my children remember that school is ongoing and they will be back again tomorrow.
This morning, my most anxious child said: 'Now the sunflowers are dying back, I would like to send a letter to the person who planted them to tell them how much we've enjoyed seeing them, and that we wave at them every day'.
It's great that he's feeling okay with the sunflowers potentially going away!
The next step will be to see if we can now work together - adult and children - to find another landmark to wave to each morning and afternoon until the sunflowers come back.
We're looking forward to frosty walks to school now so we can make 'Dragon' breath steam clouds in the air. We'll see if we can breathe out and make a continuous cloud of steam for five, ten or fifteen steps for example. Or, we'll puff like a steam train!
Walking to school has helped my children arrive at the classroom door calm and ready; walking home from school helps them arrive home calm and ready, too.
Make the school run a gift to everyone's day - all this stuff is massively helpful to you as the grown-up too!
Have a great week!
There's SO much conflicting sleep advice out there for children, but most of it boils down to one basic rule: routine.
Routine is awesome, and for most children it usually comprises of bath, book, bed. We've done this with our twins since they were first born, but they've never found settling for sleep in their cots or beds easy. One becomes very anxious at the separation and very clingy albeit he lies still, the other turns into a whirling dervish spinning in his bed, kicking his legs around, and screeching - he looks very happy, but actually it's a form of mania: his brain is so tired it can't stop, he can't think and can't be reasoned with either. In the morning, no matter how eventful his settle to sleep craziness has been, he has no memory of it at all, which really does show how hijacked his little brain is!
Neither child is ready yet to fall asleep on their own. So many parenting guides tell you that the 'ideal' is that your child self-soothes, and I read so many parenting forums full of parents frustrated that their little ones won't get themselves to sleep on their own in the dark: how terribly inconvenient! These babies and toddlers are often called wilful and manipulative by other parents, if not their own, and the advice given ranges from 'let them cry it out' (ignoring) to co-sleeping on the other. Fact is, there is no right way or wrong way: it's whatever your individual child wants and needs for now.
Mine are simply not ready to fall asleep on their own yet, and that's okay. I very much doubt that by the time they're 30 they'll be unable to fall asleep without a parent with them! It's not forever, it's not hurting, damaging or spoiling them by staying with them, it's doing what is needed and necessary, and I totally won't feel guilty about that. Neither of my children will go to sleep until they feel calm enough and safe enough to do so, and a big part of that involves us: they associate us with calm and safety. I think that's pretty awesome: what parent wouldn't hope to be someone their child feels calmest and safest with? While it means bedtime for us involves both parents - one parent to one child - and may take around 30 minutes from the start of settling to when sleep begins, it's completely worth it.
So how do we tackle our children's anxieties around settling for sleep?
Baths are important as they raise the body temperature and then, as the body cools, it helps the sleep chemical melatonin to be released...which should then mean you're ready to sleep. But not if you're anxious: baths can be too much sensory input, and are a step closer to doing that thing you're worried about....sleeping!
So, we have two types of bath: a functional bath, and what the boys call a Calm Bath. Functional baths are just for getting clean and are used on days when they haven't been too anxious or too tired; they tend to be quick, rowdy, and splashy! However, on difficult and/or tired days we have Calm Baths; the boys will even ask for them now when they feel they need one.
A Calm Bath has minimal to no lighting - we have a watersafe LED floating light we use, or else we turn off the bathroom light and just use the light from the landing one. We use nice smells; this week, we've cut fresh rosemary from the garden to drop in the water, and on another night I added a few drops of lemongrass oil and some slices of fresh lemon. The boys bathe together and spent a long time playing 'lemonade and ice cream machines' with the lemon slices, water and stacking cups - it was their calmest and most cooperative play session of the day! I also sometimes play music: Adiemus by Carl Jenkins is a favourite. Adult voices are kept low toned, quiet, and minimal, too.
Books are great, especially one you've read many, many times before: repetition and familiarity can be so calming...but not if you're anxious. My most anxious twin loves books and has a vivid imagination, but so often I can see him counting down the pages until the book is finished because he knows then that he will be expected to settle to sleep, which means Mummy goes away, which means....and therein begins a potentially lifelong habit of overthinking before sleeping! He is also sometimes left with images, plot worries about consequences and feelings, and questions he needs to process, all of which interfere with settling to sleep too.
On particularly difficult days we still tell stories, but we don't use books. We turn the light off, and either have a child on our laps, or sit next to them as they lie in their beds; they both like to hold hands to make sure we're not going to run away! Then, either we tell them the story of the day they've just had - retelling all the things they did, saw, ate, played, etc, ending with them in bed ready for sleep - or else we'll ask them what sort of story they would like. Usually, they'll ask for a story about their family, so we have a lovely opportunity to recount tiny tales about our own childhoods, or about their grandparents and great grandparents.
This idea was inspired by one of my favourite childhood books - The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston. In the tale, the protagonist - Tolly - a little boy staying with his Grandmother, sits with her each evening. The Grandmother lives in an ancient house that has been in the family for generations, and she knows tremendous amounts about all its historical inhabitants. Every evening, she says to Tolly: 'Make a great blaze, and I shall tell you a story'. So Tolly stokes the fire, and then asks to hear about a different aspect of the house, its people or the grounds - the river, a horse once owned by a young man who lived there centuries before, a wooden mouse, and so on. I loved this beautiful and rich oral history mechanism, so we adopted it too - though there are no fires to stoke in our bedrooms! Instead we say: 'Snuggle down, and I shall tell you story: what should it be about?' And then the boys will think of something for us to explore together.
The final part of settling to sleep, is about regulating breathing.
For my whirling dervish, we will encourage him to do a Rhythmic Movement exercise on the floor; this is a rocking movement that soothes the base of the brain. To begin with we had to show him and do it with him, then it was us suggesting and encouraging him, now he chooses to do it for himself when he needs to.
Then, for both boys, we do our Comfy, Cosy, Warm and Safe poem - see the video below for all the details. I showed the video to my most anxious boy when I made it and he was so happy that other people would know about his bedtime routine, and he now asks to watch it on my phone before bed!
Do these strategies always work?
No! Of course not! Anxiety isn't always that easy, and there are some days when whatever the boys have experienced is bigger or more overwhelming than our toolkit of strategies can cope with...and that's okay!
We still persist and repeat each tool and, with calm and patience, they will both settle. It only becomes a fight if you make it into one!
We know the boys value these tools and feel the benefit of them because we can see it and now, as they're more able to make their own choices and articulate needs more clearly, they will take the lead and ask us for a particular tool or else they will use their initiative and implement them on their own.
Setting for sleep can be a really scary part of the day, but we're all in it together: no one is left on their own, and everyone helps to make it the best it can possibly be.
While picking up resources at The Range to make sensory boxes, this is what I saw...www.facebook.com/julia.collar/videos/10155067466570897/
This is my Facebook Live post about the Halloween display directly at the entrance to The Range in Milton Keynes; to date, it's been seen by nearly 3000 people.
I have no problem at all with Halloween, but I don't think it's okay to place these animatronic and extreme Halloween items in the entrance, and provide no alternative route for people to get into the store. Making such displays unavoidable is, frankly, abusive; no one would want or allow their small child to be forcibly exposed to horror movies on screens in a television department, for example, so how is this different?
These items are not suitable for young children to see, and may be especially upsetting for anyone with sensory processing issues and/or recovering from trauma.
BBC 3 Counties picked up on my story and featured it on their consumer affairs programme. Unfortunately The Range - as always - declined to comment on their story displays; apparently, The Range's head office is never willing to engage in any public dialogue around customer services, which seems a very odd commercial decision indeed.
However, I will continue working on this issue and would very much like to provide The Range with training around these issues and support them in developing exciting low-cost Halloween displays that create a destination visit for their stores, and that ensure anyone who would find these extreme figures upsetting has choice and control over whether they see them or not.
If you have any contacts at The Range's head office then please send them my way!
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