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Magical therapy transforming the lives of disabled children

5 Sep
Sam practicises his vanashing ball trick at Breathe Magic camp

Sam Loveridge with Breathe Magic therapist Emma Cahill. Photo by Gabriel Larmour.

Last week I was privileged to witness an innovative health project which is transforming the lives of disabled children. Unlike your average NHS experience however, there’s wasn’t a uniform in sight or a whiff of surgical spirit and the practitioners’ tools included sponge balls, playing cards, seemingly bottomless Mary Poppins’ bags and spinning tops.

Breathe Magic is the result of an inspiring collaboration between Magic Circle magicians and occupational therapists and comprises an intensive programme of therapy – packaged as a two-week magic camp. The intervention, delivered by Breathe Arts Health Research, has been designed to improve the motor skills of children with hemiplegia (a weakness or loss of control affecting one side of the body). Each magic trick taught has been carefully selected to incorporate a series of precise exercises that help develop essential movements – such as reaching out the arm, rotating the hand, or picking up a small item using the thumb and forefinger.

The impact has been astonishing, with many of the children being able to do every-day tasks for themselves for the very first time (and using both hands), such as getting dressed, or cutting up their own food. The testimonials of the children who have taken part in Breathe Magic show that the programme not only increases children’s motor skills and independence, but also their communications skills, self-confidence and self-esteem – which makes a big difference to those who have had problems socialising or worse still, have suffered bullying at school.

The strong anecdotal evidence is backed by a formal clinical evaluation which showed that after taking part in the camp participants could do more than 85% or everyday tasks independently, compared with only 25% before the camp.
A total of twenty one children participated in two Breathe Magic camps this summer and they will now attend monthly clubs (for six months) to maintain their skills and motivation. Funding from NHS Lambeth Clinical Commissioning Group enabled children from Lambeth and Southwark to take part in the 10-day camp in London and an earlier camp at the Stepping Stones School in Surrey was made possible with support from the COINS Foundation and parental contributions. Data from these camps will inform the ongoing clinical and economic evaluation.

The initiative initially received funding from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity to test the effectiveness of embedding magic into therapy for children with hemiplegia. Breathe Arts Health Research is now tailoring the intervention for other patient groups, including a programme for young people with mental health at Great Ormond Street Hospital and a project for people who have had a stroke is in the pipeline.

The success of the approach is all down to the fact that the focus is on having fun and learning magic. The participants are so engrossed in learning tricks they are distracted from the frustration of practising repetitive therapeutic exercises.

“The children are just so determined. They are supposed to practice their tricks for 20 minutes every evening, but instead, they’re practicing for up to an hour,” said Richard McDougall, one of the Magic Circle magicians involved with the project. “Seeing the satisfaction and pride on their faces when they master a new trick, or perform a task on their ‘wish list’, is such a privilege,” he added.

Shanakay with magician Richard McDougall. Photo by Gabriel Larmour.

Shanakay with magician Richard McDougall. Photo by Gabriel Larmour.

The enthusiasm of the Breathe Magic team is infectious and the energy and excitement of the children at the camp is palpable. The ethos of the programme is about empowerment, so parents are reminded not to help with taking off coats when they arrive in the morning and children are encouraged to cut up their food using both hands at lunch time. Each day brings with it a moment of celebration when a child accomplishes a new task for the first time, be that opening out their fingers from a clenched fist, or doing up their shoe-laces on their own.

Elspeth Burnett’s Mum, Seonaid, told me: “It’s been a really pivotal moment in Elspeth’s life. When Elspeth was very young we were advised that after the age of seven her ability to increase the functionality of her affected hand would be greatly diminished; but here she is, at eight, after just 10 days of Breathe Magic and she’s pushing herself to do things now that we thought were beyond her capability.”

The final performance of the London camp, in the hallowed surrounding of the Magic Circle, was inevitably an emotional event. The culmination of two weeks’ tireless practice showcased before an audience of proud family and friends. An uplifting speech by patron Bethy Woodward, the award winning Paralympic athlete, about her own experience of learning to embrace her hemiplegia and I am sorely regretting wearing mascara.

As well as an impressive array of tricks, the young performers also dazzled the audience with their comic timing and stage presence. By the time each of the children have been awarded their certificates, and are holding them proudly on the stage (with both hands, of course), I am a blubbing wreck.

But the magic of the experience promises to continue well after these children go home. 11 year old Sam Loveridge has thrown away his hand splint since attending the Breathe Magic camp in Surrey, his Mum, Jayne, says he’s like a ‘brand new boy’, and his friends have been asked not to help him tie his shoe-laces anymore.

One only hopes that this life-changing intervention receives further investment from other NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups to ensure that more children across the country can benefit.

Related links:

Breathe Arts Health Research

ITV London Tonight Lambeth Children Glimpse Magic Circle

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By George, he’s just a baby

30 Jul
LEGO Prince George

LEGO Prince George

Congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their happy news.

Putting his blue blood to one side, we all know that there’s nothing extraordinary about HRH Prince George of Cambridge as a human being. Just like any other newborn, he needs little more than food, warmth and the love and affection of his doting parents.

The behaviour of the public and media that greeted him outside St Mary’s Hospital last week told a different story however. The first greedy flashbulbs heralded a lifetime of public scrutiny.

Of course every child brings fresh hope and new meaning to the lives of their parents, but Prince George’s arrival has understandably had a tangible effect on the wider world as the latest addition to the Royal Family – an important British commodity. In economic terms alone he’s estimated to bring in over £240 million in merchandise sales alone by the end of August. And Legoland at Windsor has even created a new scene depicting the young Prince with his parents at the gates of Buckingham Palace to enchant visitors to their inspired theme park.

Behind closed doors, as the euphoria of the first few days of motherhood begins to wane, Kate will probably be walking round in a fug, attending to her child’s every whimper, adjusting to managing on three hours uninterrupted sleep at a time …potentially contending with cracked nipples and a cracking headache, barking at her bewildered hubby.

Wills will begin to see Kate through a new lens – not only as his wife, but as the mother to their child. Surprisingly the best piece of advice offered to the Prince I’ve heard comes from that great philosopher…  David Beckham, who posits that William’s quality as a gentleman will set him in good stead as a father – a notion I couldn’t agree with more. Good manners and kindness are basic qualities which should be instilled in all youngsters, as well as going a long way in keeping your relationship on track when you’re dealing with the physical and emotional demands of a new-born.

Now one week since the birth, Kate and Wills will be in the throes of their ‘baby-moon’ period of bonding and getting to know the new person in their midst. Bravo to the in-laws for providing their family home (a Georgian manor house) as a comfortable and familiar haven for this precious time.

In the Indian culture, the post birth confinement period, allows the mother the benefit of limited household duties and being cosseted by her extended family with special meals prepared and full body massage – enabling her to focus on her baby’s needs and recovering from the birth. Sounds great in theory – although 40 days cooped up at home might not do for everyone. My regular jaunt to the local coffee shop to gossip with my fellow NCT Mums provided a much need source of support for me once the family had left me to it and husband returned to work. The main premise is that Kate should be able to do as much or as little as she feels able to, and in her own time.

Of course, the Duchess of Cambridge hardly needs to worry about keeping on top of household chores or financial worries, and there will no doubt be a queue forming outside the Berkshire pile to wrestle for the coveted position of nanny to the third in line to the throne.

Putting these privileges aside, and the prospect of one day being crowned King George VII, I hope that Kate and Wills are allowed to enjoy getting to know their son without the intrusion of long lenses. The rest of the world will just have to wait – for now, he’s first and foremost, their baby boy.

Related links:

ITV royal baby boost the economy

Royal Baby News: Prince George Mania will boost the economy by £243m by end of August

Baby Center – Post delivery confinement

NCT – Dad’s view: the early days

LEGOLAND

 

Photo courtesy of LEGOLAND® Windsor Resort

An iphone obsession and leading by example

30 Jun

Staying connected

Staying connected

The dulcet tones of Olly Murs on a relentless loop on Youtube is enough to test anyone’s sanity. I owe this particular pleasure to my two year old daughter’s new found IT skill – tapping the ‘mouse pad’ to affect a repeat play. It follows on from her ability to scroll down on my iphone to find certain apps, photos and videos.

The obsession with my iphone started at an early age and was duly rewarded with her own Fisher Price ‘mobile’ for her first birthday. She now has several toy phones and a ‘laptop’ (keyboard alphabet game). Still, the sheer joy of getting her grubby little hands on the real McCoy is undeniable. Thankfully a passcode prevents her doing too much damage if I take my eye off the ball.

So where’s all this going to lead? Reports that children are unable to communicate effectively or feel comfortable in social situations because they are spending too much time online and not enough in the ‘real’ world fills me with horror. Then there’s the issue of child safety, grooming and bullying. And one poor mother recently had to fork out £1,700 to pay for her five year old’s spending spree on her Ipad.

Of course, there are steps parents can take to alleviate these risks, such as limiting time spent on technology, supervising activity and using filtering and monitoring software. And the recent pledge by internet service providers, social media companies and search engines to clamp down on child pornography has to be a good move; although I’m not sure how far their paltry £1 million will go towards this effort, and whether ‘user alerts’ threatening legal intervention will simply drive the distribution of content underground. Anyway, I digress.

As my little one grows up, I would hope to be able to encourage her to socialise with her friends in person as much as online, and ‘screen’ time will certainly be limited. But as someone who checks her email, Facebook and Twitter accounts at least twice a day and goes into a state of panic if the WiFi goes down, leading by example will be tough! In my defence, this reliance on online communications is largely work-related, and I don’t feel the need to provide daily status updates. This perceived need to have a constant online presence in order to maintain credibility with one’s peers is something I particularly fear for my daughter.

On the other hand, I fully advocate the benefits of the internet and social media for learning, entertainment, sharing ideas and keeping in touch with family and friends who are geographically out of reach. Indeed, the skills and knowledge to utilise these technologies effectively should be supported – poor IT skills are surely a disadvantage in the modern world. So, rather than be too heavy-handed about surfing the web for fear of any potential harm, I hope in future we can discuss what she’s using the internet for and how to enter the digital world safely; just as we will discuss the dangers of coming home late and the dreaded ‘birds and the bees’, at the right time.

Putting Olly Murs and my headache aside… children are lucky to have so many resources available to them through the internet, but just as we had a fear of ‘stranger danger’ drilled into us, today’s kids need to be taught a healthy disrespect of enticing online introductions. They also need to understand the importance of conducting themselves properly to protect their own reputation, and know the potential for hurt by carelessly criticising others. Most importantly, they should know when its time to log off and not fear any repercussions. Only time will tell how successful I am in promoting this attitude.

Related links:

Susan Greenfield and the rise of the Facebook zombies

Limit children’s screen time, expert urges

Kids spend too much time screen focused

UK internet providers commit £1m to eradicate child porn

Welcoming the new Children’s Laureate

7 Jun

Illustration by Margaret Chamberlain for My Two Grannies

Illustration by Margaret Chamberlain for My Two Grannies

Great news this week that Malorie Blackman, author of the acclaimed teenage novel Noughts and Crosses, has been appointed as Waterstones’ Children’s Laureate.

Malorie is the first black author to be awarded the title, which brings with it a £15,000 bursary and a commitment to participate in a calendar of engagements to support children’s literature and reading over two years.

Malorie has pledged to champion the survival of the local library, as well as redress the balance for teenage readers and promote diversity in literature.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Blackman’s work, she’s a best selling children’s novelist whose works feature black characters – the sort of books she wishes had been more readily available when she was a young girl. Unsurprisingly some sections of the media in announcing Malorie’s new role, have made much of this point.

I empathise with Blackman’s motive to feature black characters in her books; after all, as the mother of a mixed-race child I admit to actively searching out books in the library containing characters that my daughter might identify with. Most recently we have enjoyed My Two Grannies by the wonderful Floella Benjamin – the cover image of the two grandmas unashamedly resembling my little one’s real-life grandmas. The thing is, just because my daughter has a particular skin colour, doesn’t mean I exclusively read her books about children who look like her. As a matter of fact her favourite bedtime reading at the moment are the Tales of Beatrix Potter, in which there’s not a brown face in sight.

The question is, do we really need somebody to ensure that there are enough BEM (black and ethnic minority) characters in children’s books? There were certainly plenty in my local south London library. Of course, it may be less easy to find books depicting black, Asian, or eastern European children for that matter, in rural Cumbria – but my guess is that our wonderful local libraries pretty much know their local audience. Assuming our libraries, schools and book shops have got the balance right, surely the important thing is that the books featuring BEM character aren’t labelled as stories just for the black or ethnic minority kids.

You see, I believe that diversity in books is important for all children, just as it is for adults, in order to help us understand that all people, whatever their race or religion, are essentially the same, whilst appreciating the complex challenges that people from different cultural backgrounds face. Certainly, in adult literature there are plenty of examples of multicultural Britain from Monica Ali’s feted Brick Lane to the modern day tragedy, Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman, about the experience of a young boy from Ghana growing up in Peckham.

Presumably, in order to promote greater multicultural representation in children’s literature, the writing industry needs to encourage people of all backgrounds in their writing endeavours; and in this respect, Malorie is a great role model. Furthermore, if we’re looking to support diversity let‘s not stop at skin colour – let’s have more books about mixed-race families, same sex parents, children with disabilities and so on, to really reflect the diverse and wonderfully imperfect world in which we live today.

Above all, excellent children’s literature must feed our children’s imaginations, provide guidance on what’s right and wrong, entertain, as well as foster a love of reading and learning about the world.

In a nutshell, I whole heartedly welcome Malorie’s appointment, but I don’t think we should obsess about her being a black author promoting black characters in children’s books. I do however, hope that she will continue the excellent work of former Children’s Laureates in promoting quality literature for children which speaks to and inspires all of our younger generation.

Related links:

Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman: ‘I’m looking forward to redressing the balance for teenagers’

Book Trust: Malorie Blackman announced as new Children’s Laureate

Bird’s Song blog (chief executive of Booktrust)

‘Franglais’ and the international sign for chicken

25 May

Our temporary sojourn in Brittany has brought with it the inevitable challenge of speaking French. My GCSE level French is rusty to say the least, and in reality I’ve not yet had to ask someone how to find the railway station, or if I can buy a kilo of bananas. I have however, mimed a chicken lying down for the night in order to obtain some wood shavings for the hen coop, and casually asked the assistant in an electrical store where I can find the weapons (‘fusiller’), only to be asked whether, in actual fact, I might be looking for fuses (‘fusible’)!

These minor embarrassments are all part of the learning curve, but there’s no doubt that some dedicated study is going to be needed to help me contribute more than a cursory: “It’s sunny today” at the school gates. My two and half year old daughter on the other hand, is becoming ‘au fait’ with basic words and phrases with relative ease – thanks to a couple of weeks at the local pre-school. Admittedly she’s not saying very much in French, but she’s comfortable uttering ‘bonjour’, ‘au revoir’ and ‘merci’ and more importantly, she’s following the teachers’ instructions and interacting confidently with the other children. Additionally, while playing on her own, she will sometimes imitate French speaking or read to her teddy in ‘French’, which is basically gobbledygook but with a distinctly Gallic melody. That, of course, is exactly how she began to speak English – by practicing different sounds until they gradually morphed into recognisable words and groups of words.

It’s well known that language acquisition is a natural part of development, much like walking; and that learning new languages comes more easily to children than adults. It is, however, a common misconception that the adult tongue somehow become less able to pronounce the sounds of another language. The key distinction is in ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’ – i.e. the gradual development of an ability in a language, through regular exchanges, as opposed to a more rigid classroom-based accumulation of vocabulary and grammar, which is altogether a more arduous process. Despite this uncomfortable truth, I must continue to try to re-familiarise myself with verbs and tenses learned by rote over 20 years ago, for fear of getting left behind as my daughter’s comprehension and vocabulary effortlessly grows.

Mulling this over, I consulted a few friends who are married to partners that speak a different language and are therefore raising children that are bilingual. Their experiences confirm the notion that learning multiple languages in infancy is a relative breeze. Their toddlers are not only learning two (or more) languages at pretty much the same rate as their monolingual counterparts, but in some cases, they actually act as a translator – taking one parent’s question and putting it to the other parent in their (the other parent’s) native language. Apparently, this ability to switch from one language to another has been proven to help the bilingual child to outperform monolingual children in cognitive tests. So an added benefit of my little one learning two languages at an early age is that being bilingual can actually make kids smarter, and I’m all for that.

For me, I think it’s definitely back to the proverbial classroom if I’m going to survive the forthcoming school trip, on which I’ve boldly offered to act as a help chaperone. My ‘Franglais’ simply won’t cut the ‘moutarde’.

Related links:

Bilingual children ‘better at problem-solving skills’ BBC News

Why bilinguals are smarter, New York Times

TED talks: Patricia Kuhl on the liguistic genuis of babies

A gentle reminder

3 May

baby bracelet

Last week, my former landlady sent me my daughter’s hospital bracelet. The bracelet must have fallen out of the shoe-box stuffed with baby mementoes as they were hastily packed away ready for the removal van.

I was so touched by this gesture, I immediately emailed her to thank her for her trouble. It would have been so easy for her to simply throw away such a small and apparently, trivial item (particularly as I had left the country), but instead, she reflected on what this small plastic band, bearing my daughter’s name and date of birth, might mean to me, and took the time and effort to package it and sent it on.

Every day is filled with these small, fleeting opportunities of goodwill which have the power to restore someone’s faith in human nature, help someone put their problems in perspective, or let someone know that they are appreciated. Sadly, we are often too busy and pre-occupied with our endless ‘to do’ lists and own needs to act with kindness and compassion to others. This thing is, it’s amazing how a small gesture such as sending a greeting card, or stopping to pass the time with a neighbour can boost your own happiness and wellbeing too.

Simply smiling, not only makes those around you happier but has been proven to release endorphins – chemicals which help reduce stress.

Here in France the word for kind is ‘gentil‘ and their ‘gentilhomme’ was originally synonymous with ‘nobleman’, this is, a man of wealth and status. As with our ‘gentleman’ it now describes any man of good, courteous conduct.  Today, ‘gentle’ behaviour is less about etiquette, but is still essentially about acknowledging others, being courteous and putting aside your own wants and needs for a moment.

Far from being a paragon of virtue myself, I have a caustic tongue to rival Anne Robinson when I’m riled and admit to a streak of schadenfreude, especially on ski-ing holidays despite being a novice myself (admit it, unless there’s any real damage it’s pretty hilarious watching people fall over). As such, I know that there are frequent times when I should, or could, have acted more ‘gently’ towards others – especially now that I need to show a good example to my DD (‘darling daughter’ to the uninitiated). I have no doubt that every ungenerous word or sarcastic eyebrow raised is being processed by that cute little brain, only to be regurgitated, usually at an inappropriate moment.

In my defence, teaching the importance of kindness to a toddler can be a challenge, especially once your little cherub begins to realise that they have desires and ideas of their own. Deprive him/ her of that extra biscuit and you are branded a ‘meanie’, and why on earth would any sane two year old want to relinquish the biggest, noisiest percussion instrument in the playgroup when they‘re having so much fun? Also, how can you teach your two year old to be forgiving, when some great oik twice their size pushes them for no apparent reason other than to get a reaction? On these occasions its okay to say ‘stop that’ very loudly , tell a grown up or walk away – bad behaviour should never be tolerated.

The general principal is this: life can be unfair, and bullies do need putting in their place, but on the whole, you’ll not only rub along more easily with others if you’re kind, life will just feel better if you’re polite, treat people the way you expect to be treated, and act without prejudice. Above all, the joy and gratitude generated by seemingly small acts of kindness should never be underestimated – as I can testify by the surprise return of my precious little plastic bracelet.

Bringing library closures to book

25 Apr

reading

My heart sank this week to learn of the demise of the local library – with more than 200 libraries up and down the country closed last year due to Councils’ spending cuts, 170 so called community-run libraries being kept afloat thanks to unpaid volunteers, and hundreds more facing closure.

Since arriving in Brittany a couple of weeks ago, myself and the little one have already acquainted ourselves with the excellent local library here (albeit for a nominal fee). Reading the likes of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood) and Le Lapin (The Rabbit) are not only quenching my daughter’s thirst for a story, but improving both our French.

Our regular library visits (which date back to her very first months) by no means precludes a burgeoning book collection of her own, but the benefits of learning about borrowing books from a library extends beyond the cost savings. Flicking erratically through the array of titles (invariably starring an animal as the main protagonist), and sitting on her own to ‘read’, while I peruse loftier titles (ahem), is particularly rewarding for mademoiselle. Even returning the books is teaching her a valuable lesson about looking after borrowed items and sharing with other children. Not forgetting the social aspect of meeting and greeting other library users and staff.

My personal passion for libraries is relatively recent, admittedly. This is perhaps, in part, due to the fact that as a child books were readily available in our house, and in my teenage years, my passion for reading was fuelled by my grandmother – a voracious reader, with whom I could freely discuss not only books, but music, fashion and my latest crush.

As an English Literature undergraduate in the early ‘90s I developed a love/hate relationship with my university library – not unlike the haunted library in Ghostbusters, mysteriously catalogued and with an eerie quietness which made me want to blurt out some profanity, Tourette’s style, to break the uncomfortable silence. Where the student grant allowed, novels, plays and poetry would be purchased, untouched by human hand, from Blackwell’s and devoured back at my digs. Countless afternoons spent curled up on my ramshackle sofa, never far from a boiling kettle and the biscuit tin; far more conducive to literary digestion than sitting straight-backed and silent at a rigid desk.

Aside from a brief encounter with an academic library in the name of professional development, I pretty much managed to put the sweaty-palmed experience of libraries behind me until 2010. I didn’t give up reading– I just preferred to pick up books on Amazon, or on a whim in the airport WH Smiths.

The combination of tightened purse strings and an expanding belly forced me to venture tentatively into the local library to swot up on baby-rearing techniques. Of course I consulted the internet too, but physical books by recognised authors, with their forewords and friendly pictures, seemed to provide greater comfort and reassurance in light of the challenges ahead. Greeted by a cheery face and intuitively displayed books, I could easily find everything from romantic fiction, to travel books and indeed, baby manuals – with comfortable seating to boot! (In actual fact, mother’s instinct was never far wrong, but Tracy Hogg’s Secrets of the Baby Whisperer provided a good foundation).

Later, with a pram in tow, the local library had even greater appeal, – with nursery rhyme CDs, ‘bounce and rhyme’ classes and information about local playgroups and activities.

Library visits and our nightly reading sessions continue to be met with gusto by my daughter and I am relieved that I overcame my library phobia in good time for her to enjoy this particular habit.

I also count my own blessings for having been given an early introduction to reading and books and strongly support efforts to protect our local libraries, which are such an important gateway to reading and ergo, life chances, for many young people who may not be able to access books so readily at home.

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