Reflection for Kids

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Many of my twitter friends will have developed an unconscious, nervous twitch whenever the word ‘reflection’ is mentioned; from medical students required to write meaningfully about something meaningless to them, to consultants appraising a trainee’s portfolios of development and everyone inbetween. Doctors, nurses, teachers and many other career paths have adopted reflective practice as a means of learning and developing, whereby experiences are given meaningful afterthought and analysis with the aim of learning and changing behaviour for the better. Many people, especially those who ‘don’t quite get it’ groan at the slightest utterance of the word. Others use reflection to form art, literature, essays and blogs to wonderful success. For me, reflection as a tool for was thrust upon me at university: an altogether alien concept at a new stage in my life. I’m sure some schools are starting to nurture reflection in the classroom, which can only be a good thing. But how do we get children to reflect meaningfully and usefully?

If you thought you’d escaped another of my blog pieces about SeriousFun Camps, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. But stick with it, go on.

At an Over The Wall camp for children affected by serious illness, we’ve taken a creative approach to facilitating decent reflection from our campers. Whilst on the surface, the SeriousFun Children’s Network camps look like a great week of fun of sick kids, which of course they are, look a little deeper and you’ll discover a framework underpinning everything they do that gives the charity it’s name. It’s one thing to have fun, but it’s another when fun can allow fundamental, lasting changes for the better in a child who has already lived through what most of is will never experience in a lifetime. The framework used is called Therapeutic Recreation and uses reflection, amongst other things, to help children regain some of what is lost to illness.

Essentially, TR invokes five aspects: challenge, success, reflection and discovery, the fifth being fun, which is at the centre of the four contributing factors. The challenges are always choices, made by individual campers. Everything is done to facilitate success in challenges, and when success inevitably comes, it is positively labelled so it can be referred back to later. Rather than simply saying “good job buddy!” or “high-five!”, everything is individualised and given meaning. “The was awesome how you got into the horse’s saddle even though you were really nervous about doing so! High-five, pal!”. The discovery, or breakthrough moment, is the magical realisation by a child of ‘something’, which will be different for each camper. Whatever the discovery is, it is the thing that stays with them long-term, having a lasting impression and changing them for the better. Discovery can only be linked with success and achievement by quality reflection, and here lies the main challenge for the adult volunteers at SeriousFun camps.
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Reflection can be structured or free form. An example of unstructured reflection, taking advantage of the positive labelling used for achievements, would be a team mate/counsellor (the adult volunteers at camp) casually facilitating reflection over a mealtime: “Jack, why don’t you tell Kate what you managed in the last activity whilst she was on break?”. By facilitating a child to think back, use your positive labelling from the time and put their success into their own words, the seeds of proper reflection are sown.

Structured reflection can then follow and build upon the bitesize moments from throughout each day. At camp, the day ends with a ‘cabin chat’, where a team of campers and team mates/counsellors will gather, hot chocolate and marshmallows in hand, and take it in turns to share their highs and lows of the day. Rather than list the gazillions of ways this could be structured, I’ll describe a recent cabin chat that my team did on the final night of an Over The Wall camp this summer.

The closing ceremony had just finished. Each team had been called up on stage one by one, and every child given an award to commemorate their many achievements from the week. A video made by the camp recorder played on the cinema screen and reminded every person in the room of all the fun they’d crammed into the week, from sailing down a zip wire to sitting with new friends playing cards and eating sweets. The awesome sound of camp (a sound unlike anything else), filled the room and a song played in the background reminding the campers how proud we were of them. After happy tears were wiped away, and the kids all pulled on their new OTW hoodies, we drifted off in our teams, singing and chanting for our final cabin chats of the week. Ours was by the fountain, with a fire bowl gently illuminating everyone’s tear-glistened faces. As it did each night, but perhaps more magically tonight as we were outside and far from any buildings, hot chocolate and marshmallows appeared on trays carried by brilliant team mates. We sat in a circle on cushions and duvets, Sigúr Ros on quietly in the background, ready for our random question of the day: “if you could fill a swimming pool with anything, what would it be and why?”. One camper answered beautifully with: “I’d fill it with this team, and everyone at camp, because you’ve shown me I can do anything and I don’t want that feeling to ever go away.”

Next was our roses and thorns of the day. These are each person’s (including adults!) highs and lows of the day. The highs would be celebrated and depending on the low (often ‘none’ and sometimes funny ones), we’d talk about how to avoid a repeat of those thorns. As it was the last day, we then added a super-rose of the week, accompanies by each person’s favourite achievement.  One camper, Matt, got so carried away with his roses of the week that he forgot to add his achievements. When asked: “and what about your achievements Matt?”, he replied: “they’re immeasurable!”.

We finished with three exercises to facilitate further reflection to help the campers, and perhaps some of the volunteers too, on their road to discovery. The first was made up by me as I went along based on an amalgamation of other excercises. We all lined up at the foot of a huge set of stone steps leading up to the manor house on the site we were staying on. Everyone closed their eyes and I’d ask us to think back to the beginning of the week, and to take a step up if anyone was feeling nervous. Next came excited to have arrived at camp, another step. Then a step for meeting new friends in the team. And so on, though the maze of emotions and experiences of the week, from challenges to pride and overcoming the barriers of illness. The last step, at the top of the flight, was for ‘more fun than you’ve ever had’.

Before we left the fountain, each camper wrote down a fear or worry, or something that been holding them back in life. Without showing anyone, the folded them up and burned them in the firebowl (along with more marshmallows of course!). They did the same for wishes and hopes, although instead of burning them, they set them off on little paper boats with tea lights across the fountain. I’ve mentioned this sort of exercise before and the impact it can have on kids.

Back at the cabin we addressed our final reflective piece that had been running through the week. When the campers arrived, our theme for the week being space, we had shown them a rocket that the volunteers had made and stuck to the wall. Except the rocket was at the bottom of the wall in the corridor as it was being held down by evil aliens. The aliens represented the things in each camper’s life that were holding them back. With each day end, we move the rocket up the wall, and make another alien fall to the floor from it, before allowing the kids to check the rocket’s progress. We’d tell them that for each challenge the successfully completed in the day, or anytime they did something really cool or impressive, the aliens’ grips on the rocket would weaken. On the final night, the rocket was stuck to the ceiling and all the aliens were in a heap on the floor.

A huge study at Yale of many of the international SeriousFun camps found good evidence of lasting effects of therapeutic recreation camps. From personal experience, the best kind of feedback is when parents say: “I don’t know how you’ve done it, but you’ve given us back our child as they were before illness. They’ve got their smile back.”

Over The Wall are recruiting for campers and volunteers for camp season 2014. If you know anyone who might benefit, let them know. If you think you’d like to volunteer, get involved! If you’re a paeds doctor or nurse, or a GP, and want to regain a positive view of reflection, why not volunteer for the medical team?

For all the wonderful reasons that volunteers return again and again to camp, this I would say is the greatest draw. The knowledge that our campers are given a piece of themselves back that was ripped from them by childhood illness. This isn’t just fun. This is SeriousFun.

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