Everyone benefits from purposeful intergenerational relationships. The gathering of family and friends to share a meal at Thanksgiving traditionally involves multiple generations. What better time to share activities that nurture connections among different age groups?
PlayopolisToys serves the citizens of play. Those children and adults who delight in entertaining themselves with engaging activities. That’s what play is. Younger and older citizens having fun together forms bonds that enrich everyone involved. Opportunities abound. Take a walk. Share stories, Read a favorite book aloud. Create something. Play a board game, preferably a non-competitive one. Or go on a treasure hunt while sitting together on the sofa.
Cooperative Games Foster Teamwork
Cooperative games require players to work together toward a common goal. By putting aside competition and working cooperatively, everyone comes away with positive feelings. Non-readers and readers. Preschoolers and high schoolers. Parents and grandparents can enjoy playing a game together. Team work leads everyone to success. Moreover no one leaves the game gloating or feeling like a loser.
Megana Hosein, a mother of four, is enthusiastic about the value of cooperative board games. She “loves how board games encourage interacting and thinking with children in a way that is rarely explored in our busy lives. I am always amazed to hear what they have to say about solving dilemmas within the game. This taps into greater topics of conversation that might otherwise have gone unrealized. Furthermore my children can easily make new friends over the commonality and cooperation in a board game, both with peers and adults. Truly a gentle way to introduce social rules. And simultaneously focus the active child while drawing out the shy one.” Consider cooperative games for those times when kids of different ages and abilities as well as kids and adults want to play together.
Thwart Stink Bugs
Ever thought about hiding bugs under a rug before stink bugs show up and stink up the place? That’s the challenges players face with Snug As A Bug in A Rug. One of more than two dozen fun-for-all-to-play cooperative games by Peaceable Kingdom.
With three levels of play, these skills-building games grow as players become more proficient. Create a team to solve these problems. Two players will do, but there’s room for more. Designed to be played in 15 minutes, these games offer a quick solution to the challenge of keeping the peace before and after Thanksgiving dinner.
For those who thrive on challenges, Mythical Creatures is the ultimate Find It for intergenerational play. After all, two heads are better than one, and the more heads, the merrier the conversation, especially in intergenerational play.
Mythical Creatures requires knowledge of folk tales and supernatural beings from around the world. Keep a dictionary or Wikipedia handy while going down the list. Otherwise, when you see the word hippocampus, you might think of the region of our brain thought responsible for emotions and memory. Although that’s true, you’d be missing a chance to identify one of the fish-tailed horses of Greek Mythology. The beauty of Mythical Creatures is the chance to find out who’s who and what’s what, then check each off the list. While concentrating on finding out about the Jersey Devil, a kraken, or a troll or taking note of the similarities and differences between a hippocampus and a manticore, you’re happily learning, making memories and nurturing relationships.
Here we are 17 years into the 21st century. The only constant is change and that comes at an increasingly maddening speed. Since becoming a grandmother a year ago, I’ve discovered that almost every aspect of “bringing up baby” is different now. What distresses me most is the proliferation of branded products for young children. Customers pay a premium for these products, merchandise that promotes brand identity. The beneficiaries of branded products are companies, not those buying the products.
Leading brands of disposable diapers feature licensed characters. Babies become billboards, re-enforcing brand identity, advertising specific products. Do we really want babies commercialized in this way? I don’t. Fortunately non-licensed brands of equal quality and at lower prices exist for those of us who prefer diapers advertisement free.
Once Upon A Time Before Widespread Licensing of Toys
Toys have suffered a similar fate. Once upon a time, Lego designed products for unscripted, open-ended play with themes reflecting general interests of its audience. Never miss open house at the neighborhood fire station? Select from individual fire trucks to a fully equipped fire station. Although designed for building specific play props, bricks used to build a fire station could also be used to craft something altogether different. Build a cityscape complete with streets and vehicles, even an airport, design and build skyscrapers, housing, school, and parks. Add a neighborhood landmark. Children built whatever came to mind and created their own story lines as they played.
Sets included diagrams for building the item pictured on the box, and that was what children usually built first. Gradually the pieces from one set joined those from others to form a sea of multiple and varied building components which served as a catalyst for open-ended, creative play. The search for just the right piece sharpened visual discrimination.
Licensed Products Script Play
Now Lego holds numerous licenses, and play is more apt to reflect related story lines than to evolve from the imagination of children. The toy comes with a script. Yes, the child is free to adapt the toy to fit other narratives, yet by its nature a licensed product limits creativity. Using his imagination to spin his own yarns is more creative than following a script.
How Non-licensed Toys Benefit Children
Toys that invite children to “put on their thinking caps” and engage in a process of experimentation, discovery, and problem-solving allow children to follow their muse and reap the rewards. They gain competence and confidence as they acquire and refine skills in comprehension, language, and mathematics, eye-hand coordination, fine motor control, and spatial awareness. Creativity, executive planning, and problem-solving blossom as children design and construct ever more advanced structures.
Texo = Open-Ended Building
While numerous open-ended design and construction toys are available, a particularly versatile one is Texo, an award-winning 3-dimensional building system from architect, author, and designer Lester Walker. This building system allows children to progress gradually from basic color and shape sorting, matching, and identification to simple puzzles and stacking of interconnected shapes and finally to advanced architectural models. Plastic rods and solid wood planks coupled with the geometric precision of molded plastic connectors enhance the design and construction potential. Imagination dictates what gets built. And creativity blossoms.
In the forward to the activity guide accompanying Texo, Walker shares his vision. Form and function are the foundations of architecture and design. Children learn at an early age about these principles through playing with blocks and construction toys and through their natural curiosity which leads them to explore, replicate and shape their environment. Texo – which is Latin for weave, twine together, plait, construct, build – is a toy I’ve designed to help children gain a richer understanding of form and function through a scaleable toy, one that at its most basic level is about stacking, sorting and sequencing, and grows in its complexity as a child grows, becoming something they can use to explore principles of architecture, design and engineering. Enjoy!
Play is, by definition, an enjoyable experience. Freed from scripts, children create their own as they explore possibilities. Providing the children in our lives with ample opportunities for open-ended play and watching them flourish benefits and delights both sides of the equation.
Shapes and the arrangement of relative parts within a whole are the subject of geometry. Consider the construction of spider webs. The arrangement of petals forming a rose. Study the facade of a cathedral. The angles and the fitting together of its architectural elements. Or all the parts in myriad shapes that combine to make an automobile. Both the natural and the human-made environments are studies in shapes, angles, and intersections.
Best Shape Sorter Toys
Through observation and experience children learn about shapes and parts. First come basic shapes: round, square, triangular. Among early childhood play experiences are sorting and matching of shapes using a shape sorter. Simple ones are best for beginners, and Ambi Toys Lock A Block is best of class. High contrast between the bright white top and the color matched raised rims outlining each opening facilitates “hitting the target.” Equally importantly, its three dimensional shapes drop easily into place.
As shape discrimination, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor skills improve, children are ready for the next shape learning toys. Fitting two-dimensional shapes into corresponding holes. Sound Puzzle Box is a popular choice that rewards proper placement with distinct auditory responses.
Basic Shapes Puzzles
Puzzles are all about shape. Again starting simple is key. Chunky shapes facilitate placement. Shapes that fit only in their proper places make a truly self-correcting learning experience. Left to right orientation models the direction of reading and writing. Children are ready to identify and match more unusual shapes only after they easily recognize basic shapes.
Interlocking Pieces Puzzles
After learning individual shapes through puzzles, children move on to explore the arrangement of shapes as parts of a whole. Start simple. The more pieces and the smaller the pieces, the more challenging a puzzle is. Wooden puzzles with thick pieces are easier for small hands to manipulate than thin cardboard ones.
A single layer, wooden 8-piece fish shaped puzzle for toddlers, Rainbow Fish, invites exploration of color and shapes and the way parts fit together to make a whole. With only one way to complete the puzzle, the child has to sort out and make sense of the pieces. Then work out how the parts go together to create the whole, a sometimes frustrating experience that benefits from adult encouragement.
Layered puzzles introduce perspective and offer graduated challenges. As always, start simple and progress gradually. More layers offer more challenge; however, the number of pieces is a more accurate indicator of difficulty.
Mathematical Concepts Puzzles
Although most puzzles go together in one and only one way, others offer options, and these literally open doors to understanding of mathematics.
The Binomial square wood puzzle introduces mathematical concepts through observation and experience. Children develop proportional reasoning, area concepts, and place value understanding when they discover four small squares cover the same area as the rectangle and four rectangles the same as one large square. And that’s only the beginning of the possibilities.
Power of Two Puzzle encourages experiential learning of important mathematical ideas from fraction equivalents, fraction multiplication with a common factor of 1:2, proportional reasoning, and area. The 10″ puzzle is cut into one-half, one-fourth, one-eighth, one-sixteenth up to 1/128th. Clearly challenging, the beauty of Power of Two lies in the multiple ways the pieces can fit together and the arrangement of relative fractions.
Measurement is a basic math concept for time, quantity, size, weight, and volume. Children learn these properties naturally through play. Think about the concepts learned while filling and spilling, nesting and stacking. Fill the pail. The pail is full. Spill the contents of the pail. The pail is empty. Full or empty, the pail has weight and dimensions. The pail is its lightest when empty, heaviest when full. Between empty and full, t volume and weight vary.
Variety of Materials
Children learn sizes, order, and spatial relations as they explore, stack, and nest boxes and cups in a variety of materials, each with its own properties. Consider graduated boxes. These may be constructed of cardboard, wood, or molded plastic. Both plastic and cardboard will be lighter than wooden. Experience with a variety of nesting and stacking toys broadens children’s understanding of the properties of different materials and the ways those materials predict how the toys can be used.
Size, Order, and Spatial Relations
Nesting Cylinders and Nesting Boxes give children an opportunity to experience nesting and stacking different shapes. Exploring both invites an experiential understanding of similarities and differences. Similarities include three sizes of each shape. Measuring confirms the dimensions of each and shows their corresponding heights. Weighing each shows their corresponding weights. During play children discover differences as well. The small cylinder will fit inside the medium box while the small box stays on top of the medium cylinder.
Such play enhances emerging cognitive, language, and mathematics skills. Learning words to describe the relative positions of the boxes and cylinders develops spatial awareness. And sets the stage for geometry. Think of the concepts being explored: small, medium, and large. Smaller and larger, shorter and taller. Lighter and heavier. Inside and outside. On top of, in the middle, on the bottom.
Wooden toys are classic and durable, apt to withstand rigorous play and be handed down to the next generation. That said, sturdy plastic nesting and stacking toys invite sand and water play that would be ill advised with their wooden counterparts.
Children explore volume as they fill and spill the 10 round, graduated, plastic baby stacking beakers. Pouring sand or water from a smaller into a larger beaker demonstrates differences in volume. The child readily discovers that what fills one beaker is too little or too much for another. Experimentation may lead to discovering how many of the smallest beakers are needed to fill the largest.
Developmental Age Matters
How far a child goes with such experimentation varies with developmental age and personal interest. The play and learning development of a one-year-old obviously differs from that of a three-year-old. Dropping the smallest beaker into a larger one, then dumping the smaller one out, over and over again, is appropriate beginning play. Learning simple concepts-empty and full, in and out, small and large-lays the foundation for more complex learning. Nesting and stacking require differentiating sizes and ordering the beakers to fit one inside the other or one atop the other. Repetition further solidifies concept acquisition and readies the child for taking the next step in learning mathematics.
Play is essential. Children learn while playing, and we adults do irreparable damage to children when we ignore this truth. By play, I mean self-directed, open-ended exploration and discovery. When playing, children use of what’s available, decide what they want to do, and put their energy into doing it. When a challenge arises, they assess the situation, re-think possibilities, and go from there. During play they develop creativity, problem solving, and executive planning skills. Playing with others, they learn vital social skills: how to articulate their ideas, to listen to others, cooperate, compromise, respect.
PlayopolisToys has pinned article after article to our Pinterest board Children Learn While Playingoffering research demonstrating the value of play and lamenting its decline. Among these pins is a reprint of a speech by child development specialist Nancy Carlson-Paige, the author of Taking Back Childhood. An educator with 30 + years experience teaching teachers, she sums up her dismay over current practices that leave children little time to experience the benefits of unstructured, “free play”by saying, “…never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that we would have to defend children’s right to play.” Yet we do.
In “How “twisted” early childhood education has become – from a child development expert,” Valerie Strauss, writing in The Washington Post, reprints the speech Carlson-Paige gave when accepting the prestigious Deborah Meier Hero in Education Award. Read what she had to say. If you’re a proponent, your passion for play will be validated.If you’ve never given much thought to the issue, you’ll find plenty to think about.
Then settle in and find out what children learn from traditional open-ended play with blocks and bubbles, puzzles and play dough, and so much more.
Fewer hours of daylight and dropping temperatures naturally find us spending more time indoors. That means more time to express our creativity.Everyone – kids and adults alike – benefits from process activities. Autumn provides bountiful, free, natural materials that invite us to experiment and find out what happens when we do this or that. Sometimes the outcome isn’t what we expected. Sometimes we’re pleased with the unexpected; sometimes not. Either way, we’reokay. We’re exploring possibilities, exercising deductive reasoning, solving problems.
Scavenge Natural Materials
Our adventure begins outdoors where we’ll comb the neighborhood for materials. What we collect will determine our options. Some suggestions will appeal primarily to adults, others require adult assistance, and still others are kid-friendly enough for kids to pursue on their own. The best ones allow collaboration and memory making between adults and kiddos.
Gather branches of autumn leaves and fill a basket or a pail. Pick up leaves and acorns for crafting. If you want to preserve favorite ones, melt beeswax in a double boiler, dip each leaf, one at a time, by its stem, let the excess wax drip off, then lay on waxed paper to dry. Consider laying the most colorful leaves, preserved or not, on a tray as autumnal decorations. Sparkle acorns among the leaves.
Or make a wreath or a garland. Pinterest is brimming with creative projectsusing autumn leaves, from Mason jar candle holders to embedding autumn leaves in pillar candles. Speaking of Pinterest, I discovered two projects using faux autumn leaves that likely could only be done with faux foliage: leaf bowls and an autumnal topiary. Both make unique, attractive autumn decorations and invite kids and adults alike to experiment.
Kiddos have ways to get creative with autumn leaves too. Collect leaves for paper punching and use the leaf die cuts in creative ways. Consider adding the die cuts to place cards for Thanksgiving dinner or to gift tags. Or decorate a pumpkin with autumn leaves. Lasts longer than a carved one. Another idea is adding soil at the base of the stem of a pumpkin and planting a tiny succulent garden.
Raking and Playing
And finally, look at all those fallen leaves and grab a rake. Seize the opportunity to enjoy a crisp, sunny, autumn day outdoors. Dry leaves are easier to rake than wet ones and more fun to jump up and down in too! The exercise benefits our bodies and our minds, and many hands make light work. Yes, just as “making hay” was a community endeavor, getting up the leaves works best as an “all hands on deck” family activity. Admittedly living in a grove insures that getting up leaves becomes a chore before the last leaf falls, but the shade those treesprovide brings delightful relief from the high heat of summer. Raking gives everyone another chance to scavenge for natural materials for autumn crafts, and piles of dry leaves are irresistible invitations to play. Jump in and experience pure joy.
I’ve been thinking about my friend and her heartfelt desire not to be defined by physical limitations caused by a chronic and incurable disease. I bristle at the thought that anyone would make assumptions or label her based solely on limitations. I suspect anyone doing so would be a stranger. Those who know her know she’s so much more than any limitation.
Defining someone by disability isn’t the only way we short change ourselves or others. Consider all the assumptions we make based on casual observation, something we’ve heard, or attitudes instilled in us. These “settled ways of thinking” can become so ingrained that we rarely question their validity. Experiences and observations that challenge our beliefs raise doubts. Being willing to face our doubts takes an open mind and heart. Once we start questioning one attitude, we likely become more willing to re-consider another. This can put us at odds with family and friends. Battles to change popular opinion can be fierce and long. And some people never change their view.
Attitudes towards women, race, sexual orientation, religious tolerance have changed dramatically in my lifetime, yet battles rage on, passionately and stridently. I’d welcome a paradigm shift to self-reflection and compassion. To ratcheting down the volume in an effort to learn how to sit with those whose beliefs differ from ours, engage in dialogue, find common ground where we can, show respect and be respected.
Not so long ago, tattoos were a fringe practice. Something men might choose to get, and those who did were primarily soldiers, sailors, marines, …and bikers. “Nice people” didn’t “go there.” Then attitudes began to shift, beginning, of course, with rebellious youth, both males and females. Initially being taken seriously professionally required folks to keep their tats under wraps, either by personaldecision or employer dictates. Gradually the practice became mainstream, and fewer and fewer restrictions apply in the workplace. Tattoos have become more elaborate, more an art form than a carnival side show. Such shifts in attitude are seismic. Now anyone can embrace body art, and anyone who doesn’t want to, doesn’t.
Recently I received an email from a friend. She was writing to family and friends, with encouragement from her internist of many years, to address an elephant in the living room. She experienced progressive symptoms affecting her ability to walk months before being diagnosed with the rare, chronic, progressive, auto-immune disease CIDP,for which there is no cure. If the only USDA-approved treatment continues to manage her symptoms, she can hope to be among the 90% who can walk without aid, except during periods of regression.
A resilient woman who weathered Guillian Barre Syndrome as an adolescent, she has remained physically active, despite knee and ankle surgeries. Many who know her likely assigned her increasingly halting gait and occasional use of a cane, to the ravages of injury and age and would ask how her ankle was. You see, except for those she trusted most, she’d kept the new diagnosis under wraps. That’s her prerogative of course.
The internist, however, encouraged disclosure believing she will benefit from help and support from family and friends as she navigates the challenges and obstacles before her. None of us can make those disappear. We would, if we could. Like her, we have to accept the chronicity of CIDP. What we can do is rally around her, become her teammates. Encourage her to remain optimistic and to continue adjunct practices that improve her quality of life. Such a commitment of time and energy would be a challenge for all of us. Think about people who resolve to exercise regularly, then falter. Having someone hold us accountable improves the likelihood that we’ll stay the course.
We can, as now she’s given her permission, insist she use a cane or walker when safety or comfort dictate. I’m thinking we can also add artistic and creative flourishes to that cane and walker. Take “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” to a new realm. Shall we knit bomb or decoupage a cane? Maybe both. Having a choice of canes has its advantages.
Writing that email was hard for my friend. Independent, not one to ask for help, yet quick to respond to the needs of others, she has never wanted to be defined by her physical limitations. She fears that CIDP with its chronicity and incurability could alter the way people think of her.
That’s what prompted me to write this blog. Would anyone of us like being defined by a single attribute? I think not. We’re all so much more than any single trait could suggest. Yet, like gender, race, and ethnicity, some limitations are so obvious that we’re apt to register the limitation as a primary attribute. That’s a disservice. When we define a person by disability, we’re being disrespectful.
In response to her fear, I emailed a list of all the qualities she possesses that make her who she is and assured her that those distinctions are more important than physical limitations. I also urged her to take names of any who appear only to see her limitations, promising to get up a posse and kick butt for her.
Honestly I cannot imagine anyone who knows this woman being anything but supportive, but you never know. I better get back to Tai Chi. Just in case my “services” are needed. I made a promise after all;-).
We’ve all heard the adage “one thing leads to another.” That happened when I was putting together the posts on certified child life specialists pursuing their passion in nontraditional ways. One guest, Morgan Livingstone, urged me to contact Andrea Standish and invite her to write about Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare. Following her advice, I emailed Andy who graciously agreed to share her story, including a field report showing how implementing simple, effective, and sustainable practices creates positive change not only for children and their parents but also for healthcare professionals.
“There is no profit in curing the body if in the process we destroy the soul.” -Samuel Golter
These words inspire the work of Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare where we aim to dramatically change the hospital experience for kids and their families.
In 2010, I started the Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare. The organization was named after my husband Michael Standish in recognition of his long-time support of my passion to help ill children and their families. As a certified child life specialist and educator, I’ve worked extensively to support the rights and needs of ill children and their families. My work has taken me to fourteen countries, and I hope to spend the rest of my life working to introduce sustainable child and family friendly healthcare practices globally.
It’s simple really. We love kids and believe kids shouldn’t suffer. At Standish Foundation, we work to minimize the pain and suffering of hospitalized children.
Hospitals can be intimidating and medical procedures can be scary – especially for children. A hospital stay can be filled with stress, fear, anxiety and pain. But it doesn’t have to be filled with suffering.
Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare empowers medical professionals with training, mentoring, and resources to effectively deliver child and family-centered care. We help hospitals provide hope and healing to children and families.
Our team is made up of volunteers who live and work in 12 countries and range from eight to 68 years old. We are patients and parents, nurses, psychologists, pediatricians, child life specialists, music and art therapists, play therapists, and professors.
We believe that health care free of suffering is a right for all, not a privilege for a few. We honor and help implement healthcare standards in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
You can learn more about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, by reading FACT SHEET: A summary of the rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Among hospitals partnering with the Standish Foundation is Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem. This field report shows the positive impact of using Comfort Positions and distraction techniques during procedures and play before and after.
Our goal for this trip is to work with the nurses, nurse managers, and doctors to help develop their practices and policies on the use of “Comfort Positions.” These positions incorporate the parent into the procedure and include other best practices for reducing stress for the child.
Comfort Positions were developed by Mary Barkey, CCLS and Barbara Stephens, CRRN and involve the use of sitting and hugging positions rather than restraint. Parents are invited to hug/hold the child or at least be very close by while the procedure is being performed.
The staff at AVH are known for their kindness and compassion. Adding Comfort Positions to their practice is a logical next step. We’ve spent the week working with staff. A new play area is set up, a social worker is here, and we’re ready for the clinic to open.
Many of the children we are seeing are having a blood sample taken or IV/Cannula inserted. This may seem simple to an adult, but for a child, it is terrifying. Most of these children have been undergoing treatment for a while – they know what’s coming. For many, it was scary last time, so why would it be different today?
Today, patients are playing before and after their procedure. Comfort Positions are used and the child is sitting in the parent’s lap or sitting up in a chair. They are soothed and distracted, and then praised and validated after the procedure for doing a good job.
There were very few tears, a lot of laughing, smiling, and playing. In fact, a curious physician came into the clinic because he hadn’t heard any crying. He was delighted and said he hadn’t imagined that the few changes would make such a great impact for children, parents, and staff. Everyone was happier!
This is a great testament to the importance of PLAY! The sweet children here in Jerusalem inspire us with their warmth and playfulness. We are to happy to be a part of this team effort with the patients and parents, nurses and social worker.
Wishing you hope and joy,
Learnmore about the work of Standish Foundation and ways you can support their efforts to bring child and family-centered healthcare to hospitals worldwide. Donate online or contribute items from their wish list. I like their Ways to Help Us list. How often are we offered non-traditional ways to offer our support?While not everyone has frequent flier miles or hotel points to share, we can review the website, share their story on social media, and add our prayers.
There’s even a way to get the kids involved. Standish Foundation welcomes new and gently used Beanie Babies. Organize a Beanie Baby Drive. You’ll not only be collecting Beanie Babies. You’ll be sharing the story of the Standish Foundation and its goal of minimizing pain and suffering among hospitalized children worldwide. And, on a personal level, you’ll be modeling the generosity of spirit you want to blossom within your children.
Robert Frost wrote in his lyric poem, The Road Not Taken,“I took the road less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”
Our guest, Korie Leigh, a certified child life specialist and certified thanatologist, knows that choice well. She began working in a traditional setting. Then, responding to inner callings, she chose to focus on end of life and grief, in nontraditional settings. Currently in private practice, Korie also teaches at the graduate level, conducts research, and writes.
Let’s be honest, dying and death are hard topics to discuss and even harder to face. We become uncomfortable, aren’t sure what to say or how to act. Yet, as my mother, a nurse by profession and a pragmatist by nature, would point out, “we’re born knowing we’ll die.” She knew how to be with the dying and the grieving, how to bear witness to their grief without being undone by it.
Korie Leigh does too. She grew so passionate about supporting the grieving that she earned a MA in thanatology, the study of death and dying. Currently a doctoral candidate in integral and transpersonal psychology, her dissertation focuses on “legacy building and its impact on bereaved parents and siblings.” Her professional journey is a series of passionate responses to her deeply felt sense of the purposefulness in her life.
She begins with a quote,
“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put into every heart” –Rumi
From the time I was a young child I knew I wanted to work in the helping profession. At the age of seven, I recall sharing with my second grade teacher my desire to be a counselor with “sick kids”. Little did I know that this inner calling, this deep knowing, would lead me on a career path that would define my life’s purpose. The path would be filled with obstacles unknown, immense joy that filled my soul, and such sadness and pain that struck deep within the core of my existence.
Along this path, I completed my BA in child life at Wheelock College in Boston, MA. With a passion for music and the expressive arts, I was constantly trying to push the limits of the traditional role of a child life specialist. Every practicum, internship, or placement I sought to challenge existing norms, asked hard questions, and fought to broaden the scope of child life. Though I had a handful of mentors, I generally encountered great resistance and was told over and over again that the role of a child life specialist was to “first and foremost be a play lady”.
Is play important? Yes. Is it how children learn, grow, and express? Yes. Is it an integral tool for children coping with stress, illness, and tragedy? Yes. Is it the core of child life?In my opinion, No. And I would soon find out that this core, which at first I only intuitively understood, is so much more than play alone.
Soon after I began working my first position as a CCLS in intensive care settings, I was faced with an unusually high level of death and loss. And yet, during my internship, I was the only student from my class that never experienced the death of a patient. Frankly, I was not interested in death and end of life. However, I ended up working with the most medically fragile children in the hospital, an experience that makes me recall the saying, “sometimes our soul knows what we want before our hearts and heads do”.During this short time on the intensive care unit, I experienced upwards of four to seven deaths a week within the first few months. During this emotional time, I came to realize that not only was I interested in working with death and grief, I was deeply passionate about doing so. Yet I was ill equipped at the time to deal with the magnitude of loss and suffering I encountered – not just with parents and siblings, but also with my own relationship to death and loss.
I left my ICU position and enrolled in a Thanatology Masters degree program at City University of New York, Brooklyn. Thanatology is the study of death and dying and thus, I spent three years immersed in these highly sensitive and culturally taboo topics. Concurrent with this program, I held a variety of traditional child life positions, working in a one-person program at a hospital in Queens, NY, then in hematology/oncology at a hospital in Manhattan. After completing my degree and successfully passing the CT (certified thanatolgoist) exam, I left the traditional field of child life and embarked on a new path – hospice and palliative care.
Working as a bereavement counselor in a city-wide hospice agency, I was profoundly impacted by the nature of my profession. During my time tending to the end of life needs of patients’ families, I began to understand the ‘core of child life’ that I had struggled to articulate in positions past. The core was uncovering itself and leading me to realize that child life is not limited to hospital walls, pediatric patients, or even medical experiences. Rather, this core is rooted in empathy, unconditional positive regard, the ability to bear witness to suffering, and the self awareness to hold space while placing my own agenda, beliefs, and values aside for the sake of true emotional expression.
Shortly after I began working in adult hospice, I moved to California to pursue my dream career of working at a pediatric palliative care facility. There I held a dual position as a child life specialist and bereavement coordinator. However, as life had shown me in the past, our souls know far deeper and sooner what we desire than do our heads and hearts. While pursuing this deeply meaningful and passionate work, I began to experience a longing to contribute to the larger field of child life and find ways to legitimize our profession beyond the walls of medical facilities through research and scholarship. Thus, I enrolled in a PhD program in Transpersonal Psychology.
Transpersonal psychology is a holistic field dedicated to acknowledging the full scope of human experience. This scope, for me, includes examining experiences of suffering, trauma, grief, and the subsequent processes of post traumatic growth, meaning making, and spiritual growth that result from such experiences. During this time I experienced a flood of personal, professional, and spiritual growth. It challenged my comfort zone, shifted deeply held assumptions and beliefs, and led me to embark on a new journey in private practice.
Working in private practice did not come easy. In fact it took me nearly four years to develop my practice enough to have a steady client population. While focusing on childhood grief and loss, I also work with children, adults, and families experiencing a host of stressful life transitions. I also began lecturing at the graduate level to child life, early childhood, infant mental health, and special education students at Mills College, in Oakland, CA.
I currently work as an assistant adjunct professor, internship supervisor, and academic advisor to the graduate child life students at Mills College. Some of the courses I teach include The Hospitalized Child, Childhood Grief & Loss, and History & Theories of Play. I still see clients in my practice and am always finding new ways to reach out to the community to provide child life and grief counseling. I am now in the final stages of my dissertation process on the topic of legacy building and its impact on bereaved parents and siblings, and will defend my research in the early fall of 2016.
Throughout my 10+ years of child life and grief work, I feel blessed to be constantly learning from and growing with the children and families I work with. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for the countless opportunities I have been offered to walk along side and companion parents and siblings through their grief. I have much to say about grief, loss, compassion, and the human capacity to share pain and grief with others. For now, I will leave you with these thoughts.
1. Grief is a journey, not a destination. What we, as a western culture, understand about grief is often wrong. And through its wrongness, we continue to disenfranchise and silence millions of grievers, children especially. The notion that grief comes in stages, phases, or tasks for that matter is helpful for our desire to make sense of and compartmentalize an experience which by its very nature is unpredictable and intense. But these stages, phases, or tasks can also limit our understanding of the grief experience.
2. The death of a loved one fundamentally changes you. The notion that you can ‘go back to normal’ or simply ‘move on’ after a death is not accurate. There are of course ways by which we can integrate and make sense of death and loss, but simply going back to what was is not a realistic goal for this process.
3. Childhood grief looks different and lasts longer than adult grief. Due to the unique aspects that development plays in a child’s ability to understand the finality of death, the grief process of children is constantly evolving. As children reach new cognitive and personal understandings of death, they must revisit their loss and their grief in new and unfolding ways. This happens over the course of a lifetime. As children reach and meet new milestones, so too they must integrate and make sense of their loss.
4. Be a companion-not an advice giver. For those of us who support and love others in our lives who are experiencing death and loss, one of the best things we can do is walk along side our friends and peers in their grief. Grief and the process of grieving needs to be witnessed, held, and honored with respect. Provide a safe space for peers and loved ones to feel what they need to feel, without judgment or the advice to “move on”. Some of the most hurtful experiences bereaved parents tell me are the little comments that friends or family say, such as “God needed another angel”, “he/she’s in a better place”, or even “you can always have another child”. If you don’t know what to say, simply say “I can see you are really hurting now. I don’t know what to say. Can I sit here with you and hold your hand?”
5. There is no right way to grieve, only your way. We are constantly flooded with information about how to grieve. Whether it be through cultural or religion norms, we have programmed ourselves to limit our grief expression. If someone is not crying, there must be something wrong. If someone is crying too much, there must be something wrong. If someone is struggling, there must be something wrong. If someone is not struggling enough, there must be something wrong. We, in this western culture, have made a habit out of shaming others into believing they are not grieving the right way, when in fact there is no right way. There is only your way, with your heart, your culture, your expression, and your coping tools. We need greater permission to allow ourselves to feel what we need to feel, and provide one another with the space and tools to do so.
Korie Leigh offers services for professionals, from trainings and presentations to self-care workshops and retreats and both child life and bereavement and grief services to individuals and families. Her passion for expressive arts and knowledge of holistic practices, allow Korie to incorporate the arts, mindfulness, guided imagery, and Reiki into her practice. And she makes home visits! She understands the challenges families face in getting to appointments and recognizes they feel safest and most comfortable in their own home. That’s proof of her compassion and commitment to service. www.expressive-coping.com.