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Blog: Creativity as a healing tool

This blog was created by Marie Thomas, Barnardo's Education Community Project Worker, as she documented her reflections from attending a conference delivered by Place2Be and PESI for Children's Mental Health Week 2021.

Place2Be and Pesi’s online conference:

Creativity as a healing tool: Connecting mind, body & imagination! as part of Children’s Mental Health Week 2021

What a perfect focus for this year’s conference.

Lemn Sissay was the keynote speaker. Lemn is a poet, playwright, broadcaster and speaker and is a trustee for Place2Be and talked about how vital a role creativity had played in his life, how it had saved him when he had been in a very dark place. He described how one teacher had encouraged him by looking at the poems he was writing and giving him feedback.

It was a very powerful and inspiring talk - here are some of the thoughts and views that resonated for me:

‘Creativity is at the heart of who we are.’

‘It’s as much as what you love, hear, see as what you create.’

‘A sense of wellbeing comes from engaging with creativity.’

‘You become vulnerable in the creative process.’

‘The person engaging has to have agency.’

‘Creativity is the manifestation of the human spirit.’

Bessel van der Kolk is a psychiatrist, author, researcher and educator based in Boston, USA. Since the 1970s his research has been in the area of post-traumatic stress. He talked about Childhood Trauma and Creativity.

It was a fascinating talk. The impact of trauma upon people and their capacity to be creative was illustrated through various examples and he made the point that focusing on survival doesn’t leave room for creativity.

‘Some unusual people can hide trauma through creativity but mostly people who have been traumatised will lose their sense of synchronicity.’

As an early years specialist it affirmed all my beliefs about the importance of tuning into each other and how developing those synchronised interactions create the foundation of safety for babies and young children; how the preverbal needs to happen before you can access the verbal; the importance of movement and expressing yourself physically.

Children who have these experiences can naturally play games that put themselves in synch with each other. Those who don’t are often defensive and angry.

These traumatised children need the support to calm their body down from often being in flight or fight mode, begin to synch their body and senses and be helped to talk about what happened before they can start to recover.

An example he told was about a child who had been adopted from overseas and who didn’t talk for a long time. This was no different when she came for therapy. They decided to ask occupational therapists to do some sensory integration work with her for a few weeks. This enabled her to synch her body and senses and start the therapy. It also led to the centre developing their sensory integration expertise.

Finally there was a panel including the 2 key speakers, Dr Radha Modgil, a GP and broadcaster, Myria Khan, founder of the Muslim Counsellor and Psychotherapist Network and James Emmet, regional lead for Place2Be.

The discussion was focused on the preoccupations and needs of children and young people at this time, and how crucial using creativity for emotional wellbeing is to following and meeting those. Radha commented ‘Children know that creativity, play and imagination make them feel good,’ and made a plea for children to be allowed to ‘be’ on their return to school/nursery.

All said that the importance of ensuring children have structure and predictability, will be crucial to creating the environment that enables creativity at school. Bessel stressed that having fun as a group with an educator, being silly, making up songs, noises, dances are just as crucial.

The need to enable children and young people to have the freedom to create was stressed. Myria talked of emergent creativity – being in the moment – and directive/fixed creativity where there is an end product.

This quote resonated so much as well:

‘It’s about the relationship within ourselves and with others.’

Our role as adults working with children and young people was discussed and how we need to make ourselves emotional available to support them.

Do we model the language around emotions and feelings?

‘This is how I am feeling today and this is what I am going to do.’

Do we provide this emotional feedback and co-regulate with the child?

My own reflections on creativity

I have long thought of creativity as something that cannot be pigeonholed.

It’s much more than whether you can express yourself in a particular form or whether you are a ‘creative’ or not. For me that is a limiting definition.

For me creativity is about how you look, think, respond, listen, see, hear, move, approach things, solve problems, act, reflect.

Creativity is when you allow yourself to follow instinct, to trust the gut feeling you have about what you might want to do, to tune into your body, to daydream, to take a chance, to take risks, to learn about yourself and about others, to fly, to immerse yourself in the process without worrying about the outcome.

Creativity feeds the soul, nourishes the body and the mind, enables you to express yourself, buffets you against the naysayers and any negativity. You become absorbed in an experience; you are not always sure where it will take you but you’re willing to go along with it.

Creativity is integral to education, and to life.

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