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Learning from Living

Green Sparks has had a very busy few months – that’s my excuse for failing to blog in February or March and I’m sticking to it for now. Between January and March we moved from focussing on trying to attract new clients to being fully booked, in fact for about three whole weeks we technically had a waiting list. This meant an intense period of time where we were getting to know lots of new children and young people at the same time (as well as their families and the professionals supporting them). Forging new relationships with people who are experiencing school life as overwhelming and often rejecting is work that we find equally creative, joyful and challenging. Each new piece of work comes with a bit of trepidation on our part as we find our feet. That sense of feeling our way forward is multiplied by the experience of transference you get when you meet a child who is full of their own fears and anxieties – what’s wrong with me, why can’t I stop things going wrong all the time, why do I make everyone unhappy. There is a poetry and a magic to what comes next as the relationship grows and trust grows and slowly there is a sense of an alliance being formed. The fears and anxieties don’t disappear, but there is a new narrative that begins to grow: I’m OK and you’re OK and we’re both here together, so we can probably work this out, bit by bit. When you step back and reflect, you can start to sort through and make sense of these experiences, linking them in with theoretical frameworks and understanding for example that Transactional Analysis provides a helpful explanation of what is working and why. This is a helpful way of processing everything that we are learning, but that’s not what I wanted to write about today, I want to write about experiential learning rather than book learning.

The busy few months was followed by nearly three whole weeks of holiday, and not just time off but an actual trip overseas for the first time since Covid. Time spent not being busy and not being in a familiar environment and not having a regular schedule of appointments to keep the days ticking along. What stood out for the first few days was the experience of complete sensory overload. At Green Sparks we do a lot of sensory related work with children because so many of the children we work with are unable to communicate in words, and need help to ground themselves in the moment first before they can even begin to try and understand and express their experiences. I’ve learned about the value of this kind of work through studying and through observing people in crisis, not really from my own experience. I have always been a wordy person, a bookworm, analytical rather than experiential. For the first time since I started doing sensory work, I found in Thailand I had the experience of all of my senses being flooded at the same time. The thick dense blanketing heat, the smell of jasmine and overripe bananas, the birds and insects and even monkeys kicking up a racket all the time, stinging sweat and pulsing heat on my skin, the lush green jungle and the postcard-come-to-life beach, the punchy flavours of the food and its textures and smells and colours and everything, everywhere, all at once (to borrow someone else’s words). It was a visceral lesson in what sensory overload can actually feel like and I was grateful to have the opportunity to live it instead of just having an intellectual understanding of the concept. Of course the enormous difference is that I felt safe and happy, I could respond to all those amazing stimuli by slowing down, adjusting my plans, luxuriating in it all. Most of the children I work with don’t feel safe and live with the belief that each new sensory cue can indicate threat. They don’t tend to have control over their environment or their schedule, or the ability to pinpoint in words what it is that is unsettling them. Whenever I stop and really think with the whole of my brain and the whole of my body about what that might feel like, I am overwhelmed with awe at how these children continue to go out in the world every day and actually have the bravery and the energy to form new relationships with people like me.

I am so looking forward to going back to work full of new experiences and ideas about how to draw even more on children’s sensory experiences, teaching them how to notice and deliberately stimulate their senses as a way of grounding. I am full of half formed ideas about some of the sensory experiences I had – incense, massage, the reflexology pathway in the picture above, food and of course all the scented plants – and I know they will slowly float up to the surface and form over the next few weeks. Some will work and stay as part of the my practice and some will prove to be hopelessly impractical. Wish me luck, and I’ll come back and tell you about the successes and false starts soon.

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