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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Difficult – or just plain bored? The use of activities as an effective management and therapeutic tool

Kathy Mitchell

There were two brothers of primary school age. One brother appeared to be reasonably well adjusted, confident and secure. Sure they had been through trauma, but this little guy was coping okay. He could be stubborn, but he was an easy-to-like kid whose behaviour was pretty typical of any curious, alert, adventurous and energetic little boy.

The older brother, on the other hand, was very irritating. He was quite difficult to like because of his aggressive, attention-seeking, tale-telling behaviour. Most of the attention he received was negative because he never seemed to do anything positive, or to be able to stick with anything for long without winding up in trouble with someone. In his day-to-day interactions there was precious little to get positive about.

One afternoon I was observing two of my students running a creative activity group in which these two brothers were participating. My eyes were opened and I watched with fascination as the older boy set to work with his clay with confidence, enjoyment and very obvious artistic flair. Here he seemed to undergo a character change as he found his element. For a solid hour, he was happily absorbed in creating thumb pots, and animals. He glowed with pride as he received well-deserved encouragement and relished the feeling of success.

Watching the younger brother also proved to be a very enlightening experience. As he worked with the clay, he too made some interesting objects. However, whenever his work was complimented he would deny its merit and smash whatever he was working on ... an interesting response for a little guy who appeared to be very together.

This is a memory which stands out for me because I realised very clearly that afternoon, that when we provide opportunities for creative expression, or for children to try something new, such experiences will reveal different aspects of their personalities, abilities and behaviour which might otherwise remain hidden from us. It also highlighted, so clearly, that there is always something at which to excel, even for children who struggle with the ordinary, everyday things which other children find so easy.

In many institutions there is little programme and children spend their time in sullen, destructive boredom, while child care workers spend far too much valuable time in punitive efforts to control them. A much used excuse for lack of programme is, "Well, we’ve tried, but the kids aren’t interested they don’t want to try anything new." So we lose heart. What we may have overlooked, is the fact that many children and youth coming into care are so damaged that they simply do not know how to have fun. They are not inspired at the thought of yet another "stupid programme". But, most of them, are willing and able to be led by example!

The importance of group work with children, that is, constructive, active, purposeful, group work with children, lies in the fact that because we are all social beings, we develop in relationship. We realise our self-worth in relationship. In our work with children and youth in the child care setting, we, therefore, have two choices:

We can allow groups of children to drag themselves through day after grey, boring, repetitive day, where the only ripple of excitement or action they experience is caused by them doing something wrong.

Or, we can use the group experience to teach them the vital relationship skills they will need to get along with others. Creative use of the daily routine and providing opportunities for them to participate in non-competitive play, games and activities, which enhance self-discovery and self-expression is the vehicle for doing so.

Mitchell, K. (1995). Difficult – or just plain bored? The use of activities as an effective management and therapeutic tool. In Child and Youth Care: Reconstruction and Development for Peace. Cape Town: NACCW. pp 10-11

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