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A little while ago, we at Golden Tree CIC, attended a conference on Mental Health in Schools hosted by Optimus Education. There were some fabulous speakers from a variety of organisations and it was great to hear the FRIENDS programs and the MHFA courses that we deliver being given such a positive reception by both delegates and speakers.

Whilst we did do some promotion of these programmes, we also went along to launch our new book, ‘The Kindness Tree and other scripts for puppetry in the classroom’.  This book is the culmination of a number of years’ work and has brought with it a huge sense of achievement as we’ve fitted in the writing, polishing, practicing and production of it in between the work that forms the core of  Golden Tree CIC.  The stories/scripts cover a variety of subjects that are challenging and sensitive to deal with. Yet these subjects must be addressed, not just as a requirement within Personal, Social, Health and Economic education, but as a way of helping children and young people navigate the challenges they will face as they travel through their lives – an outcome of good SMSC education.

Some of the issues addressed, we hope they will never have to deal with (but they still need an awareness of these things as they are able to support the continued development of empathy).  Others topics we know they will encounter, relationships (including sex), loss, change and death.  All heavy subjects, all with varying degrees of emotional pain attached to them.

It may seem strange that we have attached such sensitive and emotive topics to puppetry – something so light and that can be all too readily associated with early years and foundation stage education or ‘play’. Yet, puppetry holds such a power to transfix, to hold an audience so that the puppeteer becomes secondary.  This makes the puppet a powerful tool with with the ‘audience’ can safely interact. As we mention in the book, whilst at first you may notice the puppeteers in War Horse or Avenue Q, you may even marvel initially at the mechanics of the puppet itself, but you soon set aside your observations and preconceptions and the puppet itself become the storyteller. Children and Young People (yes, I do mean Young People in terms of those in secondary schools – even teenagers) engage freely and readily with puppetry, often without all the baggage that we as adults carry around puppets.

Puppetry allows us to place a distance between the subject and ourselves, to move it away from a human – whether that be the teacher or the child. Whereas when reading a story, the focus of the listener may still rest on the storyteller,puppetry pushes this a step further, and allows for the safer exploration of feelings, thoughts and behaviours; for the testing out of what the pain or distress may be like. It can help us explore the ways that we can manage that pain appropriately without it becoming problematic either in the immediate aftermath of an incident or if by letting that powerful emotion fester, only to reappear at a later date (even in adulthood). With at least 50% (although it could be considered much higher, see here for loads more statistics and information) of mental health problems having their genesis during childhood, any form of psychological inoculation has got to be worth a try? Surely it must form an integral part of any education programme?

Since our return from the conference I have been struck by issues that have affected myself and friends, all involving loss in some form. The loss of ‘self’ that occurs with dementia; the loss of childhood as adult concerns come rushing in; the death and loss of a loved one. All of these events can bring pain, fear, anger, confusion and despair; all hard enough to deal with as a robust adult.

Loss (in some form) and the strong emotions that follow are inevitable, we cannot prevent loss (or indeed, change).  We have little to do other than to ‘cope’ in whatever way we can. Those around are left at a loss as to what to say or do, feeling helpless and useless in the midst of another’s distress. Whilst it can be uncomfortable to discuss, explore and experience, when we do the more emotionally intelligent we can become, the more open to expressing our feeling appropriately the more emotionally healthy and resilient we will become.

Thanks for reading and please contact us if you’d like to arrange some training around puppetry or to purchase a copy of ‘The Kindness Tree