An After School Program: The Inside Space Explorers Club

by Minda Novek, Focusing Trainer

April 21 to June 9, 2009, at the 14th Street Y of the Educational Alliance, New York City

Preparatory paragraph sent to the Y after-school program:

The Inside Space Explorers Club

Children can learn how to notice, express, and make room for what’s going on inside them through creative activities. This program combines art, writing, and movement with the sensing techniques of Focusing.* The idea of exploring space is a familiar one to kids. In this program, they’ll learn how to comfortably explore their own inside space. Using specific drawing, collage-making, writing, movement, and other expressive exercises, participants find ways of creating more room to be themselves— to reach a greater awareness and comfort level involving feelings, their own and others’, and to develop new internal resources helpful for encountering challenging experiences.

*Focusing techniques have been shown to effectively reduce stress, increase the ability to concentrate and strengthen the individual’s sense of self.

Getting Started:

I’m a Focusing trainer who teaches Focusing to adults. My previous experience included teaching writing and art programs to kids through the public schools. Hoping to introduce Focusing to children, I looked for a way to combine these techniques and an institution that might be interested in a pilot program. My initial contact at the 14 th Street in Manhattan was Kiki Schaeffer, a Focusing trainer who heads the Parenting and Family Center at the Y. She is an enthusiastic proponent of Focusing. We had discussed the idea of my teaching Focusing at the 14 th Street Y for a while. But the Family Center serves very young kids, and my goal was to work with older elementary school kids. So I got involved with the Y’s after-school program, rather late in the school year.

The Kids:

I pictured a group of youngsters signing up with enthusiasm for creative explorations. But it turned out that the kids were an existing group, discontented with their program experiences so far, and whom nobody knew what to do with. These were my 6 regulars, some of whom “regularly” came late or left early because of previously established activities. Other kids had the option to drop in if they couldn’t attend their regular activities that day. So on any one day, I had 4 to 7 children between 3rd and 6th grade coming in. My core group included one kid with Asperger’s Syndrome (Q), and one with ADHD (S). In general, these were not kids wanting a quiet, reflective activity, but rather, busting to move and be free of the constraints they felt in school. I learned that they had been largely unhappy with their program all year, and now felt unwanted and defensive. At the same time, they were uncomfortable expressing feelings in the group, or often, even on paper.

Goals:

Although an important goal of Focusing is to deal with problematic feelings, with this group, I had to start from what was immediately needed. My goals for the project shifted from teaching the children to Focus through the arts, to introducing Focusing-process related experiences in bite-sized increments:

As I learned about the individual kids and their specific needs, I realized, they each had very limited comfort with inward-focused attention. This group was emphatic about not wanting to write. Video games, violence, and murderous animé/ cartoon characters were brought up repeatedly. I wanted them to feel safe enough to be present in the here and now, to experiment and try new things, to express their true selves. None seemed to feel safe enough to direct their attention to feelings.

Schedule:

I had hoped for 75 to 90 minutes with them, but because of programming, we only had a scant hour. In addition to their other scheduled activities, like swimming; anyone with a lot of homework would have to finish that first before joining in our group. The boy with Asperger’s (Q) had his own special schedule, and joined us late every time. That made it harder for him to catch up with the day’s activities or to have a sense of being part of the group. Parents sometimes entered unexpectedly, and pulled their child out early to meet changes in their own schedules.

I found structuring each session with two separate activities allowed me the flexibility to accept latecomers or release early leavers. It also allowed me to spend either more time with an activity that was going well, or less time if it was not.

The Setting:

Although the Y after-school staff tried to accommodate the specific needs of my project, the overall atmosphere of their program leaned towards the chaotic. I was initially offered an open, cafeteria-sized room where many groups met. I requested a smaller space with a door that would encourage a quiet range of activity and concentration and would become “our space.” I got the smaller room, but due to programming shifts and construction, we were moved to a kindergarten classroom with small-sized tables and chairs. During the 8 weeks, we had to move 4 times.

Staffing:

An unexpected element was the presence of another adult in our group. Because of Y rules, a staff member had to be present at all times. Unfortunately, I was not told this in advance, so her presence was a surprise just as we began session 1. At that point, I also learned that M was the group’s previous teacher. They had “blown up” her own projects with them. The fact that she now had to take a back seat to her own group could not have been easy for her. I would have preferred to be alone with the kids, or at least to prepare M for what we were undertaking. Over the following weeks, I suggested a few times that we get together to discuss the goals and the Focusing approach. She declined, but we did get past the initial awkwardness. I invited her to participate in the group’s activities, and she joined wholeheartedly. However, her own very different teaching style and philosophy came out at times when she expressed frustration with student behavior.

Activities:

The first activity of each session aimed to ground them in the present, help them put aside distractions, and become aware of both their body and their imagination. The second activity involved drawing, painting, or story-telling with a project idea or theme that would take them further into a bodily-felt “exploration.” I told the children, “It you don’t like something we are doing, wait a while, it will change. Every time we meet we will be exploring something new.” The word “exploring” was a key motivator for them.

One challenge was to give the kids enough separate space so that they could become reflective. It helped to add more tables for drawing, so that each one had room to spread out and less proximity to the ongoing chatter. The activity also needed to be the right balance between the familiar, so they were comfortable trying it, and the unfamiliar. Experiencing new, unmastered approaches was a challenge for all of them, though they responded in different ways. Surprisingly, the kids with learning disabilities seemed to get the most out of what we did. Perhaps simply having an adult listening to them without judgment brought the greatest benefit.

The kids responded to energetic movement much more than to seated activity. I introduced Musical selections that would engage them, get them moving, yet be unfamiliar enough to set up no preconceptions. A great deal of research has been done about music increasing the depth of learning, and I was hoping this would apply to finding their own way of moving, and sharing that with others. (Specific musical selections are included at the end of this article.)

Individual Sessions:

1a/ To start the first session, I told them that we’d be exploring the unknown in many different ways, and we talked a bit about being an explorer. I explained that our exploring would happen through art, writing and movement, and journeying through our imagination.

First, they looked at PHOTOS of one place ( San Francisco ) from vastly DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES: looking down on the city like a bird, looking at it from a satellite, looking down a steep road, and a boy looking up at the bridge and mirroring its shape with his body. I wanted to introduce the idea that what we see depends on where we are looking from. They got to choose one of the pictures to write about. I had asked them to write down what grabbed their attention about the picture.

They were emphatic about not wanting to write! (“Too much like homework.”) But they liked to draw. The boy who chose the bird’s eye view said, “It looks like a flood. It’s so bad you can’t even get to the boat store.” I could see that all these kids, especially this one, had a lot of anxiety.

1b/ We then played a game of reaching inside a BAG OF UNFAMILIAR OBJECTS and describing what was inside by touch alone. This, too, they preferred to do through drawing. Then the others tried to guess what the object was from the drawing. I wanted them to explore the different places to put their attention and to articulate what the body was feeling.

Not only had kids entered our first meeting with pent-up frustration, but I was asking them to do things that they didn’t “get” at the onset. I opened a discussion by saying that I was just getting to know them, that I heard their preference for art and movement over writing. I asked them what kinds of things they were interested in, hoping to build from that, and letting them know I heard them. Jungles, deserts, and lightning were mentioned, and I said I’d try to incorporate these themes, and for their part, would they be open to exploring their imaginations? They agreed, so we reached a hopeful understanding.

2a/ I introduced MUSIC, one piece suggesting a Middle Eastern caravan; another, outer space. After some minutes of imagining, they were asked to paint or draw what the music felt like. The music relaxed and quieted them. Some asked for certain pieces to be played again. We took turns leading each other in a DANCE line, responding to the music.

2b/ Then we PAINTED. I asked them to notice how the music made them feel. “See if you can paint the places, mood or energy you feel as you listen.” When F, a sixth grader, came in late, S, a third grader, explained to him emphatically, “We’re painting what we feel when we listen to the music!” I had been told about S’s ADHD, and that he cried all the time, but that didn’t jibe with how he took on our projects. Although his creative efforts were always a struggle, he seemed more willing than most to try things, expressing curiosity and enthusiasm much of the time.

When Q arrived, he seemed in a bad mood. I introduced the activity, and he responded immediately, “I don’t do that.” So I gave him some crayons to work with, but as he watched the other kids enjoying themselves, he decided to paint after all. That was a mini-success. The pattern I wanted to establish was to have them not know something, to sense its unfamiliarity, then feel safe enough to try, and finally to enjoy doing it.

3a/ I brought up the idea that there are times when they want to concentrate—to choose where their attention would go. At times, things troubling or preoccupying them feel like distractions. When asked when these times might be, playing video games came up as both a distraction and a reason to concentrate. I suggested we explore different ways to focus our attention. Through a HAND EXERCISE, I drew their attention to being more present in their bodies through unfamiliar, simple, physical movements involving their hands. (This had so-so results. (It may have been better not to give a reason for the activity.) They told me how pent up they felt after a day in school, with its endless series of “rules.” The more I presented something as play, and the less purposefulness I attached to it, the more they would engage.

3b/ It had been raining a lot. We talked about WEATHER, using images of rain. For this and other sessions, I brought in a variety of images, borrowed from the NY Public Library’s Picture Collection, and printed from the internet. The images helped them consider the different experiences of rain; slipperiness, hunkering under an umbrella, the blurriness of drips on windows, etc. I invited them to draw whatever stayed with them from that discussion. Then I showed them pictures of lightning, which F had previously expressed interest in. We talked about the energy seen and felt in lightning.

Picture for Session 3 S's Rain/Lightning Cloud; BEING KILLED BY LIGHTNING
Picture for Session 3: S’s Rain/Lightning Cloud; BEING KILLED BY LIGHTNING

S drew a black rain cloud, and under it, two video characters, one being killed by lightning. (See picture.) S had said one was killing the other, but if so, he was doing it through the video game held in his hand. When I mentioned this drawing later to one of the program administrators, she said, “We don’t allow him to draw that kind of thing.” But I wanted him to be unself-conscious, free to be himself, not censoring his thoughts. Through all of S’s actions, he expressed insecurity, but he was in a group of kids older than himself, and he had greater limitations to his motor coordination and other skills than the rest.

As they were drawing, I moved through the room, sitting with one kid for a while. I tried opening the discussion around what they were thinking or feeling. For example, as S worked on his black cloud drawing, he brought up that his parents were going away for a while. I could see he was anxious about this. “Oh,” I asked, “who will be with you while they’re away?” He said he’d stay with his grandparents. I asked how he liked being with them. He said “I like it because my grandpa has video games. I hope he’ll take them down for me!” There wasn’t time to go very far with any one conversation, but in this way, I was learning about each one, while giving them the opportunity to speak freely about life and be heard. They were not willing to speak this way in the group, only individually, so this time was an important part of what went on. (See more pictures for Session 3)

4a/ They LAY DOWN ON THE RUG. After a few relaxing instructions, I had them IMAGINE various things which engaged their bodies. We started by using hands to shape a meatball. “Now, touch it with your finger, and turn it into a ping pong ball,” I said. Next, I asked them to imagine someone they knew at one end of a ping pong table, and someone else -–unknown to the first person-- at the other end. I instructed them to close their eyes and picture a ping pong game between these two people, following the ball with their eyes back and forth. After a while, I introduced the image of a squirrel suddenly stealing the ball and asked them to follow it up a tree with their eyes, then as the ball unexpectedly fell, following it down to the ground. I asked them to imagine picking the ball up again and poking it with a figure to transform it. This time they could make it into anything they wanted. After a bit, I asked them to transform it with their touch again into thin air. Everyone got into this game pretty well. S said that he turned the ball into a video game.

4b/ They drew a line down the center of a blank piece of paper. On one side, they were asked to DRAW SOMETHING FROM REAL LIFE THAT HAD TOUCHED THEM. Several drew a dead pet. On the other side, they were asked to DRAW THE SAME SUBJECT AGAIN, IN A WAY THAT LET THEM FEEL BETTER. In some pictures, the pets came alive and the kids were in the picture, now happy. Q, the boy with Asperger’s, predictably drew a Star-Trek related picture, showing a character getting killed by another character. This scene apparently had upset him. Usually, he recited a pre-set memorized exposition to go with his Star-Trek pictures. This time, for his second drawing, he created his own scenario. A third character protected the first and so the hero did not get killed. I thought it was great that Q used his own imagination instead of relying on the fixed, memorized story!

B wanted to revisit a time when friendly playing turned into a fight.

M’s drawings involved his father’s response to him crying. The first, when he was a baby, was “okay” because he couldn’t help himself. The second picture was him crying now with his father present-- generally not okay in his experience, but in the drawing it was.

Once they’d finished their drawings, I asked them to look at both separately and notice how each drawing felt. There seemed to be a shift or different energy that was noticeable between the two. I think all the kids got a lot out of this activity, letting the troubled memory come, and then spending time with what would have felt better. I was beginning to be excited by connections they were making, but realized that it was happening on an unconscious level. They themselves were not aware of any connections yet.

5a/ We started again with music, pairing up and MIRRORING EACH OTHER’S MOVEMENTS. Then we moved in a circle, with one kid at a time initiating the movement which the others mirrored. They seemed to enjoy this exercise. It gave them a different way to experience each other, a short time in which they might notice each other’s energy, and feel their own responded to.

5b/ We sat together on the floor. Blue mats had been pushed together like an oasis. I introduced the idea of how different it feels to be in DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENTS. We looked at pictures of a desert with an oasis, a rain forest and a swamp. They were intrigued with these unfamiliar places. Then we spread the mats apart and I began a guided VISUALIZATION, asking them to picture themselves in an unfamiliar place, such as one of the images they had seen. I suggested it was a safe place where they could explore. The kids decided to take turns (as before) leading the group, but this time within their own visualization. As they took turns, the energy shifted quite a bit. K introduced an amusement park, where they could go on rides. S said it wasn’t a safe place. N introduced a cartoon character, and then squashed him.

Picture for Session 5 Q Jungle Drawing
Picture for Session 5: Q Jungle Drawing

5c/ I asked them to DRAW ONE OF THE PLACES we had visited. It always took a good part of the hour for the kids to settle in to really being there. Just at the point when an engaged attentiveness had been reached, the kids were frequently marshaled out of the room into their next activity. This was especially true for Q (the boy with Asperger’s) who had to come late each week, and so had much less time than the others. For this session, Q arrived as we started to draw. He looked at the pictures of jungles and got excited. He began to draw a jungle scene with many animals. As he drew, I discussed each animal with him, how he felt about wild animals, and the harm humans do to them. (See picture) He told us he had been to India with his family, and seen all these animals in a zoo. There was so much pleasure on his part in adding each animal—a lion, flamingo, and others. The other kids were getting ready to leave for their next activity, but Q wanted to continue his drawing. It turned out that M, the after-school staffer, could stay, and that meant that Q and I could stay. He was not only engaged in his drawing, but in conversation with me about it, and making eye contact repeatedly, which was unusual for him. I only wish we could have done this extension of time more often.

6a/ After the success of the 2-part drawing in Session 4, I thought it worthwhile to try CLEARING A SPACE. Had they reached the appropriate comfort level yet? Drawing on the approach described by Pure Carrizosa Blanco and Mª Ángel González Pascual in Staying in Focus, Jan. 2004, I engaged the kids with a tangible, external process, which consisted of making a list of troubling complaints, then choosing pieces of paper to represent the various problems. The paper could be small, big, torn, in a ball, or written on. They would then be instructed to put these pieces at “the right distance” from their body, finally reworking the issue or drawing the item that “needed” more attention.

I suggested that sometimes what was in the way of concentrating was something else on their minds, a feeling, a complaint, etc. I explained that we explore a way of making room for concentrating by clearing an inside space. We’d do a sequence of steps, beginning with a list of such things for that day, and then moving on to drawings.

They were wiling to write out a briefly worded LIST OF DISLIKES, but only if they could also do one of LIKES. I said that would be fine. (Note: I understand from an education editor, that schools today tend to stress likes, and avoid any reference to dislikes.) The lists were informative. S, the boy with ADHD, included for his dislikes: getting hurt, punishment, homework, bums and no games. But aside from pizza, the only likes were videogame titles—xbox, xbox360, etc. K said he hated the rules they gave in school; that was why he didn’t like school, rules all the time. N listed people she disliked. The initials of specific video games (wii, psp, dsi, p33, etc.) were prevalent on the boys’ lists, except for Q, the boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, who was only willing to write a list of likes—no dislikes at all. Besides Star Trek and Transformer movies, his list of likes was all first names of people. Q’s father came to remove him early. He insisted on finishing his “likes” list, but that was all he’d do.

The next step would have involved laying out the dislikes on separate pieces of paper at varying distances from themselves, and choosing one to spend more time on. They did not want to do this step. Most told me they didn’t want to pay any more attention to things they didn’t like or feel comfortable with. It was clear the group wasn’t ready for such an activity. Instead of being more comfortable for such an experience after the previous session, they were guarded. CLEARING A SPACE was not something they wanted to do in that setting.

7a/ We started the session with MIRRORED DANCING, which they had come to like. This involved one person taking the lead with their own made up movements, the rest of us following. Next, we sat together, taking turns adding to a story, and then each child telling A 3-MINUTE STORY. The stories were another way towards thoughtful interaction, listening and imagining, as well as quieting down the nervous system.

7b/ The DRAWINGS they did this session were based on their stories. I had been looking for A BOOK WITHOUT WORDS that would engage them in a journey of exploration. I found one that seemed promising, called Polo. The cartoon dog character is adventurous, social and adept at problem solving in a playful way. The book was a great success. S became totally engrossed in the book, and so did N. S said enthusiastically, “Polo has friends everywhere!” M commented that it was unusual for S to concentrate for so long on anything, especially a book. They asked me to bring it back the next week.

8a/ We had ten sessions scheduled, but the final two were cancelled because of scheduling problems concerning two special year-end events. So the eighth session became the last one. Because the schools had a half day that day, we had a smaller group which turned out to be a good opportunity for one child, N, to express herself about many things. We started with STORY TELLING—each child had FIVE MINUTES to improvise a story. N’s story involved her personal family situation and ongoing interest-- “hobos.”

8b/I brought in another wordless book, Robot Dreams, which N had already read. She explained to us its theme—“It’s possible to make friends with all kinds of people, animals, even robots. Everyone gets lonely, so you have to try to find someone you can be friends with.” There was an opportunity to encourage N to say more about the themes she had mentioned in the story. Because there were fewer kids, and nothing to disrupt the flow, she opened up.

She spoke of her half-brothers, who didn’t live with her, about feeling lonely at home, and about a town in the South where she had relatives in both fantasy and real terms. I mirrored back her comments unobtrusively, encouraging her to go further. I also encouraged her to talk about her ongoing interest in “hobos’, which she had expressed repeatedly during the workshop. She talked about their “freedom to go anywhere”, and their need for help. I had the sense that more time, especially one on one, would make a great difference with N. This was the first and only chance for so personal a conversation. I felt it was a beneficial experience for N, and not a familiar one, to be heard by an adult, without instruction or judgment. Our conversation was not so much Focusing, but ACTIVE LISTENING. All the children would benefit from more of this, but that involved more time, and none was available.

I learned a great deal working with these kids. I very much hope they got something helpful from the experience, too. But it also left me feeling that I spent too much of my energy meant for the kids just dealing with room changes, staffing issues, and other such matters. Experienced Focusers may be able to concentrate in a wide variety of environments and conditions, but learners, especially concentration-challenged learners, would get more out of purposefully supportive environments. Having conditions conducive to inner reflection enhances the learning of Focusing and the Focusing–related activities in this program. Beyond seeking out organizations that welcome a Focusing approach to learning, I would make a more concerted effort to prepare that institution concerning the goals, needs and benefits of such a project.

I hope to find a way to take the idea of introducing kids to Focusing through the Arts further, incorporating some elements from this recent project. It would also be interesting to see how Focusing-related activities would be received by younger kids in the Y’s Family Center program (where the administrator supports the value of Focusing).

Notes about the Music:

I looked for music that was unfamiliar, yet evocative; safe yet inviting; full of twists and turns within a steady flow. Percussive, trance-like sounds were well received. Requests to replay certain cuts, and comments about relaxing music encouraged me to experiment. I found an assortment of musical sources, some from traditional cultures, some from cultural blends involving jazz or electronics, but all sounds distinctly resonating “journey.” No vocals in English. With each album, I tried to get a felt sense of which cuts the kids would relate to best. Sometimes it worked, sometimes I had to skip ahead or even turn it off. They did NOT like Handel’s Water Music.

The most popular album was Lost at Last – a blending of ancient, modern, and future: Hinowayo, a very old Native American medicine song that calls in the energy of the hawk and the power of clear and sharp perception; Sufi Groove; and Diamond Body.
Cal Tjader’s Several Shades of Jade (Asian fusion cocktail jazz) was well received.
Other fairly successful selections were:
Lonnie Plaxico’s Melange - playful, light, snippity jazz;
Paradox Trio’s Source - Balkan and Klezmer traditions;
WaGaNCHe
songs from The Ciboney Tribes of Florida and the Caribbean;
Stellamara’s Star Of The Sea, based on Near Eastern and Medieval Modal traditions.


More Pictures for Session 3

Picture for Session 3 - F's Rain Drawings 1
Picture for Session 3: F's Rain Drawing /1
Picture for Session 3 - F's Rain Drawings 2
Picture for Session 3: F's Rain Drawing /2
Picture for Session 3 - K's Lightning picture
Picture for Session 3: K's Lightning picture