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Don’t judge a fairystory by it’s cover : A story about self-esteem

It’s been a while since this happened, but it’s  now time to tell the story.

me and Fifi

Here I am with probably my most important puppet, Fifi the Baby Fairy. Fifi is a baby in that she says what she sees with no filters and innocent eyes, but she has pretty sophisticated communication skills and a wickedly silly and irreverent sense of humour. This combination of silliness and honesty makes her a very popular character, loved by both girls and boys alike. Actually, I’d probably go as far as to say that boys love her just a little bit more than the girls.

But that is for a different post.

I made this fairy puppet around 20 years ago. She is a permanent baby. Such is the magic of puppets.

You may notice from the picture that Fifi the fairy puppet isn’t exactly a Disney style fairy, looks wise , although she has a naughty character that would rival any Tinkerbelle.

Firstly she has a coffee coloured complexion rather than the ubiquitous pink and pale that fairies usually have. This is deliberate. I’m proud to say I live in probably the most multicultural city in the world ( London) and my little clients are often of beautifully varied shades . Some children will suggest that she has a dirty face, this gives me an opportunity to discuss diversity in an open and honest way. One thing I know about children is that they aren’t born bigoted.

Next she has large iridescent purple eyes with no pupil. This can seem freaky to many adults but children ( and those adults with a playful soul) understand the magic in those eyes.

She is a sewn puppet and sometimes the seams can look like scars. This was not intentional, but it has become a very useful jumping off point to be able to talk again about diversity and disability in a non judgmental way.

Her mouth is permanently upside down, giving her a permanent sad expression. Again, this was not intentional but has proven to be useful. We don’t always have to smile ( especially girls) to be taken seriously or be friendly.

She doesn’t wear trendy clothes or designer labels or trainers . She wears a fairly bedraggled dress that is pretty in a Lady Haversham way.

For all intents and purposes, this fairy should be a disaster. She should be rejected by modern children for not looking like a fairy should look.

But I believe in children. I know that they don’t judge books by their covers, even weird , freaky fairytale books.

 

So, are you ready for a story that will gladden your heart?

Come closer and I’ll tell you what happened at a school workshop with children in Year 6, top juniors , on the cusp of going to Secondary School.

Firstly, there is a whole bunch of educators out there who would think that my working with a Baby Fairy Puppet with children of this age is highly inappropriate. They will tell you that it is patronising and age inappropriate.

I vehemently disagree. Do not throw the baby out with the bath water, it’s all about how you approach things.

In this instance, I was very lucky to have done lots of work with Southwark Council with my close working with Scary Little Girls Theatre Company. I’m proud to say that they believe in the power of fairies. Good folk to be sure.

Well, there I was, with a bunch of ‘challenging’ children who were from a behavioural support unit at a Southwark school about to embark on a fact finding session to feedback to the council the children’s experience of the councils service. On the surface this could’ve been a very dry exercise indeed. But I had brought my Fairy Fifi with me. Things were about to get interesting.

I introduced myself to the children as a puppeteer and explained that I was going to introduce my favourite puppet to them . As usual, I told them in my own silly way that of course she wasn’t a real fairy, ( this is the not patronising stuff, it’s all about the approach) but she was a real puppet. This approach always works a treat, as the children start to realise I’m not going to try and convince them that anything silly was going to happen. Then I told them that she was a special fairy and pulled her out of her bag.

Cue a few screams and a few boys made a very melodramatic dash out of the door ( but of course still hovered round the doorway as they weren’t going to miss this for anything).

As the fairy starts into her routine, singing silly songs and making me look very silly ( there has to be a fall guy for comedy, and for this act it is always me. Sigh) the recalcitrant chaps subtly shuffled back to the group and their initial disdain turned very quickly into intense concentration and hilarious interaction. Soon the children were eating out of Fifi’s hand, she had them all in fits of giggles and they were all swearing to be her best friend forever.

Then I put her into a ‘sleep’ and had a chat with the children . The warm up was over, now it was time for the fact finding part of the exercise.

I asked the children what concerned them about moving from Primary School to Secondary school and what would make things easier for them.

Their answer was simple and unanimous: being popular.

So I asked them what did being popular mean to them, and how do you become popular?

The answer made my Feminist heart weep.

The girls all chorused : “Being pretty” . The boys nodded in agreement.

I challenged them, asking ” Are you sure? ”  They all nodded, yes, being pretty was the answer to being liked.

I then asked them to consider if they thought Fifi was popular.

They all shouted out that they loved her and of course she was popular , everyone wanted to be Fifi’s friend, she was the essence of popular.

So I then asked the children an obvious question.

“But is Fifi pretty?”

Cue a stunned silence. Then some children started saying , yes of course she was.

I reassured the children that Fifi was asleep and that telling the truth wouldn’t hurt her feelings. I told them that I was glad that they thought she was pretty, that they weren’t looking at her outside but her inside. I then reminded them of the initial shrieks and shocked reaction at first seeing her. Then I asked them again: `”Really and truly, is Fifi pretty? ”

There was a mumbling amongst the group and eventually the consensus was a reluctant , no . Fifi wasn’t exactly pretty.

Then I asked: ” But is she popular? ”

I didn’t have to say any more.

The children were smart enough to work out that it was personality not prettiness that wins friends.

Fairy puppet Fifi

Fifi eating her wand

Fairy puppet Fifi

Look at her pretty hair!

Sometimes our imperfections can be our greatest strengths.

 

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Through a child’s eyes

Today I read a blog post that really touched me.

It was by a lovely lady called Debra.  Please read it. Pure and Simple; Train Ride.

 

This simplicity, this sense of wonderment is what fuels me to go to work every day as a Children’s Entertainer. In order to be able to connect with my little clients, the children at the  birthday parties I attend, I have to keep reconnecting with the memory and the energy of being a child.

This connection is vital for the correct energy with which to approach young children and not be seen and felt as being patronising. Without sounding a little weird, I don’t entertain as much as just play alongside the children. Their sense of humour is genuinely the same as mine. I delight in word play. I adore surrealism. Most children’s jokes consist of surrealistic concepts, the idea of things being out of context.  My funny bone tickles at the concept of putting a banana on your head. ( Come and join the Banana Head Club!) and of course, there is the belly laugh that comes from burps and silly raspberry noises. ( To put it politely).

Silly puppet

Hehehehehuhuhhhehehheheh

 

What other job is it that requires instant trust ? I have to walk into a room full of very young strangers and  gain their trust. I’m often only booked for an hour, so I have to win children over almost instantly. Children are unforgiving but honest audiences, if they don’t like you, they walk away.

What is it that creates that bond? It is energy. I have to attune my energy , find my inner child ( that’s not hard) and bring her to the fore. Young children, ( like dogs) inhabit a world of energy, where they judge the vibe . It’s that gut feeling that us grown ups often lose or stop trusting .  I’ve done some psychotherapy training and one of the core conditions of trust building is something called Congruency. This simply means that you are on the inside what you appear on the outside: genuine, no nasty surprises.  Well folks, what you see on the outside

 

Facepainter too

I'm a bunny wabbit

 

is what you get on the inside. Am I Diane , the London Children’s Entertainer or am I just

 

Silly Sausage Diane?

 

I’m both. It’s compulsory.

 

 

Sibling rivalry and birthday parties

Child receiving the final touches of facepaint...

Image via Wikipedia

Unless you are a first time parent you will have more than just the birthday child to consider when throwing a party. Brothers and sisters can have an especially important role in determining the success or failure of your party. Sibling rivalry can have a very big impact on how the birthday child behaves and feels on their special day.

As a children’s entertainer of many years experience, I have felt the impact of sibling rivalry first hand at many a party. In its sweetest way it often manifests as a  young birthday girl in a pink dress sitting in front of me at the face painting table, requesting gravely to be painted as Spiderman. Subsequently when I ask if the birthday girl has a big brother, the darling nods her sweet head in enthusiasm; it’s flattery at its highest, little sister wanting to please big brother by painting herself as one of his heroes. ( Of course I’m not saying that all girls should be painted in a ‘girly’ fashion, but this request has become too commonplace not to have made the connection. Go, go you non-‘girly’ girls, I’m all for you!)

But not all sibling rivalry is that sweet.

There is one simple thing to remember when it comes to dealing with children, most especially boys, and that is that saving face is all and that makes it doubly important not to try to apply labels to our children, even with good intention. Children are by their very nature, ‘pleasers’, they want to do things to keep grown-ups happy. If a grown-up of influence has told a child that they are ‘too big to enjoy baby stuff‘ then that grown-up has removed any potential for that child to then be involved in anything that they think may betray their need to be big. Does that make sense? Then that sibling will not allow him or herself to  be involved with anything that their younger sibling does in fear of being labelled babyish. I’ve seen many an older brother playing with his peers at his younger sibling’s birthday party, desperately wanting to be noticed and to be able to be involved , but terribly aware that if he did get involved by watching the puppet show then he would be a baby, like his sibling. Often this ends up with the older sibling disrupting the goings on by running through the entertainment, so they can have attention  but not be involved at the same time. Kids are great at being resourceful and finding ways around fulfilling their own needs. I’ve often witnessed older siblings peeking through the cracks of doors so as to enjoy the entertainment incognito. I make sure I don’t betray their subterfuge!

I can easily understand how a well-meaning parent can inadvertently encourage this sort of thing by thinking that their older sibling will not enjoy their young siblings birthday party entertainment and then organise a play date with a few of their friends to run concurrently upstairs while the party goes on downstairs. They then wonder why the play date keeps drifting downstairs to disrupt the party. They aren’t being naughty, they are just wanting to  join in the fun. Who can blame them when I have parents telling me how much they enjoyed the entertainment themselves? They are surely way too big to enjoy such babyish nonsense? Or are they?

Anyone who knows me at all will know that I’m an ardent believer in keeping the inner child alive for a happy and healthy life.

Big brothers and sisters aren’t too big to enjoy stuff.  Trust me. Let them make up their own minds if they have grown out of their childish ways. Childhood is short enough without us protracting it even further for those children who are still children.

Try not to tell the older sibling they are too old /too big/ too grown up to enjoy anything. Take the lead from them and let them decide. Then the child won’t be forced to save face.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see children of all ages, from 2 up to grown-ups ( yes it has been known folks!) including older siblings, hopping up and down with Bobby Bunny in my puppet show. Having fun together brings the family together and creates a wonderfully warm atmosphere that is worth more than gold.

I suppose this post is about age appropriateness again. I find the subject a little contentious. In my opinion anything goes as long as it is done in the right spirit and there is no condescension involved. No one likes to be patronized. Being child-centred for me means leading from the child’s perspective. Surely all children are still children until they are grown up.  We don’t suddenly stop being children just because we have a younger sibling do we?

So take that leap of faith and let the older sibling join in instead . A sensitive entertainer will enlist the older siblings help to ‘control’ the children ( in words only, it’s just a way of giving the older children a role so that they can sit back and enjoy the show without feeling silly). Or in my case, get up and hop!

Silly is a serious business.

Laughter Yoga Expert

Image by Anne Bennett via Flickr

I have been inspired to write this post after reading one of my favourite bloggers. Lisa speaks about how she was doing a great job working with adults with learning difficulties and puppets, working intuitively and from the heart, recognising that sometimes it is best to lead from behind. She was using a song that was suggested by one of the group and was creating magic, bringing smiles from the sullen and inspiring the painfully shy to perform for the first time. Marvellous hey? Not according to the powers that be who in their wisdom decided that the work she was doing was age inappropriate.

Please read the post for yourself first.

Lisa Kramer’s blog

Now while I do understand that it is important not to patronise anyone, whether they be vulnerable adults or children, I do strongly believe that the accusation of “age-inappropriate” is used inappropriately.

Let me explain.

We are all human beings whether we are children, adults or vulnerable adults. No matter what our status in the world we all share the need to be loved and to give love. We all delight in laughter. We all share the experience of pain, be it physical or mental, or often both. Laughter and feeling loved makes us grow stronger. Indeed, medical tests have shown that laughter strengthens our immune systems. Serious adults attend Laughter clinics or Laughter Yoga to get rid of nasty stress. Adults indulge in silly only for serious reasons it seems. Children don’t have this hang up, children indulge in laughter because it feels good and it’s fun. Why are adults so scared of being silly? Is it because we are wearing a mask? Is it because we are frightened that someone may see our vulnerable inner child if we do decide to let the mask slip and let go a little? Let me tell you from first hand experience, being silly is a serious thing. It has nothing to do with age. It has everything to do with valuing your mental and physical well being and embracing the wholeness of the human being, including your inner child who wants to laugh and blow raspberries.  Your inner child is not to be a secret. We all have one. Some are just not allowed to come out of the naughty corner it seems.

A few years ago I received a phone call from the Puppet Centre Trust in Battersea. They were looking for a puppeteer to work on a pilot project for puppets to be used in a secure unit in a very large Mental Health Institution. There was no money involved, this was going to be a test project to see if puppets had  a place with vulnerable adults. I didn’t need any pushing, I leaped at the chance.

I was briefed that the puppet making session had to be carefully considered. No sharp instruments, ( no blades/needles/scissors etc), nothing heavy that could be thrown, no glues, no string that could be used for constricting. ..

Okay now I was scared. I knew that the people I was going to be working with were in a secure unit, in a locked ward because they had either harmed others or were a threat to themselves.  My partner was very uneasy about me going there, he really didn’t like the idea of me putting myself in such a vulnerable situation. I knew I had to do it. But HOW was I going to make puppets with those sort of restrictions?

I sat and pre-made foam ‘muppet -style’ blank heads. I carefully cut out noses, eyes, etc from foam and sticky backed plastic and brought along options for hair. Pre-cut pieces of cloth were to serve as the body. All the people had to do was assemble the puppets.  I was proud of my ‘out of the box’ preparation. Everyone involved in the project would be able to make their own puppet without  any danger .

I decided I would take along my fairy puppet Fifi to introduce the concept of puppets and to bring a bit of laughter to what is , after all a very depressing place.

Well, I was shown around the ward by the locum occupational therapist, who’s idea for the pilot project it was. She had a keen interest in Drama therapy and so had asked for this pilot to be introduced. She introduced me to one of the hot shot psychiatrists there, a young man who had apparently zoomed up the ranks due to his intelligence and aptitude for the job. He loved my fairy. In fact he loved my fairy so much that he grabbed me by the arm, dragging me round to all the other staff in the ward, saying… ” Go on , do it, show them the Fairy.”

Now as flattered as I was by this man’s clear enthusiasm for my comedy, warning bells started to ring. I wasn’t there to entertain the staff. This was meant to be about the clients in the ward. Was he taking my silliness seriously? I started to doubt it.

I got on with the job. I met with some fascinating human beings. But for the grace of God go I , was the thought that was ringing around my head. No more able to put up the US and THEM wall, I quickly realised that the truth was nearer to the fact that it is all US together.

A very down at heel pretty lady proudly showed me snapshots of her and her family when things were good. It was hard not to baulk, the very glamorous woman in the shots barely recognisable in the woman who was holding them. She had suffered a nervous breakdown but was counting the days until she could return to her family. She loved Fifi the Fairy. She laughed and sang with her and asked me sensible, adult questions about puppetry whilst entering into the playfulness of the moment.

A man who had lost the power of speech through alcohol abuse sat in front of Fifi, smiling and making his own puppet . It was the most animated the staff had ever seen him.

Another young woman who kept insisting she had been wrongfully sectioned chatted seriously to me about my puppet, asking lots of technical questions in between protesting her ‘innocence’. The locum watched this interaction carefully as we worked. As the woman made her puppet, she was very serious until she put on the last feature and then suddenly cracked. She started crying and sobbing and telling the puppet to go away. Apparently the puppet looked like someone, a man that she didn’t want to see.I carefully undid the puppet, until we were left with a blank head form and gently asked the girl to start over. She did , but near completion of the next attempt, the same thing happened. The locum nodded at me and after whispered to me that this event had been very useful for the staff as they hadn’t had any real insight into this young woman’s situation until now as she had been so heavily emotionally defended. I gently suggested to the young lady in question that maybe today wasn’t a good day for puppet making and instead she had a chat with my puppet Fifi instead.

The locum told me of a woman who was refusing to come to the common room to participate in the project but would  I be prepared to go to her with my puppet. So I did. Fifi met a lady who was very shy, scared and nervous, but with humour and curiosity, gently coaxed this lovely soul into a smile and some contact. She came out of her room to stroke the puppet and the smile was worth more than gold.

A young girl had just entered the unit with her mother. She was terrified, nervous and crying.  Fifi chatted to her, got her smiling in a few minutes and created an atmosphere that was far less hostile and bleak than what she had formerly encountered. Fifi and the girl sang a few songs and had a few cuddles. It didn’t take much to reassure her that she was going to be okay. I only hope when I left, she was.

Over the week that I worked in the unit, I encountered lots of tragic cases of loss, desperation, bewilderment and confusion. I also encountered some very pure hearts and warm human beings. I like to think that in that very bleak environment of the locked ward, with it’s grey walls and jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces and constant Jeremy Kyle on the television and the ‘unofficial’ smoking room, that I had brought a warmth and some simple lightness of spirit with my puppet and her silliness. Instead of blank faces, there were smiles, instead of dead eyes there were giggles. Surely something to be celebrated?

No-one in any position of authority witnessed my work. Only the locum who wasn’t going to be staying , saw what I achieved with my fairy.

The pilot never got any further.

On ward round the young psychiatrist who had been so excited to play with my fairy was asked by the ‘top dogs’ if there had been someone doing puppets in the ward. ‘ Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘ There was a lady here with fairy sending all the patients psychotic’. ..!

This was meant to be a joke. Clearly.

Oh the folly of youth. Damn that psychiatrist and his throw away jests!

The locum tried to quickly mop up that verbal diarrhea but it was stinking all over the floor. The damage had been done. The top dogs wanted that ‘tree hugging liberal arty-farty type’ ( me) out of there .

No amount of protestations could change their minds. They would rather stick to their drugs. They were tested. They worked didn’t they?

Sigh.

If anyone out there would like to take this further , I’m ready.

I just need an invite. No stuffy -up themselves types need apply.  I’m no tree-hugger, I’m just a simple woman who believes that laughter and feeling valued and validated actually does some good when you’re depressed. Call me daft.

Being silly is a serious business and I think I am due a little respect.

 

Here’s a great post by the Action for Happiness Campaign about the benefits of laughter. Need I say more?

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