A key to understanding Parkinson's

PARKINSON'S EDUCATION PACK FOR SCHOOLS. For key stages 1 and 2. Includes video and booklets. By Lorraine Hirst. Parkinson's Disease Society. Free to schools

More than 100,000 people in the United Kingdom suffer from Parkinson's disease. Most are aged over 50, but some are younger.

Identified by London doctor, James Parkinson, in l817, the disease is a progressive degeneration. It affects the movements and actions most of us learn early on in life and don't have to think about now, such as getting out of bed, dressing and even walking. People with Parkinson's know what they want to do but messages from their brains sometimes fail to get through to their muscles. There is no cure, although medication can relieve symptoms.

This pack is the result of an unusual partnership between the Parkinson's Disease Society and the Iver Nature Study Centre in Buckinghamshire, which was created to give people with special needs access to the countryside and wildlife. The pack is described by the PDS as a "prototype", which will be improved as teachers' evaluations are returned and funds become available.

At the moment it's a bit of a curate's egg, made up of several items, some of which have been created specially for the pack and some which were already available, and designed for different purposes and age groups.

It contains for instance the small storybook, Granny has Parkinson's, a well-written tale, originally conceived for the outreach service for black and minority ethnic communities in Birmingham. Apart from encouraging awareness of Parkinson's, it would be useful in a discussion on disability in general and in promoting sensitivity to the needs of disabled people. The same is true of the pack as a whole.

The informative booklet, Understanding Parkinson's Disease: a Guide for Young People could provide background information for teachers and parents or, in some parts, children. It includes accounts by children of what it is like to live with relatives with Parkinson's, in which feelings of anger, embarrassment and grief are discussed frankly.

It is nicely designed and clearly laid out, although unfortunately there is one large error. In the question-and-answer section, the question "Do people die from Parkinson's disease?" is met with an answer clearly meant for another question. It is, though, answered correctly elsewhere.

Particularly useful are the activities and stories on expressing feelings and emotions. People with Parkinson's often don't show emotion on their faces as they have difficulty controlling the muscles. So the pack asks children to draw a range of expressions and discuss how they would express emotions without using their faces. Writing and drama activities on related themes are also encouraged.

Among the suggested technology activities are those that encourage children to think about ways of assisting people with Parkinson's in carrying out domestic tasks, and to design special "Parkinson's-friendly" meals.

The video tells the life story of James Parkinson - and a fascinating, full life it was. But the video was made with adults in mind. It is old-fashioned in style and without careful preparation, young children are unlikely to understand some of the language. Would they also be interested in events and issues such as the excise tax, clergy income and committal proceedings - all subjects dear to Parkinson's heart - or be able to grasp what a grand and difficult thing it is to isolate and identify a disease which is then named after you?

This is not really lesson-ready material but with careful thought, much of it could be useful in different contexts.

Parkinson's Disease Society, 22 Upper Woburn Place, London WC1H 0RA.

Tel: 0171 383 3513

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