The British are notoriously shy about touching. But that could all change with the introduction of a Swedish massage technique to our schools. Su Clark reports
The fear of being labelled an abuser has made teachers wary of physical contact with pupils. Yet study after study suggests touching is good for people - especially children. In Sweden, massage is part of the national culture and a programme of child-administered massage in the classroom is now being exported.
Introduced in 1996 by Mia Elmsater, an educator in massage techniques, the programme has been adopted by almost 70 per cent of Sweden's day care centres. From there it is creeping into primary schools as children weaned on massage move up the educational ladder.
The programme involves children massaging one another for 10 minutes every day, usually in the morning. The benefits of this short interlude, says Ms Elmsater, are huge. Children are increasingly responsive to learning, concentrate better, and are calmer. She quotes studies which show that the children who seem to get the most out of it are boys with an aggressive streak who are immature for their age. "After just six months those boys were noticeably calmer and more mature than the control group who did not receive the massage," she says.
The programme is now coming to Britain, through a link-up up with Essentials for Health, a UK training organisation for massage therapists. It will train adults in teaching massage to children aged between two and 11. "Initially teachers were taught how to massage children over clothes," explains Gill Tree, founder and managing director of Essentials for Health. "But children standing in line waiting for their massage started to massage each other, and that has become the focus of the project since."
Ms Elmsater has already run two workshops in the UK, which were attended by 44 students, about a third of whom were teachers. Another is planned for late April.
Stephen Marcus, a teacher at Tanner Wood school in Abbots Langley, hertfordshire, and part-time massage therapist, had a strong interest in the subject before attending the first course. "I was already convinced of the benefits of massage," he says. "Touching changes relationships. If two children have a difficult relationship, touching one another can ease it. They become real to one another."
Dympna O'Brien was a teacher for 18 years before she left to become a massage therapist. "There is such negative touching in the playgrounds, but this teaches positive touching," she says.
One nursery and infant school, the Coombes in Arborfield, near Reading, has already introduced child massage under trial conditions. One of its parents, Sue Bastow, is a massage therapist who attended Ms Elmsater's first workshop and suggested it to headteacher Sue Humphries. Now the school is running a 10-minute massage session every morning in one of its infant classes. "It is just in one class of 26 at the moment, but the teachers are reporting that those who have done the massage are more relaxed during the day," says Ms Bastow.
Ms Humphries is pleased with the results so far, and envisages introducing it to the whole school. "This is giving children permission to touch each other," she says. "I believe in the power of touch and we include it in our social and co-operative games. This is a valuableadjunct to those games."
During her long-standing headship, Sue Humphries has created an innovative school with an emphasis on holistic education and positive experiences in early childhood. Winner of the pound;50,000 Jerwood Award 10 years ago for its contribution to the theory and practice of education, the Coombes has an orchard so that children can pick and eat apples, and hundreds of daffodils so that next Friday, in time for Mothering Sunday, every child can pick a bunch of flowers. Massage, it seems, fits neatly into the school's ethos.
But for massage to gain a wider acceptance in UK schools, the programme must break down our cultural disinclination to touch one another. Ms Elmsater and her colleagues are confident this can be done. "We need to get the child's and parents' permission," explains Ms Tree. "It is important that the information the parents receive is simple, basic and honest."
Before any massage programme is introduced in a Swedish school, parents are informed of what is planned, including how the child will be approached. The children are also able to choose whether or not to take part.
Mia Elmsater's massages are far removed from the stereotypical treatments meted out on television dramas. There is no undressing, no discreetly placed little white towels. All touching is on the back and neck and through normal school wear. The adult usually demonstrates on another adult, and every child involved is taught to ask the child receiving the massage if he or she would like it, and to say thank you when it has finished.
To make it fun for the children, Ms Elmsater has developed a series of massage strokes involving games, rhymes or stories. One child can write a number or letter on the other child's back, who must then guess what it is. Or counting rhymes can be used, where the children tap out the numbers. "So much of it can involve the national curriculum," says Ms O'Brien. "It can help with the alphabet, help with numeracy and literacy, deal with sequencing and improve co-ordination."
Ms Elmsater has even developed a picture game in which the children stand in rows of four or five. The first child is shown a picture, which he or she draws on the neighbouring child's back. Like Chinese whispers, each child draws what he or she thinks the picture is on the next child until the final child draws the picture on paper. Another approach is to tell a story, which the children illustrate in hand movements. Children at the Coombes are responding enthusiastically to the programme. "We call them gentle geniuses," says Ms Bastow.
Essentials for Health: 020 8556 8155 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Room must be warm and quiet, with few distractions. Dim the lights if possible.
* Begin when everyone is quiet.
* Ask permission of the person you are to massage.
* Introduce movements and ensure all the participants can see you so they can easily mimic your movements.
* Show one stroke at a time and let the children practise it several times.
* Give names to each stroke.
* Ensure the children speak only to the person they are massaging or who is massaging them.
* The one giving the massage must always keep at least one hand on the child getting the massage.
* Finish by thanking the child for allowing the massage.