Healing arts

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Creative activities are known to have benefits for sick children. Tom Deveson looks at some recent projects

WH Auden liked to quote his father, a doctor specialising in children's illnesses, who was for many years the school medical officer for Birmingham: "Healing is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing Nature." When children are restricted physically within institutions, however temporarily, there may well be something restorative in letting their imaginations loose into the world. Moreover, when they are suffering pain and fear and needing care, their ability to offer to others the gifts of art can be part of the remedy.

When John Mole became poet-in-residence for the City of London, one of his locations was Barts Hospital, which has tended for the local sick since the 12th century. The Sir John Cass's Foundation funded him to help ill children with their education. The children attending the tuition unit there usually number just over a dozen; some are being treated for retino-blastoma, a form of eye-cancer in which the hospital specialises. John and the children worked on a book of riddles, first tried out on teachers and medical staff, then published as a booklet of 23 inventive, elusive and exuberant enigmas.

The subjects range from socks and shadows to a nasogastric tube, but others are directly about the world from which the children are currently excluded. The sun ("You don't need clocks when I'm about") or parking meters ("Our catwalk is not so stylish. Anyone, in fact, can walk along it") are given metaphorical life with an energy that expresses children's intention to walk the streets or stand under the sky once more.

Mandy Boydle, the unit's teacher in charge, describes the benefits of such an enterprise, which took its place among visits from London Symphony Orchestra players, and making masks and paintings with the Travelling Artists Project. "They could release some of their feelings at what their bodies were doing to them; that's very constructive in itself. And reading their poems at the book launch gave an enormous boost to their self-esteem."

John Mole muses that "not knowing exactly who'd be there made their comings and goings into a contributive art form which was at the same time a distraction from their anxieties". The riddle-guessing game was a collective activity. Here the writing as well as the guessing became part of that communal curative endowment.

In Guy's Evelina Hospital School, the value of the expressive arts is also recognised. Christine Wood, the headteacher, has welcomed a range of performers and creators to work with their 30-plus pupils. Hannah Finch, a singer from English National Opera's Baylis programme, helped children create their own songbook on themes such as "Things We'd Like to Do" or "We are the Wild Things." Those attending for dialysis three times a week were especially able to benefit from this 10-week residency. But others, more transient, were able to contribute songs specifically to be used by other patients after they had gone. Christine Wood says: "Making music together helps minimise the sense of 'me suffering' - we don't use sickness a the incentive, but rather start with what the children can do in co-operation."

Another approach is through drama - "the ancient art through which human beings recreate themselves". The phrase is Edward Bond's, and it is one inspiration behind the remarkable achievements of Spanner In The Works, the drama team who visit Guy's to work with teenagers in the hospital's acute psychiatric unit. Challenging and reassuring at the same time, they manage to persuade young people to take on a range of other voices and stories, to experiment with humour and mystery, to let themselves take a few trusting steps along the unpredictable paths of the imagination. The work engages pupils with the process of reassessing who they are and what they can do; at the same time, it makes compartmentalised bureaucracy within hospital less formidable. Although its aim is not to be deliberately therapeutic, it does provide insights that consultants and nurses find helpful.

In the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School, attached to the psychiatric hospital in south London, the Carl Campbell Dance Company worked with another group of adolescents with severe emotional and behavioural problems. Sponsored by the generosity of Southwark Children's Foundation, they created a carnival of dance and music to celebrate the height of summer and the students' achievements. The themes expressed comprised the elements of earth, fire and air with their distinctive movements, united by the flow of water.The sessions took place over the course of six weeks. Some worked with masks, hats and other costumes. Others produced huge statues. All these became integrated into the final performance by 10 students, family members, carers, nursing staff and teachers.

Wendy French, the school's headteacher, says: "These are children for whom things have gone badly wrong. When they work in this way, they can find their way back towards feeling confidence in themselves and in their abilities. There will always be a central place here for the healing arts."

That last phrase is not idle. The school's mission statement does not contrive permutations of dismal cliches about "delivering quality" and "articulating visions". Instead, it quotes two of the most marvellous lines that Auden, that word-enchanter, ever wrote: "In the deserts of the heartLet the healing fountain start."


Poet in the City: The Poetry Society, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BU. Tel: 020 7420 9894. E-mail: education@poetrysoc.comWeb: www.poetrysoc.com LSO Discovery, the London Symphony Orchestra's education programme: LSO, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS. Tel: 0171 588 1116.E-mail discovery@lso.co Web: www.lso.co.uk Travelling Artists Project: Vital Arts (the Arts project for Barts and the London NHS Trust). Tel: 020 7377 7127 The Baylis Programme, English National Opera's education and outreach team. Tel: 020 7739 5808. Web: www.eno.org Spanner in the Works: 155 Station Road, Sidcup, Kent DA15 7AA. Tel: 020 8304 7660

Carl Campbell Dance Company:Thomas Calton Centre, Alpha Street, Peckham, London SE15 4NX. Telfax: 0207 639 4875. E-mail: ccdc7@easynet.co.uk

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