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Educare Small School

 

A remarkable school in Kingston, Surrey where the Alexander Technique is a part of every school day. Sue Merry is lucky enough to work there (first published in Statnews, May 2007).

 

The Beginning

 

In 1994, quite unexpectedly, I was invited into a local state primary school to tell the infant school teachers what they could say to the children in order to get them to "sit up straight". Of course I had no intention of doing any such thing. But what was I going to do?

 

I brought this whole situation upon myself by unwisely shooting off my mouth to the head teacher. She was a pupil of mine at the time and had asked if the Alexander Technique could be applied to children. I confidently blasted on about how there were lots of ways of applying the principles to children -as if I knew anything about it! And yes, sure I would be happy to come along and talk to teaching staff about all the things that they could say to the kids -sure I would. Just give me a call. Well, she did. And I was in deep trouble. I had never worked with children in any capacity at all and had absolutely no idea how the Technique might apply to a huge primary school that was already stretched to the limit. Worse still, although I read everything in print on the subject, not one thing was of any practical use at all. Nothing actually told me what to do with a class of small children. So I had to find out for myself. It was a very steep and stressful learning curve.

 

I eventually discovered all sorts of ways of working in a school environment and ended up as a regular, mostly unpaid, fixture at the school. The deputy head, Liz Steinthal, really connected with what I was doing. In 1995 she left the school and began planning to open her own school, which would be called "Educare" and would be a school for children aged 3 to 11. She was now having regular Alexander lessons with me and asked if I was interested in her new venture. It was terrific to be involved in a project like this from the very beginning. It meant that I had input in all sorts of ways. For example, I suggested that every school day should include a period of quiet time when the children and staff lay semi-supine. I also suggested that the school day begin with everyone engaging in a movement activity such as t’ai chi. The overall idea was to integrate the Alexander Technique into the school day in such a way that would not require my presence there all the time.

 

Liz and her husband Peter finally found and renovated a suitable property, an old Baptist chapel near to the centre of Kingston Upon Thames. In February 1997 Educare Small School opened its doors. We had a beautiful school environment, 45 school places available, some very exciting ideas, a really great team, and absolutely no children. Who would send their child to an empty school? Well, eventually someone did and once we had one child we soon had three, then five, then lots. So by the summer term that year we were feeling like a real school.

 

Making it Work

 

It is difficult to remember now, ten years down the line, how scary things were when we first started. The teaching staff were all really experienced teachers who had spent many years in education. Now they were stepping out into some unexplored areas. It was much easier for me as I had little experience of education and so no idea about what was or wasn’t theoretically possible. For example, Liz and I wanted each day to begin with the whole school together practising some t’ai chi movements. So this was the plan. Unfortunately, after about three days of this, the children were thoroughly bored and rebellious. There was a short period of some difficulty when the teachers were beginning to wonder if the whole idea was perhaps just plain barmy. It was unfamiliar, not totally comprehensible and possibly pointless as the children were obviously not enjoying it. So I started adding in some crazy things to keep the kids interested: dancing like a pirate was a particular favourite! Then a big breakthrough came when I discovered Brain Gym™ a series of easy movements that enhance functioning on all levels. Doing all these movements with a "tall body" really worked well, integrating Alexander work into a useful and fun system of movement. Gradually the morning t’ai chi session evolved into what we now call Movement Circle. This is a totally accepted and fully integrated part of every school day. Movement Circle has an obviously beneficial effect on the children, putting them into a focussed place where they are ready to learn. We use elements of Brain Gym™, aikido, EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), occasionally t’ai chi, and various fun activities that I have invented, all done in a tall way.

 

The Educare School Day

 

Educare Small School has the following aims, not in any order of priority:

  • To help children to identify themselves as valued members of a secure group from which they can grow into confident, aspiring adults.

  • To foster the spiritual and moral growth of each child as an individual and as part of a wider community.

  • To develop children as independent learners with an enthusiasm for learning who are able to organise their own learning effectively, make choices, and interact within a stimulating and creative environment. 

  • To encourage each child to achieve an appropriate level of communication through language, mathematics, science, creative arts and information technology.

  • To integrate the principles of the Alexander Technique into the school day so that every child leaves Educare with the ability to choose good use of the self.

The Morning

 

09.20 to 12.00

 

Each day begins with Movement Circle. The whole school takes part in this. The children then split into small groups and work with different adults. When I am at school -every Wednesday -I usually go into the kindergarten at this point. I might now do some group work with the children. This might be teaching them some Brain Gym™ movements or possibly playing some games, singing songs and dancing, as ways of exploring the Alexander principles. I use stories with children as a fun teaching aid, and the songs, games and dances we do can relate back to the stories. The stories are about characters that have good use and characters that have poor use and what happens to them when they learn to change.

 

When the kindergarten children are engaged in the various activities laid out for them that morning, I will often occupy a table and they can choose to come over and work with me. This is an opportunity for me to do some individual hands-on work. As our focus we draw a figure eight lying sideways; in Brain Gym™ these figures are called "lazy 8s". This activity is very helpful for brain function and for fine and gross motor skills. It is an excellent focus for learning to do less when using a pencil and for focussing on the means-whereby instead of the end. The children are now beginning to learn to do something "in a tall way".

 

Once the kindergarten children go out to play I usually move my centre of operations into the main teaching area of the school, the hall. I might now work with individual children in a separated area of the room or I might simply circulate the hall area putting hands on each child as they are sitting or standing and engaged in some activity.

I discovered some time ago that the older children will give much more attention to their use and have a much greater understanding of Alexander work if they are given the responsibility of helping me. I therefore work separately with these children and I allow them to put hands on me and then on each other in a very gentle way. Each Wednesday, three or four children will be asked to help me by putting hands on the others at Quiet Time. I will usually work with these children individually before the lunch break. One reason I like working this way is because it enables a child to understand that what they are doing with themselves has an effect on anyone they come into contact with. Quite a profound bit of learning if you think about it! Also, it enables them to experience giving and getting benevolent touch from each other. This is especially important for the boys as they are often pulling and pushing each other around, punching, play fighting and sometimes fighting for real. The teachers also take part in Quiet Time and so the children also have the experience of offering benevolent touch to the teachers. It is very interesting how we adults can change our perception of a child when they work on us in this way. I think of occasions when I have found a particular child irritating, annoying, generally disagreeable. Then I have started to get them to put hands on me and my whole experience of that child is transformed.

 

Sometimes I return to the kindergarten before the end of the morning to tell them a story. I use puppets for this, the main ones being Mr Jackson -an 18-inch high skeleton -and his friend Dippy Dilly -a sort of cuddly bird. At some point in their adventures they will remember the "magic words" and events will start to swing in their favour. The magic words are a form of the Directions: "My head is a floaty balloon, my shoulders are runny custard." Surprisingly effective!

 

The Afternoon

 

13.00 -15.30

 

Every afternoon begins with Quiet Time. Relaxing music is played and the children come into the hall from the playground. They find a space and lie down in a Brain Gym™ position called "a hook-up". This position calms the whole system and consists of a first and second position. In the second position everyone lies semi-supine. When I am at school I use this time to do some hands-on work and a few selected children will help me with this. After ten or fifteen minutes I ask my helpers to also lie down and we all switch into a meditation for a few minutes. I then ask everyone to stop, to allow their bodies to be tall and then to roll onto their sides and to sit in a tall way. Everyone then sits in meditation for a few minutes. The session ends and the children and the teachers are ready to face the afternoon in a calm and focussed way.

 

For the rest of the day I am usually in the hall. Sometimes I work for thirty minutes or so with a small group of older children. This is a great time to talk and work together, exploring aspects of the Technique in much more detail than usual. Anything can happen in this group as questions or observations from the children will frequently take us off on some unexpected, interesting route.

 

Once I have finished with the older children I work with the youngest children in the hall, the 5 to 7 year-olds. Here I sit at a table and they come over when requested to do some work focussed around writing. I use lazy-8s here but in a more advanced way than in the kindergarten. Here we integrate a letter shape into the 8. Once again the emphasis is on taking part in this activity in a tall way.

 

The afternoon usually ends with a story in the hall. Sometimes it is a Mr Jackson story for all the children in the hall. Sometimes I read from my book "The Labyrinth of Gar" for the older children only. This is a teaching story for 7 to 12 year-olds. It is an adventure story with the principles of the Technique woven into it.

 

Postscript

 

When I began working with children in 1994 I wondered how much I would be able to teach them. I marvel now at how egocentric this was. It was only when I stopped trying to teach them anything at all that I could be still enough to listen. When I was still enough to listen then I began to learn. If you get the opportunity to work with children then take it. Take it even if you have no idea what you will do. Take it even if the idea terrifies you. It is a wonderful, wonderful learning experience.

 

More about Educare and about working with children can be found at the Education 2000 website: www.ed2k.org.uk

 

Coming soon: a new book about the Alexander Technique and young people by Sue Merry and Judith Kleinman, working title: "The Wisdom of Children".

 

If you would like to visit Educare Small School and spend time with Sue she is there every Wednesday. Contact her to book a visit: e-mail sue.merry@virgin.net

 

© Sue Merry 2007

 

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