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Staying in Focus

Focusing project in a nursery school in Iceland

by Vala Olafsdottir, Trainer, Iceland

Nestled between a busy highway and the City hospital of Reykjavik is a small building, painted in bright colors. In the front are a jungle gym, sandboxes and swings, and periodically throughout the day this playground is filled with children. During the day, this is the home of about 60 children from the ages of 18 months to 6 years and their roughly 15 teachers and other staff.

As one enters this unassuming building it looks, smells, sounds and feels like any other nursery shool. In the younger quarters, aspiring actors are staging the story of Goldy Locks and the Three Bears. “Who has eaten my porridge?” sounds a voice from a little girl in a big dress, with a yellow wig. In another room, the older children have built a wall of big wooden blocks. In one corner there is obviously some important buisness going on, buying and selling with large sums of (play) money. Imagination is name of the game — in this place there is room for learning and playing.

Although the school doesn’t seem different from the many nursery schools in Reykjavik, details begin to catch the observant eye. Banners on the walls demand a second look “Respect” is written on one of them. “We listen” on another. “We can only listen as well to others as we can listen to ourselves” says a third. One says “open mind”, another “being with” and still another “safety.”

In the spring of 2000 the first workshop in Focusing was given to the staff members of the school — one evening introduction to Focusing and a daylong a month later. Now in the summer of 2002, Focusing is one of the main themes of this school.

Of course it did not happen just like that. One doesn’t just walk into a nursery school and introduce Focusing to the staff, and everybody lives happily ever after. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The reason I had an opportunity to introduce Focusing to this school was that one of the head teachers had been my student at the University and had taken my course in Focusing. Some of the other teachers had also been students in my courses in Child Development. They, therefore, knew about my ideas, my enthusiasm for improving childrens’ lives, and what’s more important, they were open to experimenting with Focusing in their work with children.

Not much happened during the summer of 2000, but in September we began weekly meetings with the teachers in which we discussed the Focusing-philosophy and practiced with each other. The Focusing philosophy was made visible by taping banners with words and sentences on walls and floors. I wrote an article in the newsletter for parents and gave a lecture for parents. The idea was well received by most. We, however, were faced with the fact that we were starting with a new idea and that we didn’t have much on which to build our everyday work. The idea of Focusing is new to Icelandic culture, but at this moment in time, it is welcome. The culture seemed to be open to the discussion of bodily felt experience and to improving the emotional environment of our children. Icelanders are becoming more and more conscious of how little attention they have traditionally shown their feelings and how much they need that which until recently was vehemently denied by many. “How can we continue to do what is expected of us if we are constantly speculatuing how we feel about it?” is one question I am often asked. “I don’t have an answer,” I tell the one who asks, “The only answer that works for you comes from yourself.”

From the beginning I have based my work on the work of Martha Stapert. I translated some of her articles and we began using one method after another, adjusting the vocabulary and methods to the cultural environment. In October 2000 I went with three of the teachers to The Second International Conference of Focusing with Children in Budapest. That provided an enormous boost for the project and when we came home we had many ideas to work with along with increased enthusiasm. The teachers, mainly Halldora and Sigga, began to work with the oldest children in groups. They started by slowly connecting everyday experiences with their bodily felt sense. Lunchtime became a forum for discussing feelings and “the place that knows what is best for us” became more and more the ground for solving of all kinds of conflicts that necessarily are a part of our daily interactions. This work went on all winter along with biweekly meetings in which we had the staff read articles, discuss the work and focus.

In the fall 2001 Halldora, one of the teachers, started to work in an organized manner with all the children in the school, both on an individual basis and in groups. That meant that all the children in the school got a chance to focus every week or every other week. We worked most often with 4-5 children in groups for about 20—30 minutes. In those sessions we practiced noticing the body, still and in motion, and then encouraged the children to draw how that felt. We told stories, discussed feelings and created a safe atmosphere for the children to talk about their felt senses about what is going on in their lives. Gradually, we began to notice that some of the children asked to participate in Focusing more and more. It became obvious to us that some of the children were enjoying this addition to the school and were growing and thriving in it.

In November we began to create what we call “Focusing play.” We sit with the child (or sometimes with 2-3 children) and just mirror their play and felt state in a Focusing way. The main intent is to stay totally with the child, not playing with the child but mirroring the play. Some of the teachers of the school have become very good at this and the children enjoy it tremendously. It can perhaps best be described as giving the child as close to 100% attention as one can get. In March of 2002 Marta and Ynze Stapert came to Iceland and gave two weekend workskhops, one of them especially for the teachers of the school. This was again an important encouragement for us and a boost for the project.

Focusing is a wonderful tool to have in the school environment. We need to encounter life on life’s terms and children come to school with all the burdens that life inevitably hands to them. We are able to take them aside and give them space, listen to them and be with them where they are in that particular moment. Not all children embrace this but we believe strongly that all children could gain from it. This coming school year, starting in September, we are going to emphazise ‘Focusing in the daily routine’, inviting the children to do Focusing play as part of playtime. We have created a corner in which we can do this with those who chose to do Focusing play. We plan to use Focusing more as one of the tools in everyday life in the school:

  • in small incidents that come up every day in a nursery school
  • while walking around the play area with the children, giving them the opportunity to talk about what is going on in their lives as we listen in an accepting way

This will help strengthen the childrens’ sense of ownership of their feelings, their bodies and their knowing that nobody can feel their feelings except themselves.

We are in no doubt that Focusing works in the school environment. There are however questions that arise like, “How is the child going to respond to the conflict that inevitably arises if the child has an unaccepting environment to deal with at home?” Is the conflict that arises from having a Focusing environment during the day and something totally different at home going to be harder for the child to deal with than to be without a Focusing environment altogether? This is a quesion that we have to ask ourselves, tor better or for worse.

Úr “Staying in Focus, Sept. 2002

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