Posts Tagged ‘ post-disaster ’

Lessons Learned in the Challenges of a Collaborative Studio

In just under three weeks, the GFRY studio made some major improvements to the Paso Moya Sede Social (Community Center). Located in one of the most severely affected regions (Maule) of the 2010 Chilean earthquake, the sede is home to several community groups. We sought to expand the utility of the sede and in the process, revitalize civic interest. Our plan included a series of architectural upgrades: a playground, signage, pavers and custom furniture in the front, a quincho and barbeque / fire pit in the back, and tool storage / checkout system inside.

Background

The two-semester studio took more twists and turns than a great roller coaster ride; each turn offered a new lesson, most of which could not be fully appreciated until the ride came to a complete and sudden stop. We began by researching the disaster context. As I’ve learned from thesis, it’s easy to get overly enamored by research. Instead of strengthening our overseas partnerships and developing a shared vision, we developed projects based on our personal interests. I partnered with two others from the start in the hopes that an early collective vision might make it to implementation. While this proved true, we created a solution looking for a user.

After a natural disaster, most governments (with the help of NGOs) manage to stabilize the food/shelter needs of its constituents. Most fail in the medium term (6 months to 3 years) recovery: restoring/improving esteem and social structure. My team saw that children were severely affected in this earthquake and sought to improve their post-disaster situation by building a play area (which psychologists widely consider important in recovery). By the time we solidified our partnerships, the community we were designing for turned out to be predominately elderly. Because of this, some community members pushed back at our use of space for a playground. This taught me the importance of understanding client needs early and affirming that understanding through feedback before the research phase.

In our first face-to-face meeting, our partners questioned our intentions and seemed to shoot down all of our project proposals. Other universities had come and promised much and delivered little. These were academic exercises. While faculty had every intention to deliver, that objective wasn’t even clear to students, as we received significant push back on every proposed expenditure. As a result, many developed very low budget proposals that related more to art than design. This taught me the importance of open communication with the broader team.

Implementation

Feelings were mixed going into the implementation phase. Without a confirmation of budget (to the students) and seemingly reserved support from our overseas partners, we weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into. We had a game plan, but most projects take longer than anticipated. The bottom line: We had 12 work days to make everything happen.

The first few days were a scramble: get materials and equipment from Easy, clean the work site, lunch at Arturo’s, prepare for the town hall presentation of our plans and get feedback from the community less than 24 hours after arrival. It was too late to change large jobs. We trusted that our partners in the community had accurately gauged and communicated community needs. Fortunately, this proved to be mostly true.

I mainly worked on the playground and barbeque pit. In practical terms, everybody helped with everything: the quincho, the fence chalkboard, paving, foundation work, and documentation. We involved the community in volunteer shifts. Neighborhood kids helped paint. Locals pulled up on horse-drawn carts to drop off used tires. A passerby helped us break up and bury a giant cement block that we couldn’t remove.

Lessons

1. Leadership requires buy in. To convince people to follow your vision, you need to understand your constituency’s vision. Paul (faculty) involved us throughout the planning process and helped us combine diverse project interests under one community center renovation umbrella.

2. Activities that contribute little to tangible outcomes can still have significant intangible value. We took turns sledgehammering a giant cement block on a few afternoons. The progress was minimal; we could have rented a jackhammer for very little compared to the time investment. However, hammering proved incredibly therapeutic for the class. It contributed to harmony and group dynamics.

3. Failures are opportunities. We missed the bus to go horseback riding in the mountains, but took a trip to Conception instead. The visit opened our eyes to how another region reacted to the 2010 earthquake. We walked along a beautiful black sand beach and experienced another aspect of Chilean culture.

4. You have to trust your teammates to pull through for you. When you don’t have the time to accomplish everything by yourself, those good working relationships with your teammates really pay off. My hands weren’t agile enough to fasten interior bolts, but Cleo’s were. No one else could drill 3/4″ holes through tires, so I had to, in spite of the carpal tunnel.

5. Mortar is not glue. My barbecue stand fell apart when the form work was removed because cement has very little lateral strength. (Mig fixed it the next day.) Similarly, inflexibility as a team member creates an all-or-nothing dynamic that can damage morale and results.

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Design Brief: Body Pillows for Disaster-Affected Children

After a disaster, children often experience anxiety and stress that interfere with everyday activities from sleeping to socialization. Once a child has fallen off his developmental path, it is difficult to get back, even after symptoms of emotional trauma have been resolved. Adults that children rely on are often too stressed to provide effective emotional support. Professional therapy is often cost-prohibitive.

There are two major steps in trauma recovery: 1. establish a sense of safety and 2. make positive meaning. I developed this child’s body pillow as a comfort object to address the first step. The quilted textures and pocket for familiar smells help curtail hyper-vigilance through pattern sensory repetition. Post-disaster, these pillows could be distributed to help children move from a primal fight/flight response towards cognitive processing.

Inspiration

For most of my life, sleep has been the best part of the day because it was the only place I felt free. Losing even that is a terrifying thing. I want to provide children a source of comfort after a natural disaster in a way that helps them reclaim sleep.

Materiality

By marrying quilted textures from recycled fabric with new solid elements, I reference how successful post-disaster reconstruction memorializes the past while embracing the future.

Consequence

The body pillow will help children affected by disasters find comfort and could extend to non-disaster situations as a therapeutic accessory.

Manufacturing

I considered two forms of manufacturing: 1. pre-make and stockpiled by an NGO for disaster response and 2. provide the affected community with sewing machines, patterns and templates to make their own. Realistically, people affected by a disaster are too preoccupied to learn to manufacture a body pillow for children, who end up being a low-priority until they are developmentally derailed. By manufacturing the pillows in anticipation of a disaster, children can be helped in a way that leaves adults free to pursue other activities related to food, shelter and rebuilding.

Working Method

I worked with therapists to define design objectives and get feedback on prototypes. I worked with a third grade class to consider ergonomic factors.

GFRY Draft Proposal for a Playscape

This week, we presented our proposal for a mobile playscape that could move through five elementary schools throughout the week and serve the two community centers on the weekends. The central idea is to create an outlet for stress for kids that is active, educational, and engages the senses. We purposely kept the presentation at a concept level that focused on the process of how we could work with our partners in realizing this vision. The flow diagram was shown as a step animation to demonstrate the iterative and collaborate design process. The sketches were modeled on the computer and traced over to intentionally lower resolution so that our partners wouldn’t think we were overly invested in a specific form. They exist to demonstrate the idea of modularity.

Feedback: The two main points of feedback concentrated on: Why portable versus fixed? and Why proscribed versus free? In the former, we wanted something we could realistically implement but perhaps it makes more sense to get things started on something more permanent. We will add that scenario to our presentation. We did not intend for all play to be limited to specific, organized games but saw that as a feature. We will change the layout and hierarchy of the last slide to reflect an either/or situation. We were also asked about materiality, something we felt was too early to consider. We were given several precedents to look up and will perform further research to get a sense of what can be done so we will know what to look out for during our trip next week.

Interview: Another Art Therapist on Therapeutic Toys

Last Thursday, I spoke with another art therapist on therapeutic toys. This time, the focus was on design. Below are selected interview notes.

What does a traumatized child need to get (developmentally) back on track?

BF: The first step is establishing a sense of safety and equilibrium. Trauma causes the brain to shut down or function in a state of hyper-vigilance. You need to down-regulate the autonomous nervous system. Bruce Perry and Bessel Van Terkolk talk about pattern sensory repetitive involvement as a therapeutic technique in these cases. The technique uses repetition when the child needs to down regulate. Lullabies, heartbeats, familiar sounds, familiar smells, and soft objects can all have a soothing influence.

The second step is processing. You help the child understand what happened and come to a different conclusion. Children will play out traumatic events given the toys or props to do so, but that doesn’t mean they will learn anything from it. You must help a child understand why something happened and what can be done about it.

What are some techniques that you’ve found useful in your practice?

BF: It’s important to break the mental state of hyper-vigilance by shifting the brain’s focus. When patients come in, I give them lavender hand lotion. The tactile sensation of rubbing one’s hands together, combined with a strong scent sets the stage for a productive session. Some therapists make drums out of coffee cans and duct tape at the beginning of their sessions. You’re providing a predictable pattern at the start of a session that creates an entry point into an oasis from the rest of that person’s day.

You mentioned sensory repetition as a therapeutic technique. Can you talk about some appropriate things that a sensory kit for children might include?

BF: Sound-making devices, perhaps mimicking heartbeat. Crayons, or whatever art supplies are culturally appropriate. Stencils, because if you’re giving kids a way to draw, the idea of containment is important. They are comforted by the edge. Yarn. Puppets. Stuffed animals. I knew a therapist that would put a satchel of peppermint in a stuffed animal and use it to focus the child’s mind. You could put a box inside to symbolize private space. The child could decorate it as she saw fit and put it into the larger container for the kit.

Lessons: There are two stages that need to be addressed in trauma recovery. Cognitive processing fails if a child’s brain function remains in the primitive “fight or flight” state. In the first six months, focus on establishing safety and equilibrium. Six months to a year out, give children the tools to play out their trauma.

Therapeutic Value of Play in Post-Disaster Settings

Play is a universally important means for expression across cultures. Children reflect on relationships and experiences with others, express needs, release unacceptable impulses, and experiment with solutions through play. A child can move towards inner resolution of a frightening or traumatic experience through play by returning to the event again and again, changing the outcome in the activity. In a post-disaster setting, play serves a restorative function in the lives of children.

In order to play, children need toys, creative materials and other props. Games and storytelling can also serve as vehicles for play. The adult sets the stage, observes and participates by providing reassurance for feelings the child may be experiencing.

Play does not require the direct supervision of mental health professionals to be beneficial. For example, The Kids’ Corner (KC), a therapeutic play area conceived after the September 11, 2001 attacks, was staffed with volunteers from both mental health and other professions.The work done in this space was considered “play therapy” when conducted by mental health professionals and “play that had therapeutic value” when supervised by other relief workers. KC is a model that has been replicated with positive results in other disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. The fact that Western play methods work in Eastern cultures suggests the transcendent healing properties of play in post-disaster settings.

Hosin, Amer A. Responses to Traumatized Children. Basingstoke England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 66-90. Print.

GFRY Inspiration Boards for a Playscape

This week, we developed the playground idea by creating inspiration boards around the ideas of learning, sound, and physical activity. We wanted to give children a positive avenue of anxiety relief through play.

Based on feedback, we need to…

1. Research Chilean games and game frameworks (such as game show premises for the learning function)
2. Diagram a framework for collaboration with our partners in Chile that incorporates prototyping and feedback loops
3. Develop prototypes of the appropriate resolution to facilitate collaborative design

Interview: Art Therapists on Therapeutic Toys

Monday, I spoke to two practicing art therapists (separately) about how a toy might soothe a traumatized child while improving the child-caretaker relationship. Below are the combined and selected interview notes.

What do traumatized children choose as transitional objects and why?

AB: The first transitional objects that a child has are the nipple, the bottle and the thumb. Traumatized children regress to thumb sucking as a surface behavior that indicates that they are looking inward to soothe themselves. It might help to understand how the brain develops. The bridge between the left and right brain forms around age five. Between five and eight, children are the most vulnerable. Most phobias are developed in this age range. Any positive or negative experience with objects will help form a child’s personality.

CM: That’s often a matter of personal preference. What does it smell like? Who does it remind the child of? Then there’s the question of age and developmental level.

How do children interact with these objects?

AB: Children think of a teddy bear as a part of their arm. It’s an extension of their ego. The teddy bear is them. You’ll see them talking out internal conversations through puppets.

CM: Traumatized children will act out (sometimes repetitively) the traumatic event through toys. There’s something called, “Sand Tray Therapy” where the child is given a large tray of sand and a shelf of objects to play out scenarios. These objects include human representations of various sizes, models of everyday things, animals, and so forth. The sand tray is a stage that lets the child act out his internal struggles. It’s part of the healing process.


If a toy were to improve the relationship between a child and its caregiver, what would be some signs that a caregiver should intervene in a child’s play? What should the caregiver do?

AB: In crisis management, we are taught to deal differently with each stage of the anger cycle. First comes anxiety, where we try to create a safe environment. Second is the defensive stage where the person attacks verbally. We need to set clear and simple limits that we are ready to enforce. In the third stage, the acting out is physical when we need to talk them down, restrain them, and give them quiet time. Finally, there is a time for tension reduction. This is the best time to start a therapeutic rapport by being supportive and non-judgmental.

CM: You have to trust that your child knows how to work through his problems. Some parents are too eager to make the child talk about something that he isn’t ready to discuss. As children play out the trauma, they will often work in metaphor. It’s important not to assume what a certain representation is. Rather, ask the child to tell the story of what he’s drawn or the scenario that the toys are showing. Children will talk when they are ready.

What are some things I should consider in designing a therapeutic toy?

AB: There are a few avenues that come to mind. One, you could look into objects that make regression safe from ridicule. Dual-purpose objects such as a water bottle that can simulate nipple/thumb sucking can be comforting and the parent would have to refill it. You could make a plush backpack that would function as comfort and storage. Two, you can examine the signal value in a toy. Plush toys can transform by having certain parts of itself pulled over or inverted. When a child does that, it can intuitively signal distress to the caregiver.

CM: Simple is better. Give the child the opportunity to fill in the details with his imagination. There’s a big opportunity to train parents through toys. After a disaster, the parents are often themselves stressed but don’t have the socially acceptable option to play with toys. So playing with their children can be helpful by itself. I like the idea of some sort of signaling device that reminds and alerts parents to moments when their child wants to talk or to show them something. It’s not always a display of anger that requires attention. But you also can’t force the stories. A toy that asks the child to face an issue before he is ready isn’t helpful. Giving the child a choice of what to express is. If you’re going site specific, give the child options to directly relate to the trauma. In New Orleans, boats and water are symbols of what happened.

Lessons: Children relate to toys on a personal level. They use them to frame and re-contextualize traumatic events. Creating positive meaning requires a safe space and tools for the child to explore what has happened. Perhaps the plush toy isn’t the right way to go. (I also don’t know if they are as common in Chile as in the US.) Perhaps it makes more sense to create a series of plastic toys that enable a level of reenactment of events: pieces of traditional houses, people of various sizes, animals and large objects that are central to the disaster and the culture. In turn, these objects become a way of communicating with caregiver about what happened and the need to look forward. If I design something that is more directly comforting (that the child can hug), it should enable the tactile and emotional support of regression; it has to feel right.