‘Express Yourself ‘ is the theme for this year’s Place2Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week, running from 1st to 7th February. The idea being that by connecting the mind, body and imagination when expressing ourselves creatively, can help us feel better about ourselves. As an added bonus, this can help us to process and overcome challenges and issues in our lives.

At a time when many of us are feeling disconnected, helpless, frustrated and out of control during the pandemic, ‘Express Yourself’ is a particularly pertinent theme.

Many of our children are not coping and they are communicating this to us with their behaviour, especially when they can’t put their feelings into words. Being able to Express Yourself is not about trying to be the best at something but instead about finding a way to convey who you are and how you see the world – and making you feel good about yourself whilst you are doing this.

CAL interventions are always focused on encouraging our young people to express their thoughts and feelings in order to help regulate their emotions and behaviours. To best facilitate these conversations, CAL uses our dogs creatively with a variety of activities. By shifting the focus to the dog, its emotions, behaviours and calming strategies, it is less intimidating to then reflect on their own.

We believe creativity has always played an important role in our sessions, but now that schools are closed and our sessions have moved online, we’ve had to become even more resourceful with how we engage with children and have to ‘think out of the box’! How can our young people still reap the benefits of our canine interventions, without actually touching the dog? And how much more vital now is it that we try to keep our young people afloat during these restrictions?

Well, who knew that ‘virtual hunt the biscuit’ could be so rewarding to both child and dog?! Armed with a personal CAL lockdown activity pack containing a dog biscuit amongst other things, delivered in lockdown, the child instructs where to hide it and offers encouragement to the dog to find it….with the instant reward of smiles and a wagging tail. It’s a simple yet rewarding activity to engage the child. The mental health champion Natasha Devon, described Rosie the CAL dog as ‘an instant happy maker’ when they met at the Festival for Higher Education. That’s true for all of our dogs.

Tracing the child’s finger around a star shaped picture of their regular session dog, has encouraged calm, measured breathing. The child instructing the practitioner to draw their worries in (an edible ) felt tip pen on a dog biscuit, then watching it being happily chomped online and ‘never seen again’, has also been very rewarding – for all parties! Children are also creating storyboards for little dog videos which are then easily made and shared.

Using a dog ‘postage stamp’ from their CAL lockdown activity pack, children are writing to their dog and expressing their feelings in words and pictures. Together, we’ve tried to ‘do something for others’ by making fat balls for the birds for us to watch together. Even just going on a virtual dog walk, being in nature and learning to appreciate tiny things, has been invaluable.

All of these activities, in combination with our engaging dogs, are giving the children with whom we work, the chance to express themselves. Some of our families also seem to be enjoying the sessions as much as we do!