Going into the Juvenile Arthritis Conference at the Arizona Grand Resort and Spa this past weekend, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I wanted to teach kids with JA the healing power of movement, how it can connect the mind and the body and how it can help us process our emotions, but I didn’t know that they would in fact teach me.
Our First Creative Movement Workshop
Heading into the conference room full of 5th and 6th graders running around, throwing balls, and hanging out with their new friends was certainly a sight to see.
I don’t know if I had expected them to be seated quietly awaiting my arrival, but I don’t think I expected to be walking into what seemed like a school recess. The energy they had was infectious. Good thing, because to keep them attentive for the next hour would be no easy feat.
I had planned my creative movement workshop to the minute. I had thought of all of the ways we would express our emotional journeys with the disease through physical movements. I had planned to break the kids into groups, have them work independently, give them time to really think about how having JA made them feel emotionally, and then present back to the group their own individual movement sequences in which they would be telling their story of struggle with JA. Walking into the room on Saturday afternoon to see all of the kids running around and having fun told me to throw my plans out the window. So, I listened to the moment and came up with a new plan on the spot.
After gathering the children into a large circle, we started with some light stretches to get our bodies prepped for moving. With so many children in such a large space, surrounded by their friends, they were attentive to start, but I knew their attention wouldn’t last long. Breaking them into groups and allowing them to work independently would turn into complete chaos, so we stayed in our circle, and played a name game.
I started by explaining to the kids that movement can be anything from dance, to riding a bike, to playing a sport, even breathing! Our bodies are always in motion, just as the world is around us. Even the planet itself is flying through space! Movement can be anything! Big or small! So, I told them, we would go around the circle one at a time stating our name and then doing one movement that describes something about ourselves. The group would then try to guess what that movement means about the person. Then, the entire circle would recreate that movement as best they could while greeting that child by name.
I went first. I told them my name was Kristin, placed my hands together in front of me, shook them up and down, and opened my hands as if to drop something. “What do you think that movement means?” I asked to the 40 or so faces staring back at me. My favorite answer of the conference came from a boy I had later in my 7th and 8th grade group. He replied, “It means that you like to take risks!” “Smart kid,” I thought. Some kids guessed Yahtzee, some thought board games, many yelled “Dice!” “What do you think my last name is?” I answered to their guesses. And they all got it, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh!” Kristin Deiss. That’s my name, and that was my movement. So the whole group shook their invisible dice while saying, “Hi Kristin!” And on we went, one child at a time.
The kids all did such a wonderful job, and much to my surprise, most were completely engaged and seemed to be having a lot of fun thinking about what they wanted to express about themselves. Many came up with movements to indicate that they liked playing sports such as basketball and soccer, others showed movement representing writing or painting, and some kids even whipped out some pretty hard dance moves and acrobats! One little boy even wrapped himself into a pretzel! Of course, every child’s ability to move was different given how they were feeling that day, some children were participating from seated positions in chairs rather than standing and, of course, not every child could do the worm, wrap themselves into a pretzel, or do a cartwheel. But the kids did what they could and they each showed up for each other, supported each other, modified movements when they needed to, and learned about each other.
One little girl came up with a movement to represent her love for acting, another boy a love for buying shoes. One of my favorites was when a boy, after stating his name, dropped to the floor and lay there perfectly still. “Sleeping!” all the children yelled. “He loves to sleep!”
After the name game, we sat back down and I explained to the children that just like this game showed us, movement can tell stories, can mean something. It is a great way not just to keep our bodies moving, but also a way to express ourselves and work out emotions that we may be feeling. I spoke about how hard it sometimes is to talk about having JA, to find the right words for our experiences, but maybe moving our bodies in a way that we love, in whatever capacity we can, can help us express those feelings.
I could tell their attention after that long experiment was quickly fading, so I told them it was free dance time, played some “Happy” by Pharrell through the speakers, and watched them go back to playing, dancing, and just being kids.
The children in both workshops that day never once came up with a movement that described anything about having JA as a condition or as a limitation. They taught me that they see themselves as more than their disease, that even though they may experience flare ups and pain, they still love to play video games, they still love “being a pretty little princess” (as one boy curtsied to express- so cute!), and that they are still so much more than their JA.
It took me a long time to realize that myself, and an even longer time to actually believe it: that I am more than my limitations, I am more than my JA. Sure, it is apart of us, but it does not need to define us. Those kids in those workshops that day, consciously or not, showed themselves and each other that JA does not define them. Instead, it is something that brought them all together in that conference room in Arizona, something that they connected over, something they had in common, something that was part of their lives, not the entirety of their lives. It is one part of them, along with their love of sports, acting, shoes, and even sleeping.