The Polka Theatre in Wimbledon creates free workshops for children’s well-being

After a year of uncertainty, loneliness and fear, both children and adults are experiencing a rise in mental health problems – dubbed “the silent pandemic”.

But arts organisations in South London are combatting this, using art and theatre to explore negative feelings and stay connected.

The Polka Theatre in Wimbledon has created a number of free workshops for schools to help children with their wellbeing.

Jean Marc artwork

The mission of the children’s theatre is to help young people navigate their way through the world, and this hasn’t changed in the last year – although the world has.

Peter Glanville, Artistic Director and joint CEO of the Polka Theatre, said: “It became really clear that this pandemic was so hard for children.

“They’re not being able to be at school, to have play dates with friends, to go to the cinema, or to go to the theatre.

They’re not being able to engage in all these activities that are not just lots of fun, but also they’re really important developmental interactions.”

The theatre saw that a lot of effort was being put into supporting children catching up on learning, but there was a gap in support for their wellbeing.

Mr Glanville added: “Children need to feel secure and happy in themselves to be able to learn.”

The workshops are teacher-led and contain a video as well as activity sheets, all of which are free and available online.

Each video features a puppet named Mo who is living through the pandemic, and the children are asked to think about how he feels and what solutions there might be.

Mr Glanville said: “As much as possible it’s getting the children to come up with the responses to some of those questions as well so it’s really engaging them, and in thinking about Mo, they’re thinking about how they’ve responded and what they’ve done as well.

“It can be a difficult area to know how to approach and one of the advantages of using drama and puppets and things like that is that you’re working through it vicariously.

You’re talking about it through a different character.”

Feedback from schools has been positive.

Aisling Dougan Cleary, a teacher at Merton Abbey Primary School, praised the workshops, saying they were engaging and child-friendly.

She added: “The children are actively involved in the workshop and have opportunities to engage in discussion with one another throughout.”

Lewisham based charity Arts Network has also helped those with mental health issues over the last year, by launching a magazine.

The organisation, which provides arts and crafts workshops for people with severe and long-term mental health issues, has also moved their events online

The magazine, called Stay Connected, features creative projects, tips and interviews, and has had 1,200 readers since it began.

Arts Network Founder and CEO Mo Saunders said: “We’re already seeing increased demand for our services and we fear a mental ill health crisis will follow from the Covid pandemic. 

“When people are with us they are not labelled as someone with a mental illness – they’re just artists. It gives them a sense of self-respect, they learn new creative skills and start to build up social connections in a really supportive environment.”

Photos: Peter Glanville, credit Mica Lawrence. Artwork done by Jean Marc, 61, at Arts Network workshops


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