The Talking Tree

In 2015, I documented play sessions with Lesley, a little girl of eight, who, at the age of three had suddenly been removed from the care of her parents because she was thought to be at risk because of their addiction to drugs and alcohol.  Such a traumatic experience would have been emotionally painful for both Lesley and her parents.  In later conversations with Lesley’s mother, she told me that she was given no prior warning that her little girl was being taken away by the authorities and she had no time to explain to Lesley that she would have to leave home immediately with people she didn’t know.  Following this enforced separation, Lesley’s mother plummeted into  dispair, using her drug habit to blot out the pain of what had occurred.  Meanwhile, Lesley had three placements with families in short term foster care but was rapidly removed from her third placement because of suspected physical abuse of a younger child.  Eventually at the age of four,  she was given a long term placement with an aunt.

Having been taken without warning from the only home she had ever known, to be initially placed with with strangers, would have been traumatising for Lesley , strongly impacting her emotional and mental development  and interfering with her cognitive ability to understand and manage overwhelming emotions .  Lesley’s ability to trust and to recognise the emotions and body language of others in her environment would be seriously affected.  For most of us, the memory of a frightening event eventually fades or is transformed over time into something more benign. However, because of the trauma of the event  experienced, many are unable to make such events from their past into the story of something that happened long ago. Feelings surrounding the original experience are therefore spontaneously  triggered in daily life because severe trauma shuts down areas of the brain that are required  to allow us to fully process the experience and separate past from present.   We can only process frightening memories of our experience if they do not overwhelm us. When children fully recall their traumas, they revisit the experience and are engulfed by sensory and emotional elements of the past.

 Fear and a lack of trust inhibit a child’s coping mechanisms. Emotional loss and separation bring feelings of anxiety, anger, sadness or hopelessness.  Hopelessness leads to helplessness and loss of identity and disempowerment.  Until the age of seven years, the brain is primarily a sensory processing machine (Ayres J. 1979). The child senses things and gets meaning directly from their sensations.  If all is well, the child is able to integrate these sensations through moving, talking, playing etc. and these activities provide the groundwork for the more complex sensory integration of reading, writing and positive behaviour.   We are meant to enjoy things that promote development of the brain.  When the child’s energy is affected by fear or threat the child will feel shaky, tearful and vulnerable and any future change can feel threatening.

For the first seven years of life the child is developing and strengthening their personal energy field. This process is dependent on the child’s experiences, their perception of their environment and the thoughts and emotional responses of significant people in their lives. During this early period the child mirrors the emotions of their primary care giver and key adults in their lives and will respond  fearfully to any tension in the environment.  Lesley hid sweets and chocolate in her bedroom and told me that she liked to eat sugary things if she was worried or if she heard grownups arguing.

Trauma impacts on many levels and at the time of our play session, Lesley’s vision was impaired and glasses were prescribed, she had been diagnosed with a conductive hearing loss which affects sound being conducted to her middle and inner ear. When we are severely stressed and anxious our internal balance is disrupted producing high levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in the body. This in turn impacts on our ability to see and hear clearly. Lesley was awaiting the insertion of grommets, a procedure where a small tube is inserted into the eardrum in order to keep the middle ear aerated for a prolonged period of time and to prevent the accumulation of fluid in the middle ear.

Where there is an emotional hunger because of earlier deprivation, children may request sugary foods when anxious.  Lesley’s emotional hunger prompted her to conceal biscuits and sweets under her bed in case the need arose.  Contact with her birth mother was intermittent and took place at a pre-arranged destination monitored by social workers. Over time, her experiences prompted an intense fear of change. Feeling threatened by any sort of change would have an impact on  future relationships with a need to control her life so that she was not again caught off guard.

Play Props

Material in rainbow colours in different textures for tent making and dressing up.

The rays of the sun contain seven different colours and each colour vibrates at a specific frequency within the rainbow spectrum.  We are able to feel the vibration of colour as well as see it.   Each colour of the rainbow corresponds to a specific energy centre (chakra) in health.  Introducing rainbow coloured material in different textures offers the child an opportunity to choose the colour and material for the vibration and sensory experience they require.

Folding laundry ladder – to provide a shelter


 Play Session

By offering the child a space and providing a few simple props they are able to create a character for themselves and be in their own fantasy world.  This offers the child an opportunity to explore what they need to explore in their own way and at their own pace.

The adult’s role is to observe, wait and listen; to only get involved and take on a role if invited to do so. It is of paramount importance that in the play situation the adult follows the lead of the child and does not try to take the story or the child’s play where they feel it should go or try and hurry it to a conclusion.

Using a folding laundry ladder to provide the basic framework, Lesley made herself a tent and covered it in green, orange and pink silk.  For her costume she chose to be wrapped in pale blue chiffon with a peach ribbon around her waist to hold the material in place.   Finding a place for me to sit, Lesley asked me to be a tree that could talk. Wrapping me in a trunk of brown material, she coiled a swathe of emerald green chiffon around my head to represent the canopy of leaves. Lesley then tied pieces of green silk to my wrists to ‘wave, like branches’ she said.

Lesley disappeared into her house (tent) and after a few moments emerged with the bucket and told the tree that she lived alone in the forest (a feeling of loss and abandonment) but had run out of water (life giving nourishment) and was going with her bucket to look for a stream of clear water at the bottom of the hill.  However, Lesley soon returned looking downhearted because she was unable to fetch water in her bucket, telling the tree that the stream at the bottom of the hill had dried up. (Lesley’s perception of her inability to regain what she had lost.) She sat down next to the tree and asked what she should do. The tree said that where there are trees, there is always water and she would know where to look (offering the child an opportunity for empowerment) After a pause, Lesley told the tree that she would climb to the top of the hill with her bucket and see if she could find some water up there. She disappeared behind the tent and re-emerged excitedly saying that she had filled her bucket with water from a well she had found behind a big stone at the top of the hill.  However, she told the tree that she wanted to keep the well a secret because ‘people robbed her and always stole her things’ ( her perception of the world ).

Lesley asked me to write the story down and read it back to her and when I had finished, she asked me to write.  ‘My story is very good for children 5-6 years old.  Read it and be happy.’  She then drew a picture of her story (see above).

Fun is the child’s word for sensory integration. All children need to play and use their play to make sense of their experiences and to make sense of what is happening around them. Through play, they are able to channel overwhelming feelings and ‘play out’ situations that they feel powerless to resolve.

I later discovered from Lesley’s family that when Lesley was two, prior to being removed from her parents, her birth mother often carried her outside to look at a  tree and together through the seasons, they would look up at the blue sky through the leaves and branches. This tree must therefore have been a very special memory for Lesley and a means of connecting  her to her mother.

Jennifer’s work with children is documented in Sensory Rainbow and Happy Talk, available as free downloads at the Living Memory Research Trust