Textile/Music Therapy for Children


extiles have been an integral part of helping children create possibilities for change. Trauma, often emotionally experienced, settles equally and quietly into the body. Ultimately, creating more suffering for the child’s relationship with Self and with others.

In this small Toronto studio, children have been participating in many different kinds of therapeutic experiences. The children who come here, have been successful in working through many difficulties in their lives. Part of their experience in healing the trauma that affects their body is with music, movement and textiles. These three essential elements have been front and center, offering children a chance to release the deepest aspects of trauma and re- experience themselves as whole and worthy.

When the studio opens, a young girl arrives. The child, who could bear no more light than what came through an often-transparent or “broken cloth” begins an effort of healing. “I could not figure out why I liked textiles sewn with spaces in them. Why I like the way this woman sewed her cloth, leaving me a way to see the sun through the cloth. I think of why someone would stitch cloth that has spaces. My eyes like it there showing me just enough of the world to start understanding what happened to me,” says  Vayla, age 11, says.

Walking through the inner door of the studio, we begin every session with a silence that naturally occurs for Vayla. The child drops her sweater on the chair, eases off her shoes, with one foot then the other. All the while, Vay’s eyes lift and scan for cloth.  Her body is still. Where her eyes settle, even if for a second, we have learned to begin there. She decides if what is held in visual context for even a moment can extend and open neuron connections to a wider landscape of Vay’s senses, thoughts or feelings.

How can I honor the grace of this small child, whose courage is defined by looking left or right instead of only straight ahead? We both have learned over time to trust the cloth and the longing that makes itself apparent: releasing suffering through all kinds of creative outlets; to bring what is unknown to consciousness, and the worthwhile effort of exploring the wisdom of handmade textiles.

We always find some doorway open; learning new forms of expression, through the body, grit and tears. Building tiny moments of a life where the trauma becomes less concretized, completely generated by the beauty and courage of a child, cloth, music and movement.

Many children who have come my studio to work with textiles–for purposes of healing–have discovered a safe silence. Helpful silence. Silence not born from fear their home will be destroyed if they express themselves. A quality of silence that becomes necessary so grief can release fear and shame. Little by little, a new expression rises. New words form. Trust is re-established, and creative impulses often become the new vehicle for recovering body and soul–their life force energy.

There are indications of deep feelings and connection to the many handmade and botanically dyed story cloths and garments. A handmade book of papers, some from thistle, milkweed and hosta stitched together into a shifu book. Hand-dyed ribbons and an indigo cloth doll and other hand-sewn animals sit with some vitality, clearly meeting the needs of children who have found a myriad of ways to protect themselves and survive. Vay is one of many children who are touched by the textiles and who seem to find safety in exploring them. The textiles, holding silent vital stories, come alive through the touch of a child.

Words may not be enough for some of the children who come here for healing. They have been told all their lives to not talk. Some have been ill and wrestled with the health of their bodies, or have learned what they feel, will threaten the stasis of a dysfunctional family. So they quiet themselves into embodied shame. Vay has arrived here from caring extended family members. The village she lived in was not safe. She learned to look straight ahead and work with her nervous system in constant fight or flight mode. Her words are locked. Her body, too. Into a familiar strategy for living with intense stress. The textiles, hung gently on the walls or clipped onto a hula hoop extended from the ceiling, become active participants in the healing of this small child as well as many other boys and girls.

The children relate to these various aspects of the cloth they hold, and seem to feel they understand or feel close to the person who made the textile. They learn the roots of empathy and gratitude, processing with the fabric over time. Most of the children eventually with one or many textiles, bring the piece from their hands and begin to walk or move around with the chosen cloth. Music is asked for, and the relationship deepens as a child integrates what has been projected onto the cloth, into their psyches. The soul mitigates between body and mind, imagination and reality, and a healing trio begins. Child moving, cloth and music.

Because some children hold trauma as mistrust, handmade cloth provides a way for children to learn how to receive. It can often take months before I can offer a child a cloth. Usually, they choose one. It is not about controlling the cloth through my offering as they can move past my offering and pick another piece. It is the felt experience of how the textile feels in their hands first before the other information in their session, seems to be processed. For some of the children, through the maker’s process of the cloth, this becomes the first time a child has received from another person. It can be like watching wild animals. Deer, squirrel or wolf. Their instincts for survival are keen and in first position. Science shares with us often the animal will respond to its environment thru the amygdala, a small almond-shape part of the brain…and then afterwards, inside of milliseconds, process or make other decisions. Often children will be hypersensitive with their instincts for fight or flight, for example, before they can think what to do or say next. Jungian psychologist, Carl Jung explains throughout his work, the act of creating is also an instinct. Likewise, the cloth serves as a bridge between traumatized responses through instinctual pathways and new responses through the creative instinct.

The stitching of cloth by so many makers from around the world fills each piece with the makers story at the time of creating. There is an energy in that cloth. The natural elements making up sheets of handmade paper create a story, and a path of meandering the maker herself chose, as she gathered the plant matter. Colors and thread texture, hems and corners all are equally sensitive information received by children. Many children shamed away from their authentic personal needs and desires and imagination, paradoxically shame others. They arrive in the studio with long lists from the outside world, of how they would be “mean to others or they’re expressions are just a brick wall.” The cloth safely allows children to begin getting to know what they like and don’t like, how they might want to use the cloth as a healing “friend” as one child said.

As time goes on the cloth no longer stays in the hands of the child. It can happen in one minute, one week or one year. The cloth moves towards the child’s body. The body begins to participate in the session. Often what trauma occurs in a small child, the traumatic moment or event registers in the body as a physical sensation. The brain does its work. Hormones are released. Neurons activate the body to protect itself. Many deeply ingrained processes of the body shift the child so she may be able to live a life in the environment; survive in a home where most likely there has been some level of violence or manipulation, rejection or resentment. The trauma experienced, whether small or large, most often can show up later through symptoms in the body. It can take a lifetime of courage to make those symptoms conscious, so body and soul do not have to suffer. A child need not remember the event or even how she was traumatized. He often simply needs a therapeutic container that is safe and has the highest regard for the child, and that often will be a significant part of a child’s first steps toward healing. A level of safety that registers physically softens the fight or flight response, for example, enough, that the learning of trusting oneself begins.

In the studio, small faces bend toward the cloth. It is gently rubbed on the cheek or held up to the nose to smell whether the remnants of the botanicals used as dye retain the essence of the plants. Vayla, cloth in hand, begins to walk around the studio. Her connection to herself begins by holding the cloth, and her feet begin to move quickly. She looks at me with tears in her eyes and simply says: “It would be good to find Sam Baker now.” Sam Baker is a singer-songwriter.(http://www.npr.org/2014/05/06/310089151/sam-baker-finding-grace-in-the-w…) His journey through living a life creatively amidst pain and suffering, resonates in the quality of storytelling and singing. His music has helped children stop trembling. His words hold a poetic rhythm that does not come from a shielded life. You can be soothed or rocked into an awakening that steadies a small child to know what calm breathing feels like for her. Sam Baker’s songs can bring a child to the floor with the lightness of a textile on her belly, and his story, words and pauses support her moving as if the sound were medicine. Sam Baker’s voice, his honest story resonating from his singing, allows a child to feel the possibility of movement without threat. Children’s bodies, traumatized, can often look stiff and feel uncomfortable when asked to move outside of their “safety walk”.  Sam Baker’s music encourages children to move often the cloth in all directions, soon followed by their feet or their shoulders. The tone of a voice can lend trust to a child’s body before he is even aware that he is moving in a new and more engaged way. The cloth is a moving mirror for the child’s new contact with space. After many movement sessions with Sam’s music, children are moving their bodies as if they had attended a contemporary dance class. All the while, led by the cloth. All the while music and movement and cloth, encourage the child’s imagination, and freedom is witnessed. Expression of the new life builds strength and welcome. Sam Baker’s honesty includes knowing that sometimes things do not change. His honesty also extends to the children with words and tenderness. An understanding that the imagination can continue supporting a person to engage in the outer world and within their inner world….even if some things cannot change.

Trauma can easily excavate a child from their bodies. Music and movement, along with a botancially dyed textile, can often allow the child to understand what we mean when we say: to come back into our bodies, be present and feel like we belong here. Valerianna Claf,(http://ravenwoodforest.blogspot.ca/) an artist, teacher and singer is often requested by the children when they choose a cloth. Her music is earthed and spiritual. A child once made a drawing after moving with a cloth to Valerianna’s music. It was the green leaves of a lily. Not yet flowering. The child explained that listening to Valerianna’s song, made her feel “the pull of the roots of the flower not yet out, and at the same time, the pull of the green to meet the sunshine.”

The children work with music and movement. They request Valerianna’s music and enjoy the pieces that have no words. They like the soundings she makes. These children almost always move slowly. Feeling how their bodies might move in ways they usually cannot. Will not. Valerianna Claf’s music is very grounding for the children and at the same time it seems to lift their spirits. Their bodies most often stay close to the floor, the cloths wave and roll, or are explored in ways they have not done before. Her music invites children to explore the cloth’s stitching and texture as they position themselves and move in ways that sitting at a desk or on a chair may limit their view or explorations. Valerianna sings songs that reflect and resonate with the environment around her, often in caves or outside, with a drum, voice and sometimes other musicians. She listens deeply and plays in response to the unique conversations between the inner world and the outer world. Her tones and soundings are deeply rooted in her love of trees, her trust in nature and the wellspring of many variations on healing the planet. Her music, along with a child exploring the environment through body movement, and a textile, gives hints and reminders, that healing through authentic natural sound, can help a child creatively move through suffering, and feel her place in the world.

The day is shifting to early evening. The inky blue light enters the studio, and a little boy arrives. He pulls several cloths from the walls; sits in the middle of the studio and rocks. His mom walks in with a small “boom box”. This small child asks to have both Sam’s music on and Valerianna’s. The combination of their sounds raises the boy to his feet, and he takes a gaggle of dyed ribbons and runs wild around the room. He had arrived with a teacher’s note from his new school, letting me know he is very shy and rarely speaks or moves in class. All arts have been cut from the curriculum at his school. Most of the time, he must sit and “learn.” Here, in this small studio, a child begins to return to the basic core of his original rhythm as a human being. He places a botanically dyed cloth on the large drum and taps his fingers. The beat he coaxes from the drums is rooted in the mixing of Sam Bakers and Valerianna Claf’s music. He watches as the cloth bounces along with his beat of the drum. His feet become a part of the musicality of his effort in learning new ways of expression. Learning new ways, through the meaningful triad of music, cloth and movement.