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Friday, Dec 18, 2015

Making up for lost time—therapeutic recreation and creative conversations

 In the warmly lit kitchen of an old Shaker house, a fifteen year old boy picks up a paring knife and starts to scrape the red-green skin from an apple. “My mom uses a knife for this at home too.” The head chef appears from flouring dough to gently correct the angle of the knife. Try to cut down, instead of across. He watches the chef demonstrate, and then tries for himself. The slicing resumes at a quicker pace and discarded peels drop to the table. Across the kitchen, another student rolls out pie dough and looks out the window. It’s not apparent right away, but this pie-baking class is doing more than teaching kids that cold water makes better crust.image

As he mixes the sliced apples with cinnamon and sugar, “I think I want to be a chef,” he announces.

A caring community

Most young men who come to Berkshire’s residential treatment center in Canaan, NY, usually don’t know what to expect from the time they will spend on the rural campus. From backgrounds bruised with poverty, negligence, or bad habits that went too far, they arrive with equal parts hope and fear.

Therapeutic recreation at Berkshire gives students room to explore their interests and learn skills they might have missed out on growing up.

Ropes challenge courses, a mini bike program, and art and cooking classes offer students space away from residential programs, while weaving in opportunities for mentorship, learning, and team building.

“Therapeutic recreation is about fostering a kind of caring community,” says Therapeutic Activities Coordinator Gerry Hinman. “It’s about being respectful, in all of the activities we do.”

Learning to engage

Adventure-based counseling, which involves a ropes challenge course for individuals and groups, and National Youth Project Using Mini Bikes (NYPUM), which certifies students in riding mini bikes, are the staple programs of therapeutic recreation at Berkshire. For its seven years of operation, students have learned to conquer Berkshire’s 2,000 acre trail system, and it remains the most popular recreation program on campus.

“NYPUM has become a wildly popular program that kids ask about and almost demand participation,” says Hinman. “We have the happy problem of having more kids interested in the program than we have bikes.”

This happy problem is the result of staff’s ability to pinpoint students’ interests, which engages them more meaningfully and effectively.

imageWhen a few students expressed interest in culinary arts, Berkshire invited two chefs from the Lenox, MA, spa resort Canyon Ranch to give students monthly cooking classes. With the chefs’ help, they learn common kitchen skills and experience the near meditative acts of molding dough, cutting vegetables, and waiting for meals to cook in the oven. They work as a team to accomplish goals that will serve the whole group, and they master skills that will serve them when it’s time to live on their own.

More recently, students attended a pottery class in nearby Troy, NY, where they threw clay on the wheel and shaped the square blocks into usable dishes. They learned about the pottery-making process, how the clay needs to be guided into the desired shape, and then baked in a kiln before glazing the pots with chosen colors and baked again.

One student realized that day that he wanted to become an artist. “I want my sister to become an artist too,” he said. “She’s five years old.”

Transformations over time

The point of therapeutic recreation at Berkshire is to find paths to healing through activities that are unfamiliar and demand focus, patience, and a determination to learn. Through new experiences and creative conversations, students are better equipped to break through the fear and obstacles keeping them from success.

Students take on these mental stumbling blocks through challenges in the adventure-based counseling ropes course.

“When they’re climbing up a tree and traversing over a wire to the other side—it’s about them being able to realize a sense of accomplishment that they pushed through some of the fears they might have had,” says Hinman. “A lot of times, that’s with the support of the group.”

Hinman and the other recreation staff take time aside from activities to talk to students about their lives at Berkshire, and how they are taking care of themselves.

image“We talk about the transformations that took place when they first came to Berkshire, when they didn’t think they could do something, they struggled, and they fell,” says Hinman. “And what it took for them to get back up.”
In NYPUM, Hinman uses the mini bike as a direct metaphor for life.

“If they don’t check the oil, the tires, the chain—that could be dangerous,” says Hinman. “What is hurting you, the machine, the person?” Through sharing ideas and checking in with each other, students learn to give feedback and trust the people around them.

“That’s what therapeutic recreation is—any time there is an opportunity to teach, to mentor, to find teachable moments—that’s the difference between joining a baseball team and the activities we use to engage our students.”

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