Sharing the Story Massage Programme with Refugee Children

The Story Massage Programme brought smiles to the faces of both refugee children and volunteers at The Children’s Centre in Dunkirk Refugee Camp. As one volunteer said, “Hearing those little voices sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as they massaged each others’ backs felt quite magical in such a sad and desperate situation.”

Massage Stories at The Children’s Centre

Mary Atkinson, co-founder of the Story Massage Programme, spent a week at Dunkirk Refugee Camp with Sue Cooper, a Story Massage Instructor. There are around 1,500 refugees living on the camp, fleeing terrifying situations in war-torn countries. It is a male-dominated environment with only 150 women and 200 children. The Children’s Centre has been set up to provide much-needed routine and stimulation through creative activities and play-based learning for children from 0-11, with under threes accompanied by a guardian.

“We were so impressed by the passion and kindness of the volunteers who are working so hard to give vulnerable children a start in education,” says Mary, “and very happy that they are now planning to use the programme as part of their daily routine.

Benefits of Positive Touch Activities for Refugee Children

“Children in refugee camps experience extremely high levels of anxiety and stress. As well as being detrimental to health and wellbeing, chronic stress in the formative years can cause lifelong negative impacts on health and development,” says Freya, (pictured below, left), an inspiring and compassionate teacher who set up the Children’s Centre with a colleague a year ago,

“One of the main aims of the Children’s Centre is to provide a space where children feel safe and calm to help them build resilience to adverse experiences and improve health and wellbeing. We do this in many ways such as by supporting a core team of long term volunteers so the children always see a familiar face, maintaining the same routine and structure to each day and using positive behaviour management strategies. Sensory activities and positive physical touch are also essential for helping calm, soothe and regulate a child’s emotions. We are always looking for new activities that promote relaxation so we were very pleased to find out more about the Story Massage Programme.”

Challenges of Sessions for Refugees

Mary and Sue faced two main challenges to running a session in the Children’s Centre:

  • poor concentrations levels, the children find it hard to focus for any length of time
  • the language barrier, children come from many different countries with varying levels of communicating in English.

“The volunteers were all keen to know more about the Story Massage Programme,” says Mary, “but the children didn’t seem to want to sit still or even understand what we were saying. So we started straightaway by demonstrating Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as a massage story. At first only a few children were interested, but then they started to join in and we had a wonderful session with lots of fun and laughter. They loved asking permission and saying ‘thank you’ to each other in English too.” (Photos of the children’s faces have been blanked out so they remain anonymous for obvious reasons.)

“Later in the day we saw children massaging each other and singing songs,” says Mary, “It was really rewarding to see them reaching out to each other in such a positive way. It is hard to imagine the sights these young children have witnessed and the fear and uncertainty they are experiencing. As Freya has said, it is so important that they have relaxation in their lives. Their faces looked happy and they were just having fun.”

Popular Songs for Massage Story Activities

Mary had prepared a session but she soon realised the need to be flexible and began by asking the children about their favourite songs. These included Five Little Ducks Went SwimmingFive Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed and The Wheels on the Bus, all perfect for the Story Massage Programme. “Everyone was joining in, singing the words and massaging each other with the appropriate strokes,” says Mary, “They seemed to relax into the activity and instantly ‘got’ it – no need for explanations or instructions. It was all very natural, whatever their age or language.”

Another popular song during the session was Old MacDonald Had a Farm. With the help of World Nursery Rhyme Week and Crown Preschool in Vancouver, Canada, Mary had prepared a copy of the song in Farsi, a language spoken by many of the refugees. It involves repetition with the Story Massage strokes making it ideal for the situation. Mary and Sue encouraged the children to call out names of animals at the appropriate time so everyone was fully engaged in the activity. “We learnt a few words of Farsi too,” says Mary. You can see the the words of the massage story here: Old MacDonald Had a Farm as a Story Massage. 

Sharing Massage Stories with Mums and Babies

Mary and Sue also introduced the Story Massage Programme at a regular Mums and Babies session at the Women’s Centre at the camp. Held in a quiet and comfortable women-only space, it is an opportunity for Mums to have a special time to play and bond with their babies away from the harsh reality of the camp. Once again, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Old MacDonald Had a Farm proved a real success when shared in both English and Farsi. One particular baby (pictured below with Mary) began by smiling and giggling and then completely relaxed. Her mother took copies so she could learn the words in English and share massage stories with her 6 month old daughter every day!

More about the Story Massage Programme

The Story Massage Programme combines the benefits of positive touch with the creativity of storytelling. Ten massage strokes form the basis of the programme. These strokes have a simple name, such as The Circle or The Sprinkle, and an easy to recognise symbol making it fully accessible for all ages and abilities. We have published a book and DVD and run an online training course for professionals and parents wishing to share massage stories in their work or home life. More information here: Story Massage Online Training.