The following is an opinion piece from a former CASA volunteer, Briana DeFranco:
Suicide among children and youth, especially those in foster care, was a concern prior to the pandemic. The disconnectedness in a COVID world requires us to be even more vigilant on this front. Schools may close, CASA visits may be suspended, and our youth may not be permitted to see biological relatives, friends, teachers, or therapists. Until the pandemic resolves the potential exists for a breakdown within the scope of care and attention we usually provide, but the children we serve do not have the luxury of waiting for such a resolution.
If our CASA youth undertake hobbies they may assume a positive new way of regarding themselves and experience a reduction in stress, anger, fear, depression, and hopelessness. The hobby itself is enjoyable and is a new skill learned, but there are secondary benefits as well. A hobby becomes a vehicle for positively coping with emotions and is an outlet always available to comfort them when nothing or no one else can.
The most well-suited hobbies for our CASA children are those that can move with them and cost little to nothing: knitting, chess, reading, yoga and meditation, drawing, and creative writing are just some that hit these marks.
The soothing repetition of knitting thrusts the holder of yarn and needles into a somewhat meditative state where mindfulness can be achieved. Knitting has an organic way of keeping the knitter’s thoughts affixed to the task at hand, and the tactile factor and colors of the yarn can be especially pleasing to the senses. Knitting has been used as a therapeutic tool for veterans suffering from PTSD as well as inmates in prison. As a knitter I understand the appeal of such a hobby for those suffering emotional or mental strain, but I also see knitting as a preventative measure.
Knitting can be learned at a very young age: my daughter finished a simple scarf when she was just 7-years-old. Scarves are not the extent of the wonderful world of knitting. There are patterns for toys, jewelry, handbags; the possibilities are truly endless. Some first steps in getting your CASA child started with knitting are to watch tutorials online, pick up a knitting book at the library, or visit a local yarn shop. The latter is the most ideal because they’ll advise you on which yarn and needles to buy, they’ll have the necessary items in their shop, and they’ll get you started with the actual knitting part. Something your CASA youth can look forward to: in a post-COVID world they may be able to start their own knitting group and meet regularly with like-minded peers either at school or places in the community. Knitting can be done alone or with others, and it can be done anywhere and anytime. Ravelry.com is the best resource for all things knitting.
Activities requiring nothing beyond the self are yoga and meditation. Yoga. Meditation. Mindfulness. These may be terms we’re beginning to hear more often but they are not new-age concepts. Stretching and doing dynamic movements, or sitting quietly and attempting to clear the mind, have been practices done for many years. The library has books and there are videos online that can coach you through yoga sequences and meditation exercises.
Sometimes a tool can be helpful in achieving mindfulness. In the realm of meditation there is something called mala. Mala is a collection of beads strung into a bracelet or necklace to be removed for meditation and held in the hand. One-by-one the beads are rotated while breathing in and out or even repeating a mantra of one’s choosing. This is a simple item that a child can always have on hand to cope with challenging emotions. Mala bracelets and necklaces can be made at home, or they can be found online, especially on etsy.com.
Chess is simply a classic. Contrary to myth, being a prodigy is not a prerequisite to this incredibly fun critical thinking activity. Chess can be done by playing against the computer on a website like lichess.org. Of course chess can be played with someone else in person, but if physical distancing remains a concern it can be played against a friend at the aforementioned website. An inexpensive travel-size board can be found online, and an accompanying book explaining the moves and rules would be most helpful in getting started.
Guided creative writing books are another easy hobby that require nothing more than the book, and a pen or pencil. There are two in particular that I have personal experience with: Write Your Own Book (for grades 3-7) and Rip the Page (for grades 4 and up). The writing can be completed in the book itself and the exercises are fun, inspiring, and thought provoking. Both of the books mentioned can be found online.
Guided activities solve the problem of how a child will take on a new hobby without assistance, and drawing by this method is another possibility. It’s simple enough to give pencil and paper to a child and advise them to draw or create art, but for the distracted or upset child, guided drawing provides a specific goal and correlating steps to achieve that goal.
If your CASA child does not take a liking to any of these suggestions, then attempt to discover what her interests are. Is there something she likes that she can learn to do or produce on her own? For example, if he likes a favorite show, encourage him to write a script for one of his own. If she enjoys listening to music, encourage her to write her own lyrics.
Let’s give our CASA children something they can do with their hands and minds, something to be proud of, something to take with them no matter where they go or what their present circumstances are. Let’s give them a constant in a world that is always evolving. We may not be able to completely change their external environment, but we can help them grow and flourish within themselves. A hobby keeps the hands and mind busy and it makes the heart smile. Give them a hobby and save their lives.
Briana DeFranco was a CASA during the early 2000s and has been living around the country and abroad since then. She homeschools three of her four children and drew upon work with her CASA child and motherhood as a source of inspiration for this article. She is currently a freelance writer and cannot recall what she did in her free time before she learned to knit and sew.