At Horse Boy here in Elgin Texas, every six weeks a large, themed multi-family playdate is hosted for our local Autism families. Following up from our Winter Wonderland Christmas playdate, on Saturday 11th March 2017, we hosted our first big Carnival Playdate here at New Trails for all our families.
“Carnival” is the tradition of having an extravagant street festival before the lenten period, where people dress up in costumes celebrating freedom and merriment. It is widely celebrated in countries such as Peru, Brazil, many Caribbean Islands and even in Florida, New Orleans, and Germany. In the Street Festivals, there are several “Bands” which each have a unique exhibition, made up of several accessory “sections”.
For this special playdate, the Horse Boy “Band” was called “ THE ANIMALS OF NEW TRAILS”, and each family represented a section of the different animals we have here at our Ranch. For this extravagant affair we set up an array of enticing Carnival themed activities for all our families to enjoy, whilst listening to the sounds of traditional calypso music gently being played in the background.
“ One Good thing about Music, when it hits you feel no pain!”-Bob Marley
In Trinidad and Tobago where I come from, the national musical Instrument is the steelpan. This is a percussion instrument made from industrial steep drums, and every year at Carnival several bands of pannist, known as steelbands, take part in a musical competition, which we call Panorama where they play popular Calypso music arranged into an instrumental piece.
By simply using tin foil plates, coloured bristle board,cut dowels, and cardboard we were able to make little steelpan instruments for our New Trails Steelband. For this activity instead of typical music sheets with symbols, we provided the pannist with the music sheet : Tac Taca Tac, Tac Takita Tac, Taca Taca Taca Tac, Tac Takita Tac. We then wrote the sounds Ta, Ca, Taca, Takita onto the different notes of the steelpan.
Using cut dowels as pan sticks, families were invited to try to play the musical sheet by hitting the sticks onto the notes that corresponded with the sheet. When the stick hits the tin foil the vibration produces sounds of different pitches which children on the spectrum really enjoy. It’s also a fun fine motor and cognitive task as it isn’t easy coordinating using two alternating hands to strike the notes on the pan, while also trying to follow the musical sheet and remember where each note is placed.
New Trails Moko Jumbie:
A Moko Jumbie, is a person who walks and dances on tall stilts during the Carnival Celebrations. The word “Moko” is an African derived term for ‘God’, and “Jumbie” is a West Indian word meaning ‘Spirit’. The Moko Jumbie is symbolic of the divine that overlooks its people and keeps them safe from evil.
As making tall stilts for kids would be quite dangerous, we were able to recreate the imagine of the Moko Jumbie by using decorated tin cans of varying sizes and attaching ropes so that parents and kids can stand on them and try walking around the sand arena. This requires a lot of balance and coordination and as you have to use the rope to help lift your leg and keep the tin can underneath your foot as you move forward. Even just trying to put on the “tin stilts” takes some time, balance and concentration. One looks quite silly at first and no one could resist laughing at themselves each time they lost balance and fell onto the soft sand.
This is a fun and useful movement and balance activity as it activates the vestibular system and cerebellum, areas in the brain responsible for attention, motor and social skills, and stimulates the production of Purkinje cells which help create neural pathways and networks between the different areas of the brain.
“Make Your Mask”, and Face Painting: The Art of Disguise!
In true Carnival Fashion, we provided craft activities for the families to enjoy dressing themselves up in costume. The animal sections of our new Trails band were Horse, Goat, Chicken, Rabbit, Porcupine, Spider, Pig and Shark. Although we don’t have any sharks on our ranch here in Texas, we has a section called Shark where kids could make shark masks as on playdates a kids song “Baby Shark” had become popular, and many kids love under the sea animals.
Paper plates, cardboard, and popsicle sticks were used for structure of the masks. The cardboard was cut into circles, primed in white, and stapled to the popsicle sticks. An easy tip is to reuse the circular cardboard you get when you buy frozen pizza if you wish to save time cutting out circles, and its also a great excuse to eat pizza !
In the weeks leading up to this playdate we collected clean bird feathers from our chicken coup, quills from the porcupine which we cut into beads to make them safe for children, and using paper plates we were able to make antlers and different animal ears. In containers we provided all the different animal parts ears, nose, hair,feathers, teeth and suppled lots of colourful paint for the families to construct their animal masks.
Children with Autism are known to have varying sensory processing difficulties. As a result some genuinely enjoy having their face painted while others absolutely refuse. It was important for us to have options for both these sensory needs. Constructing a mask is great for kids who do not wish for their face to painted ! For the kids who enjoy having their face painted we provided masks that had the center fully cut out so they can decorate the edge of the mask and hold it as a frame for their face which was painted as the animal which they chose to represent.
One Teenage boy requested specifically to have his face painted like a Wolf Spider, a task which was quite tricky but nonetheless he guided us every step of the way . Using his phone he would check what his face looked like and guide us to make the necessary adjustments . “ Whilst you may be the artist, this is my face!” he would say, a perfect example of the self advocacy we encourage in persons on the spectrum who attend our playdates and sessions here at Horse Boy. He was simply stating that although he understands there are limitations to the artists’ talent and ability to produce a perfect result, he has a right to request adjustments to the face paint, as it is his face after all!
Face paint however isn’t only for children! Adults love having their face painted as well. There’s something about the tingly feeling of a damp brush tickling your forehead and cheek that relaxes the nervous system and brings an innocent smile to a parents face. For some parents it was their first time ever having their face painted, and although apprehensive at first, they soon came to experience the joy of turning your skin into a beautiful canvas. In true tribal fashion, each family could be distinguished as their own unique “band”.
Parade Kart: New Trails “Big Mas”
It wouldn’t be a true Carnival masquerade without a spectacular parade kart for the kids to ride in. At Carnival time, engineers, designers and artists come together to collaborate in creating massive, beautiful and extravagant costumes which they portray in a competition in order to be crowned the King and Queen of Carnival. The theme for our special kart display was “Under the Sea” as the kids all shared a common interest in the popular children’s film “Finding Dory”.Even Bruce, one of our wonderful playdate dogs was dressed for the occasion in his Shark fin, and happily pulled the kids around the arena. There was also an Under the Sea pop-up photobooth for families to take pictures with silly Finding Nemo props.
Despite a forecast for rain, we luckily were able to still have some popular members of our horse herd down for this special occasion. Bobbin and Miss Trinket our two mini’s came down to get their coats dressed and painted by the kids.We also had two of our larger equine friends Clue and Majana down for Backriding and long-lining the kids through the New Trails woods.
This activity allows these children to connect with the world around them, taking them out of their “selfism”, while the backrider simply becomes the voice in the child’s ear so that they can take in the information about what is occurring in the physical environment, without the challenging frontal gaze which would throw them into a Cell Danger Response . The horse’s rhythmic movement produces a rocking motion in the child’s hips which helps to relax the pelvis and also stimulates the production of oxytocin, the hormone of communication, trust, and pair-bonding. Children on the Autism Spectrum begin to produce speech and initiate interaction while being on the horse, and even more when the horse is in the faster, more collected gaits. The combination of these three things ( relaxed pelvis, production of oxytocin and the backrider being the voice in the child’s ear ) allows the child on the spectrum to be in the optimal state for learning, communicating, and socializing.
These larger Playdates would not be possible without the generous help of the many loving and dedicated volunteers and members of our amazing Horse Boy team. Thank you to everyone who came and made this day a truly memorial occasion, and helped the kids experience life “Island Style” without having to leave their home state of Texas