Conversations with… Sarah Vaughan of The Play Well Trust

As a teacher, I was told to highlight the importance of 100% attendance. The logic behind it seemed simple enough – when a child is in school, they are learning. But what about when a child cannot be in school? What about when they are poorly, when a bereavement hits the family, when they are struck by a serious illness? What do we do to support these children and their families then?

These thoughts led me to discovering The Play Well Trust. Founded in January 2019 by Sarah Vaughan, The Play Well Trust is a non-profit organisation which promotes the benefits of play for children and families when a child is too unwell to attend school or nursery. They send ‘Feel Better Boxes’ to families which are full of creative, play-based activities to use at home to support recovery and to help maintain strong family relationships. They are a lifeline for those in need.

This week, I was lucky enough to be able to interview Sarah Vaughan about The Play Well Trust and the amazing work it does. As well as being a mother of three, Sarah is a trained teacher and Early Years Specialist with over 20 years’ experience. She is also a qualified holistic therapist, a children’s author and creator of The Do Try This at Home School, an online space full of free ideas for learning that families can try at home and is great for school holidays. Sarah’s resume is incredibly impressive, but her passion for what she does, her compassion for others and her kindness is what blew me away the most.

How did The Play Well Trust come about?
The Play Well Trust was founded just 8 months ago following the shocking diagnosis of a brain tumour in a child who had attended nursery with my daughter. At the time of diagnosis she was just 4 years old, and my eyes were opened to the realities of childhood cancer and how it could affect any family at any time.
The little girl had attended my daughter’s art and craft/messy play birthday party the summer before she was diagnosed, which her mother told me she had thoroughly enjoyed. So when she returned from proton therapy in Florida, I put together a ‘party in a box’ full of little creative activities that would keep her busy during her recovery. I wrapped it in brown paper and drove to her home to deliver the first ever ‘Feel Better Box.’
From there the idea grew. I suddenly became much more aware of other families in need of support and so The Play Well Trust was born. I now post boxes on a weekly basis and I have donated a box of play equipment to a charity called Eva’s Angels. This family sadly lost their daughter to a brain stem tumour called DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma). They now have a caravan where they provide holidays for children and families who are affected by cancer. I plan to do lots more work with them in the future.

The idea behind The Play Well Trust is brilliant and I cannot imagine the joy that a Feel Better Box brings. Typically, what is inside a Feel Better Box?
Every Feel Better Box is bespoke and made to meet the needs of the family. Every activity included is there for a reason. We are guided by Selina Yeoman, a registered Play Therapist whom I have worked with for many years. She always has amazing advice and insights into how an activity could benefit a child and their family.
Here are a few examples of what we put in and why:
Bubbles:

A seemingly everyday activity that you can carry around in your bag and use wherever you need to. Not only are bubbles great fun, but they can also help children who are feeling anxious to control their breathing. The breathing required to blow bubbles is the same technique that is used to calm breathing in people who suffer with anxiety, so this is a great and fun way to practise calming breathing techniques.

If you and your child later find yourselves in a situation where you might be starting to feel anxious, you can blow bubbles together, either real or imaginary, to calm your breathing.

Natural materials:

Shells, pine cones, stones etc are wonderful to play with because of their sensory qualities and the fact that they come from nature. We strongly believe that being in nature has a calming and positive impact upon everyone. The other good thing about natural materials is that they are available to everyone and they make fabulous props for imaginary play.

Paints/crayons and creative activities:

Creativity is valuable to us all. It increases happiness, improves mental health, lowers stress levels and boosts your immune system. Drawing, painting and creative arts and crafts also offer children a way to express themselves and work through thoughts and feelings.

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Play is clearly a hugely important factor when deciding what goes into a Feel Better Box. As a trained teacher, can you explain why play is an important educational tool?
Play is the key to learning. It frees us from our anxieties of failure and allows us the freedom to try new things and see the world in a different way. In my experience, learning through play has embedded knowledge much deeper in my brain than any chalk and talk learning. I was very fortunate that most of my teacher training was taught through play based activities and I loved every minute.

Play is effective, it’s automatically differentiated by the participants and most importantly it’s fun. Play frees up our subconscious mind, which enables us to think of things that we didn’t even know that we knew!

The activities in Feel Better Boxes can be used however the child wants to use them and invariably this will change as they do. Play supports healing, builds bonds within families, allows for some normality and gives children the space to make sense of their world in a way that nothing else can.

It sounds like every component of a Feel Better Box is useful, well thought out and has a purpose that benefits the entire family. Why do you think it’s important for families going through difficult times to have access to educational and emotional support from places like The Play Well Trust?
The families we support are almost always in crisis – they are experiencing life changing events on a daily basis which will impact every family member. Therefore, they need and deserve as much support as they can possibly receive. I always think if that was my family, what would I want for my children and myself, and that’s the basis of the work we do.
The benefit of a Feel Better Box is that it comes with guidance and everything needed for each activity is in the box. I want to make life a little bit simpler for these families. There’s nothing more frustrating than wanting to do an activity with your child and then realising that you need a million items before you can begin – the activity never gets done and valuable play time is lost. The boxes are designed to make life a tiny bit easier.
From an educational perspective (and being a trained teacher, there will always be an educational perspective), the boxes provide children with activities that enable them to learn new skills, develop imagination and most importantly offers the opportunity to learn with their family.
Currently in the UK we are experiencing what the politicians like to call ‘austerity’ – I have other words for it, but we’ll use that for now! This means that it’s growing increasingly difficult for families to get the help and support that they desperately need. The Play Well Trust is, so far, completely funded by donations and from sales of my books and I will endeavour to sustain a level of independence moving forward.

Often, families who have children that need to take time off for medical issues can feel penalised by the education system. They miss out on attendance prizes and special trips that only children with 100% attendance can go on, even if there is a valid reason for their absences. Why do you feel it’s important to support these families rather than penalise them?
The children I work with often miss out on school activities and school trips because they have not reached 100% attendance. I have so many issues with the desire for 100% attendance for all children and families as well as school staff – I think that it sends a very strong message that self-care is not important, that family events are not important and that the only way to be ‘successful’ is to carry on no matter how you are feeling. This is not good for anyone and is certainly not an ‘inclusive’ education system.
To combat this in the UK we are now attempting to introduce education on wellness in schools, which will be an interesting concept considering all of the above. Feel Better Boxes and all of the work carried out by The Play Well Trust promotes wellness, kindness and self-care for children and families.

The Play Well Trust is undoubtedly an organisation with positivity and selflessness at its core. Why did you choose to create something that spreads and promotes kindness?
In this world, if you believe the media, there is a lot of greed, a lot of fear and a torrent of unbelievable misery. It can seem like a very depressing place if you let it, but I fundamentally believe that there is more good in the world than bad. Humans are, on the whole, kind and nurturing, but kindness doesn’t make money or sell news, so it’s ‘worthless’, right?
It took me weeks of phone calls and endless explanations to find a company that would insure The Play Well Trust because the people on the end of the phone couldn’t believe that a) I could make it work and b) that anyone would operate an organisation just to be kind. People laughed and hung up the phone, others would ask “What’s in it for you?”
What’s in it for me is plentiful. Being kind and supporting families in desperate times gives me more satisfaction than working in a job I don’t enjoy for lots of money. The Play Well Trust gives me the two things that people spend their lives searching for – happiness and contentment. Be more kind – I highly recommend it.

What has been your proudest moment so far at The Play Well Trust?
My proudest moment at The Play Well Trust so far has been our recent trustees meeting where I took some time to stop and reflect on everything we have managed to do in such a short space of time. So far we have sent 15 Feel Better Boxes to families in need, with 83% of those families having been affected by childhood cancer.
We have worked with two amazing charities, Eva’s Angels and Demelza House Children’s Hospice. We have raised almost £1500 through fundraising events and a just giving page and we have been in the press three times so far, including on BBC radio! It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, and I have loved every minute.

You really have achieved so much already! Where do you hope to see The Play Well Trust in 5 years time?
In the next five years we will certainly have become a registered Charitable Incorporated Organisation, which means that we will be able to bid for larger pots of money to support and expand what we can offer.
I have just become an affiliate practitioner for Demelza House Children’s Hospice, where I am hoping to develop group sessions for children and families, including siblings, who also need a huge amount of support in difficult times. I will also be using my reflexology skills here, something I am hoping to develop further too.
In 5 years’ time, my dream would be to have my own office and play room to work from. It would be great to have a small team of therapists who can offer direct support to children and families, and we will of course still be sending Feel Better Boxes across the UK as well as providing access to therapeutic play activities on our website.

You are such a brilliant organisation that there is no doubt in my mind that you will achieve those dreams. If I wanted to support The Play Well Trust, how could I do this?
You can support us at The Play Well Trust by:
• Visiting our website https://www.theplaywelltrust.com/
• Following us on Social Media – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
• Liking, sharing and commenting on our posts
• Buying Sarah’s books from Amazon – The links are on the website and are always updated when we publish more books
• Donating money via our Just Giving page https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/theplaywelltrust?utm_term=85xn993Xd
• Telling friends and family about our work

If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?
Life is amazing and fleeting – we never know what’s coming to us. If you find someone or something that you truly love, never let them go, and whenever you have the opportunity to be kind – take it.

To find out more about The Play Well Trust and The Do Try This At Home School, head to the following websites:
https://www.theplaywelltrust.com/
https://www.thedotrythisathomeschool.com/

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