A New Chandelier for Topaz

83 Jesmond Road has a fascinating story. Originally it was owned from 1877 – 1888 by George Robert Stephenson a railway engineer and relative of […]



In September 2020, I started in my role at Northern Guild as ‘BACP Liaison’. At the time the UK was around about seven months into the Covid-19 Pandemic […]



Phil Smith describes leading a creative training workshop using blended learning. Students share their experiences and name the owl.

The Playful Child is a workshop Northern Guild has been running for the past three academic years. The workshop offers a deep dive into theoretical perspectives on the central role that play has for becoming human in relationship with others and the world.  The workshop considers a range of skills and interventions to harness innate creativity and to apply them to therapeutic work with children and young people. Here play is used in the broadest of terms and understood to be a means of working through emotional and psychological difficulties towards growth, healing, autonomy, spontaneity and intimacy. It is one of the pieces of teaching that I most love to facilitate.

My relationship to the workshop has changed considerably over the past three years. Originally designed for in-person, colleagues and I scrambled to think about how we could move this experiential workshop into an online format which included creative ways to work therapeutically online as well as in-person, all over zoom. As a result, the format has evolved and had several iterations, while the spirit and learning outcomes of the workshop have remained the same.

Over the penultimate weekend of November this year, I and fourteen year 1 trainees had the exciting opportunity to try out yet another new iteration of this workshop; the blended approach. Although I remain a techno sceptic, I do in my life seek to embrace and welcome the new, the perplexing and uncertain. I can also be scared of change, reluctant often to move to the next challenge, especially over the past 18 months which have presented so many of us with challenge after challenge after challenge.  I remember watching the film ‘The Martian’ starring Mat Daemon at the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Matt is marooned on Mars after his crew accidently leave him behind. The film follows Matt as he encounters problem after problem, seeking simply to stay alive and even get back home to earth.  At the end of the film (and evoking the spirit of the original Apollo 13 crew) teaching a fresh class of budding astronauts, Matt says the following;

‘You solve one problem and you solve the next one and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.’

And so, I volunteered to give it a go, to be one of the first workshops to try out the technology and weather the inevitable teething problems, to solve problems. Happily, I was not alone. What follows are a series of reflections and posed photographs that seek to describe and reflect upon the experience from the trainees who joined me in this venture, four online and ten in-person.

Philippa Gib-Kirk; (In-person)

My Northern Guild experience had been online from the very beginning, the assessment day, interview, weekend course and a workshop.  I wanted to attend The Playful Child Workshop in person, to experience the building, meet people and occupy a space outside of my own home.

I knew for some of my fellow students that was not possible, they made choices to access the workshop at home.  They had autonomy, I had the experience I wanted and we had the Owl. I’m okay, you’re okay. One day I may need to make the same choice to be at home.

There sits the Owl, in the middle of the room, an unobtrusive, sleek and good looking gadget, It has a little face. This clever creature somehow extended the room to include people outside of it, and allowed those in the room to leave and enter their space.  The Owl connected us, and we used it as only a budding group of Psychotherapists could. We had to contract, what do we do if the Owl misses something, or you cannot hear?  How can we stay mindful of the Owl? Who will remind us of the Owl if we forget?  Who will move the Owl so the best view can be given of play? We negotiated, checked in, the Owl was a central part of the learning, discussion and observation. The Owl enabled connection, facilitated relationships.  The Owl provided opportunities for deep discussion, sacred silences and fertile voids.  The Owl offered confidentiality and safe spaces. Over time, trust in the Owl developed. The Owl, like us, was not perfect, but with the help of the Owl, we made it work.  In my mind, I will call the Owl, Eric.


Lara Berndes (via Zoom)

Originally I had planned to be at the workshop in person however due to a last minute commitment I had to be London. The fact there was an option to join the workshop via Zoom meant I am able to attend both which really helpful and much appreciated. I have never experienced working with the Owl before however it made my whole experience of the weekend very enjoyable. At first when the people in the room showed us we were positioned and how the Owl worked, I thought I might feel left out and separated from those in the room however this was not the case and I felt very much included in all discussions and breakout rooms. I also thought it was very interesting to observe Phil demonstrating working online with someone – something which I am sure as trainee psychotherapists we will have to encounter at some point in the future. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend and would have no hesitation in the future to join via Zoom.

 Alison Woodward (in-person)

As Phil adjusted the mic and various trainees took turns to manipulate the angle of the laptop or Owl (camera), five more trainees were enabled to take part in our Playful Child training via Zoom. 

Problems included:

traffic noise from the slightly open window, which distracted the Owl. 

Difficulties for the Owl in picking up softly spoken voices.

Zoom’s filter of loud noises, which frustrated collaborative experiments with sound.

Most technical difficulties were overcome, thanks to the ingenuity and sensitivity of Phil and the trainees.  Whether the training was experienced in the necessary depth on Zoom as it was by those of us in the room is a question to consider, but Zoom is a very important means of accessing training for those who are self-isolating or who are, for some other reason, unable to attend in person and personally I am grateful to have the option to attend online.

My thanks to each member of the workshop group who approached the opportunities and the problems with light hearts and a ‘can do’ spirit. One of the topics we discussed at length over the weekend was the role of play, or of ‘tinkering’ in order to adjust our approach to therapeutic work; ‘ok, so this didn’t work…how about this’? It was the same with the  blended approach to the workshop, we tried out different things, experimented, reflected, recalibrated, readjusted, and then tried again.

After Thought

It can be tough this life I think, especially when things change so quickly and when those changes require a whole new approach to something. Or at least it can be for me.  I have often found myself these past months wishing for what was before and dreaming myself into the future when ‘everything is back to normal’. I sometimes forget to be here, with how things actually are, one step at a time.  At times like that, I am reminded of a poem that was once shared with me by a trusted companion along the way, a poem which continues to accompany me as I take each step in this ever-changing world. As I do so, I give thanks for colleagues, my teachers and those who I teach as we move forwards together, one step at a time. 

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

12/3/21 Christine Lister-Ford