Task at Hand Becoming Part of a Peer Group Culture and Learning How to Make Friends

Chinchillas are jumpy animals and react very instinctively to the emotional output of the handler, which is transmitted via smell and level of anxiety. They become "trained," and sensitized to the touch of a specific individual. As the child becomes more able to give of himself or herself, the chinchillas respond warmly. The children watch how the chinchillas interact as a family and how the mother and father watch over their young and carefully monitor strangers. The group members observe how the chinchillas have sibling rivalry and how they learn to share.

Step One

In order to prepare the group members to work with these animals, the chinchillas are touched and fed while they are still in their large cage. As the children begin to see that chinchillas do not bite and respond by approach-avoidance behavior, the group members are willing to risk and be more outgoing, and, most importantly, to watch and learn from their peers.

Step Two

The chinchillas are taken out of their cage and are placed in a large enclosed compound where they run freely and the children sit as a group. The group facilitator puts a chinchilla in a child's lap. The chinchilla is passed from child to child, and the chinchilla responds to the warmth and interest of each child. The group members learn sharing and how to take turns.

Step Three

The children learn by their own trial and error as well as watching how the other children respond. As the chinchillas interact and "fight" for food and attention, group members learn problem-solving behavior by discussing how to reduce conflict among the siblings and how to resolve conflict: giving more food, separate the fighters, giving more attention, etc.

We begin to notice how each child helps the other with his or her experience of success. This also increases each child's feelings of independence, and sense of responsibility (feeding the animals, cleaning the cage, giving the chinchillas a bath in their special sand, etc).

Step Four

Parallel to the work with the chinchillas, the children then work in the expressive medium, and this reinforces what the chinchilla "therapists" have taught them.

The group members are offered various creative projects that enable them to express what they have learned. Some examples: making toys and games for the chinchillas, and drawing/writing a story as a group collage/activity. These projects allow the group members to see one another's feelings, and work together on joint projects, which encourages group interaction, camaraderie, and helps develop a safe peer culture.

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