Talking to Children about their bodies, safety, and personal boundaries can be a challenge to even the most seasoned educator. A turtle offers a wonderful concrete example of self-care and safety planning by nature; it has that beautiful shell. When a turtle is scared or needs alone time it can just pop into its shell. This action is a useful visual metaphor for children because it provides an opening for talking about safety and boundaries. A turtle also honours the territory in which we do our work – Six Nations of the Grand.
A few years ago, while working as an occasional teacher and a community educator for a sexual assault centre in Brantford, Ontario, I began developing a sexual assault prevention program for children and teens. I created a set of characters with which to talk about sexual assault and to empower young people to articulate their boundaries and their right to healthy and happy bodies. Taylor the Turtle was born.
The Taylor the Turtle program focuses on the human right to safety and well-being of all kinds. Rather than invoking frightening scenarios like good touch/bad touch and stranger danger, Taylor the Turtle is intended to help students learn how to articulate their health and safety needs in a clear, assertive, non-aggressive way. Taylor wants children to know they have the right to a safe body, a healthy body, a safe school, and a safe community – and the right to talk to someone when they do not feel safe. Studies have found that children who are well connected to their bodies and can express their needs have a lower chance of being abused, or if they have been abused are more willing to share that experience with a caring adult. Taylor the Turtle teaches children emotional literacy and helps them connect their bodies, their feelings, and their expression.
Each Taylor the Turtle presentation is modified for the audience. In one secondary-level special education class we divided the class into six groups and assigned them each a lesson card. Together in their group they had to come up with a way to teach the lesson to their classmates. Last year in an elementary school, we met with a primary class three times. The first time we explored the lessons of Taylor, the second we did a craft that reflected the values of the program, and the third we introduced the class to living tortoises.
We start every program by introducing the three-foot-tall Taylor puppet. We talk about the first lesson,“My Body Belongs to ME.” We talk about personal bubbles, respect, diversity, self-confidence, friendship, and voice. Next we talk about the statement “I Have the Right to a Healthy Body.” Our approach is a holistic one. We include mind, body, spirit, self-care, and life-long learning, and also practise a breathing exercise as a class. This exercise can be used by teachers as a tool in stressful situations.
As the program continues, we always return to “My Body Belongs to ME.” If time allows, we create a craft because expression is a huge part of the program, and we always read Yertle the Turtle. This story is all about having a strong voice and being kind to others, and the discussions that ensue after this story are a quick way to evaluate what effect the program has had.
In almost two decades of anti-violence work, I know it is only through community collaboration that we create change. Freedom from violence is a human right, and together we must work to ensure that right is realized for everyone. The Taylor program was created in consultation with the Ganohkwasra Family Assault Support Services, which will be leading the project in Six Nations, the Brantford Police, Grand Erie District School Board, St. Leonard’s Community Services, Woodview Children’s Mental Health and Autism Services, Nova Vita, and Victim Services. These groups, along with students and others from the community, have worked to inform, develop, share, and animate Taylor’s message.
We have recently added a mascot, who is available to attend events. In December, Taylor was in the Santa Claus Parade in Brantford, sharing a float with the city’s firefighters. For the month of November we had a streetwide banner at a busy intersection with Taylor’s picture and a simple message of “Health + Safety + Happiness = Your Rights.” Taylor is now in the JK, SK, and grade 1 program at our local Safety Village, run by the city police. Girl Guide, Brownie, and Spark troops have been inviting us in, and we presented at all city-run day camps last summer. I have met children who have had lessons from Taylor more than once and they are excited to learn more and talk more about their health and safety.
To learn more about Taylor the Turtle and how to handle disclosures in the classroom, please visit taylorsrights.ca.
Taylor the turtle kits contain magnets, stickers, posters, pamphlets, information sheets, as well as a turtle puppet and the set of 11-inch-by-17-inch cards. Each kit comes with instructions and an information page on how to handle disclosures. Training on how to use the kit can be arranged in person or on the phone. On April 26 we will be hosting a Train the Trainer session in Brantford. Taylor can be easily adapted into year-long learning or simply be a unit, and is easily incorporated into various subjects including art, language arts, and math. The cost of the kit is $50.