Magic Camp: an alternative approach to physical therapy for young patients

Magic Camp is an innovative rehabilitation programme which uses magic tricks in place of traditional physical therapy methods, in order to help children who are suffering from conditions such as hemiplegia or have had a stroke or brain injury.

Most of the children who attend the camp suffer from a condition called hemiplegia, which is a form of cerebral palsy that paralyses one side of the body. Those with this illness often find it hard to deal with day-to-day tasks that require both hands, such as holding a knife and fork or tying their shoelaces. What’s more, children with hemiplegia often quickly become bored with traditional physical therapy methods, and this in turn slows down their recovery.

Works like magic

In order to help these children get better, clinical staff at Guy’s have been working with magicians from the Magic Circle, an organisation dedicated to promoting the art of magic that was founded in 1905, to provide Magic Camp for patients.

Breathe Magic Camp is a fun and effective therapy programme that integrates specially scaled magic tricks into an intensive therapy programme, in the form of a 10-day summer camp. On average, 12-15 children attend each Magic Camp programme. Magic Circle magicians work alongside occupational therapists and physiotherapists to teach the young people magic tricks and theatrical skills, which work to improve the motor skills and psychosocial wellbeing of young people with hemiplegia.

On the final day of the camp, the young people perform in a magic show alongside Magic Circle magicians in a professional theatre. The camps are followed by a course of monthly magic clubs, which are essential for the consolidation of new skills learnt and help to ensure lasting impact on the physical and emotional gains made.

Lara, an attendee of Magic Camp, says, 'I thought, I’m going to be really great at magic. I didn’t realise we’d be doing all these other things to practise with our hands as well, like the games after lunch. Everything has to be with two hands, and I’ve realised I’ve got much better and I look more normal.'

The project combines a unique blend of multiple art forms including magic, circus skills, costume design and theatre production all designed in a way to enhance physical and mental health outcomes. This intensive therapy model is based on the Hand-Arm Bimanual Intensive Therapy (HABIT) task specific training recommended by NICE in 2012.

Empowering therapists and patients

The magic tricks are combined with the repetitive exercises that are used to rehabilitate arm and hand function. The repetitive action of practising the magic tricks helps build up strength and dexterity in the affected hand and arm, thereby increasing the participant’s independence and wellbeing. At the same time, the participants are also taught how to perform as part of the learning experience, which improves their communication skills, confidence, self-esteem, emotional wellbeing – and, it’s fun! Not only does the programme benefit patients, but also empowers therapists with a new way of engaging their patients.

Jack, another attendee, says, 'I’ve realised I’ve got a bit stronger over the two weeks and I can lift up my bike with my right hand. It makes me feel proud, and my mum was very proud when I could do it.'

After receiving such positive feedback from everyone involved in the initial pilot, the team already has plans to develop a second stage camp for returning magicians. After generous donations from supporters funded the pilot back in 2010, this new programme of physical therapy is now being held every year.

Katharine, a mother of one of the patients, Tristan, says, 'It’s amazing. My goal would be to see it rolled out in every hospital throughout the country. It won’t only help children with hemiplegia – ultimately, adults who’ve had a stroke will love having fun. Why shouldn’t people who’ve been affected by having a stroke relearn the ability to use their limbs by doing a bit of magic?'

Breathe Arts

Magic Camp is run by Breathe Arts Health Research, a not-for-profit social enterprise that receives ongoing funding from donations, and was originally funded by Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity. Breathe Arts practise creative approaches to healthcare and strive to improve health outcomes for patients, staff and the wider community.

‘Breathe Magic Camps have demonstrated how injecting creativity into healthcare can have a significant impact on clinical outcomes,’ says Yvonne Farquharson, Director of Breathe Arts Health Research. The team behind Breathe has been designing and delivering innovative ways of using both the arts and creative practices in healthcare for over six years. Their work is supported by relevant research and evaluation (research director, Dr Dido Green, has published research into the use of augmented reality with creative media and magic in rehabilitation programmes), and has been shown to have real benefits. Since launching, Magic Camp has won a number of awards including first prize at the European Academy of Childhood Disabilities Conference in Istanbul. ‘Robust medical research and evaluation are essential to proving the value of the arts in healthcare, and the research data we have collected as part of this project is able to demonstrate just this,’ says Yvonne. ‘Breathe Magic Camps have been life changing for those involved and we are excited about the possibility of rolling out this new form of therapy to benefit children nationally and internationally in the future.’

Visit the Breathe Arts website. If you've been inspired by this story, please help support other projects like Magic Camp that help patients and their families.

Breathe Magic for young people with Hemiplegia 2012 film

Breathe Arts Health Research is a social enterprise that designs and delivers exciting and innovative ways of using the arts in healthcare, to improve outcomes for patients, staff and communities.