Taking baby steps: bringing play back into the lives of children and adults with Hannah Phillips

Hannah Philips system change

Introducing Hannah Phillips

My name is Hannah Philips, but people call me Pips for short. I grew up in Southeast London, and worked to empower young voices in the National Health Service (NHS), work that was recognized with a British Empire Medal. I relocated to Dubai a year ago as a qualified primary school teacher. I have just launched my own company with teaching colleague – Yallah Play – aiming to bring play back into the lives of children and adults. Follow Hannah on LinkedIn to keep up with her playful content!

How would you describe what you do now?

It’s interesting because what I do, teaching, is just a part of me. It’s a label I’ve been given. Day to day, I’m with my kids in the classroom: nurturing them, being with them, and to be honest, learning as much from them as they do from me. But I also know that I teach in a lot of other ways. I teach in schools, I’ve taught within the National Health Service (NHS) back home, and I do a lot of holistic therapy work. So, I’m under the umbrella of educating others.

With the National Health Service (NHS) work that you did under that umbrella of education – tell us more about that role?

I grew up with a long-term medical condition called complicated Ebstein’s anomaly, a rare heart disease, which meant that I spent a lot of time in and out of hospital. I now live with a pacemaker to help keep control of the rhythm of my heart.

There comes a time when young patients move from children to adult services. That transition for me was not smooth at all. The more I began to speak to people and voice my opinion, the more I realized that is common.

A lot of young patients, who aren’t very visible in the NHS, get lost in this kind of middle ground.

I was sat at my dining room table one evening crying my eyes out with my dad, and he just looked at me and said: instead of crying about it, why don’t you try and do something about it. I grew up studying musical theatre and I knew that I could use the skills I’d learned there to make a difference within the system.

What was working to empower young patients in the NHS like?

Coming in as a third party to a huge institution like the NHS is difficult. I had to come to the understanding that I wouldn’t be able to conquer this system all at once.

It became about baby steps: taking things one step at a time.

It took a lot of trial and error. I knew that I as I was sharing my story, I would have to be ready for how people would take that, and what they would then go on to do with it. The more I became vulnerable and shared my story, the more people listened.

What strategies did you use to deal with that trial-and-error approach?

To have patience and to be kind.

Sometimes there are people who do not agree with what you’re saying. Because I was talking about my experiences, that was difficult. How can you tell me that something is not valid when you did not live through it? And if you did live through it, you lived through it in a different way. My experience is still valid.

Any progress, whether big or small, is still progress.

Sometimes I’ve got so fixated on this bigger change, that I had to step back celebrate every small win. If you’ve changed the mentality of at least one person in the room, or you’ve provided something for a hospital that they didn’t have before, that is progress.

Take a step back to see the whole picture.

With me the biggest thing is I want to get things done and I want them to be done now. But it’s okay to move one baby step at a time.

When I had my first pacemaker implanted, there were no resources for young people whatsoever. I wrote my own manual with a friend of mine, Katie, that’s now in hospitals across the world. But that took us four years. It was frustrating, but once you take a step back, things will progress organically.

What was it like to be recognised for your work with a British Empire Medal?

That was so weird. But it was also very humbling, and a very surreal moment for me. I was working in an amazing school in a deprived area at the time. Because of COVID, they weren’t letting people into Buckingham Palace at the time, so I asked for a representative to come into the school to share that time with them. Although it wasn’t the palace, we decorated with schoolwork, we had cake and cookies and it just wasn’t a normal school day – which for any child is amazing!

Healing and wellness overall are very important to you, both physically and mentally. You have a degree in Mindfulness, you’re a Reiki healer and you educate others. Could you tell us some more about your experience with these?

I started that journey because I got sick of the medical world, but without the medical world I would not be here full stop. I needed those surgeries and I’m ever so grateful for that.

But I got so tired of being engulfed by these big white rooms all the time and feeling like there was more my body could do and I wasn’t letting it tap into its power.

As well as the heart complications, I suffer with ovarian cysts and hormonal issues like polycystic ovaries and endometriosis. It bugged me that I was in pain all the time.

One day I had been admitted to hospital for suspected appendicitis and turned out to be a birth cyst. A doctor had walked in, and she really bluntly, almost without care, told me: You won’t be able to have children. I was 16, and just lying there.  She left the room and I turned to my mum, and I just said: I need help and I need help that’s not in here.

I’ve worked with many therapists over the years, like CBT, neuroscientists, and holistic therapists. I’m here for the science and the holistic at the same time, I think they can meet in the middle.

The holistic work challenged me to put trust in my body.

Once you’ve been affected with illness, it can be very difficult to trust the body that is causing you pain. I flipped my mentality. Pain is not my body betraying me, it is my body saying: you need to slow down, you need rest, you need this care.

I started to explore that world. I ate better, did emotional freedom tapping, started to meditate and bring myself into a different space. I started watching more spiritual channels, as opposed to things like Netflix, I started reading different books. For a while I went vegan. I’d get up at 5 am and do meditation and other strategies – and I felt great.

As much as I have been on my holistic journey, I am still human.

There are times where I don’t want to get out of bed at 5am. There are times where I go for weeks without meditating. One thing the holistic side of things taught me is that I am not perfect, and I don’t want to be perfect. I try lots of different things and stick with what works for me.

What’s a learning experience that has changed the way you work and approach life?

I had a friend who was living with cancer. Unfortunately, he’s not here anymore, but he just had the most amazing spirit.

He said to me: You have to be okay with pushing yourself so far out of your comfort zone to move on in the world, to progress and to have the adrenaline to feel and see things differently. That really stuck with me.

You have to get used to getting uncomfortable.

In terms of getting outside your comfort zone, I don’t mean going bungee jumping. You can have micro goals and challenges that you set yourself in the moment. As it’s the summer holidays, I’ve recently challenged myself to 10 days of play.

Catch up with Hannah’s play challenge on LinkedIn

Do you think you have a teaching philosophy and what would you say it is?

I think for me it’s about really understanding that children have to be the protagonist in their own lives. This is their story. Whatever we do to take away from that, we are taking away from their own victories.

I do take a holistic approach. I am very inspired by the Scandinavian Approach and the Te Whāriki approach (a New Zealand approach in putting the child at the centre of everything you do).

No two children are the same and we work in a system that sometimes feels one-size-fits-all. I just want my classroom to be a welcoming space for them. If I can provide that. I can guarantee that they will learn something. They will learn because they can breathe and relax.

You’re starting a company bringing play back into the lives of both children and adults. Tell us a little bit more about what you guys are working on and what the goal is!

Yallah in Arabic means ‘let’s go’ – so the name means come on let’s play or let’s go and play. Our aim is to bring play back into our lives, be it child or adult, and then filter that into the education system and raising awareness of play with educators.

We use trough trays (big plastic trays) in schools for messy play – so my idea with Yallah Play was to use these to provide playful experiences outside the classroom.

It’s grown very organically. We do pop-up events, and we’ve been in quite a few malls in Dubai just providing sensory play for children and adults alike. That’s then led on to private parties. We’re now getting a few speaking opportunities. We’re planning an event for September for teachers, giving them a voice and a platform.

What does a successful play session look like?

The children engaging in what we’ve provided.

The beauty of it is if you let a child sit and play 9 times out of 10, they know what they want. But far too often as adults as parents or as teachers, we have this desire to constantly be like: Why don’t you put that there? Or why don’t you try this? We’re constantly interfering, and we need to learn to let go so the child can find their feet.

There’s new research coming out all the time about play in the development of the brain and how much we need it, not only as children but also as adults. Us being teachers is important because we have access to the research, we’re in the classroom and we can see that this works.

As a life-long learner – do you have any books or strategies to recommend to people wanting to learn more about your perspective?

A big one for me is people. As humans we challenge each other and there’s a reason we challenge each other. It’s because we all have lived different experiences.

Everyone has a different experience and every one of those is valid and every one of those will bring something different to the table.

I have three books to recommend – which exemplify hope and humour and how to keep humans the focus in everything we do.

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