hemiplegia occupational therapy children magic

Young Magicians Triumph

Go to the kitchen, put an oven mitt on one hand. Now leave it there for a few hours while you get on with your day. After that, come back and you’ll understand this post much more. You’ll understand how a child with hemiplegia can overcome challenges and learn to become a young magician. You’ll understand why the magical things they accomplish are so incredible. I’ll see you for the rest of this article in a few hours…

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Welcome back! So with your mitt on, you probably have experienced a relatively frustrating time. Mundane tasks became impossible. Like opening a bag of crisps, buttoning your clothes, tying your shoes or typing on your computer.  For many people, these challenges are everyday struggles because of a condition they were born with called hemiplegia.  This year I became involved with a groundbreaking project called Breathe Magic (run by the charity Breathe Arts Health Research). The project teaches young magicians the new magic skills to help them improve their physical abilities caused by the hemiplegia. But there’s a lot more to it than that…

Little did I know how much I had to learn from them.


Hemiplegia is caused by a brain injury. It’s more common than you might think.  It’s a form of cerebral palsy that affects 1 in 1000 children. It inhibits mobility of the limbs on one side of the body.  Many children born with it grow up wearing a splint on the leg of the affected side. Most of them will also need physical and occupational therapy to help them expand the capacity of the affected muscles. Many daily tasks most of us take for granted are either a massive challenge… or impossible for someone with hemiplegia.

Child's hand print - the young magicians with hemiplegia at Breathe Magic camp exercise their affected hand through performing magic.


Breathe Magic began thanks to the persistence of David Owen who is a QC and a Magic Circle magician.  He peddled his idea to numerous charities; none of which were enthusiastic enough to take up his inspiration. I imagine no one managed to understand how magic could actually be practically useful for such a serious matter. 

When I perform magic, people usually regard it as light entertainment. I guess people thought that about David’s idea as well. But this wasn’t what David, in collaboration with colleague Richard McDougall, had up their sleeves. They finally met Yvonne Farquarson. She’s the MD of Breathe AHR. Yvonne understood that David’s idea of Breathe Magic was something much more than first met the eye. Her infectious enthusiasm now leads a creative and resourceful team of researchers, occupational therapists and magicians. Together they collaborate to make Breathe Magic happen.


The central programme begins with a full-immersion course. To the children, it’s Magic Camp. Camp runs ten full days over two weeks. It culminates in a show in which every young magician takes part.  After the big show, through the year that follows, the children meet for a monthly magic club. There they maintain and refresh their skills on the old material as well as add new magic to their repertoire.

Even before I saw Breathe Magic in action I could imagine that the physical skills required to perform magic would help improve the young magicians’ physical abilities cause by hemiplegia. At Breathe, magicians work with occupational therapists to carefully select performance material that targets desired improved physical actions. Long arms hold out props to clearly show the audience.  Ambidextrous targets are also always required. The young magician is coached to hold a ball in the right hand to show that side of the audience. Then they transfer it to the left hand to show it to rest of the audience.  


Unbeknownst to the children, as they have fun with the magic something else is taking place. Each performance has ‘secretly’ been chosen to stretch and strengthen their muscles and develop coordination in a desired way. A specific move they have to master in order to deliver their performance will also serve them to accomplish a particular skill necessary in daily life.  There can be tears of frustration at the struggle but also tears of joy when breakthroughs are made.  The researchers in Yvonne’s team take note of every child’s results. They measure their speed, their range of movements and other factors.  Then they make use of this data to improve methods to help the children.  Remarkably, many of the young magician participants accomplished practical tasks during the camp they never had done before in their lives.

In learning the magic ‘tricks’, other truly magical things began to happen.


I also discovered a few surprises. Apart from the work on dexterity, it was the triumph of character from all this magic that caught me off guard.  Many of the children came to the camp having faced rejection from others because of being different and some tended to hide their hemiplegia afflicted hand from the world.  It was the experience of learning to be a magician that prompted many of the children to blossom.  

A good magician makes eye contact with his or her audience and confidently presents their performance to those watching.  In learning magic, in a matter of days the young magicians could share new abilities that their parents, friends and peers do not have.  I saw confidence in many children soar, which in turn seems to help with their attitude toward the physical tasks involved in learning how to handle the props. Their improvements in skills with public speaking, their eye contact, their confidence to engage with the world were all the things that turned out to be the real magic.

My other surprise was all that I had to learn from them.  It struck me that the important thing happening in the camp isn’t actually about disability.  In fact we’re all disabled in some way or another; my right hand is dominant over my left and there’s always someone better than me when performing any number of skills I try every day.  Far from focusing on disability, the most important thing I see every day in camp is the courage they have to push their boundaries and reach beyond today’s abilities. Anyone can transform their life with that kind of attitude.

Children with hemiplegia learn magic at Breathe Magic.


Every day at magic camp the young magicians remind me of important things. They remind me how important it is to isolate small parts of the problem so to not be overwhelmed by the whole.  The children remind me about the value of celebrating the small breakthroughs. They also make sure I don’t forget how good it is to give yourself a break sometimes; especially when you’re trying hard and it’s not working. And above all they remind me to be sure that every day we reach a little bit beyond what we think we ‘can’ do. I see that the work at the camp for the young magicians is as much about these things as it is to do with hemiplegia.

I’ve seen what happens when these lessons are applied in the camp. And I’ve seen the transformations both in physical ability and in confidence that follow as a result. Suddenly, because of learning those ‘tricks,’ a real kind of magic appears instead that never fails to inspire me and catch me by surprise. – CH

Post script: If you’d like to support the young magicians with hemiplegia at future Breathe Magic Camps you can donate to Breathe AHR. Breathe continues to develop its workshops and other activities in a variety of innovative arts directions – you can learn more here.  All views expressed in the article are my own.

Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below. Thanks for coming along with me and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.

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