A SOMERSET student has created a set of toys to help children with complex needs express grief.

Sarah Helton, from South Petherton, is in the final stage of a three-year PhD at Kingston University.

She is looking at ways children can be supported to communicate about bereavement and grief when they don't have the verbal skills to communicate how they are feeling.

And so, she created Good Grief Toys to help them understand death, bereavement, grief and loss.

Chard & Ilminster News: GOOD GRIEF TOYS: Created by Sarah Helton, from South Petherton

“We’ve got much better at supporting the wider population when they’re grieving, but children with special educational needs are often overlooked, especially those with profound disabilities who have little or no ‘typical’ conversational abilities,” Sarah said.

“Toys are often used to help children learn skills such as getting dressed and dolls houses can help them develop more of an understanding about family life, so it struck me that this approach would work just as well for this topic.”

The 48-year-old received a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship to visit other countries and during this, she came up with the Good Grief Toys idea.

Chard & Ilminster News: GOOD GRIEF TOYS: Created by Sarah Helton, from South Petherton

Working in schools for children who had sadly died due to medical conditions and seeing their classmates struggle was Sarah's main motivation.

“I could see on their faces they wanted to know what was going on,” she said.

“When I looked at the play corner of the classroom, I could see the children learned best through play and exploration.

"A set of toys like those we’ve created means they can either focus on the situation and their feelings on their own or have a teacher or parent use them to explain what has happened.”

Sarah worked with the British Toymakers Guild and the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to develop the range of wooden toys, which includes figures of people, furniture, vehicles and other items and have been designed to be used for multiple purposes.

Chard & Ilminster News: GOOD GRIEF TOYS: Created by Sarah Helton, from South Petherton

A three-hour support package is provided with each set, with training and guidance on how best to use the toys for different scenarios.

“I wanted to make all the furniture multi-functional, so the benches we’ve created could represent pews in a church or a school, the bed used in a hospital, hospice or home," she added.

"Another piece can adapt to be either a wheelchair or pushchair. The figures of people are of all ages and ethnicities and are a simple design so they are easy to play with.

"There’s research around child bereavement for typically developing children and adults with mild/moderate disabilities, but not those with more complex needs.

"By taking up this PhD, I now have an important opportunity to address this gap.”

Chard & Ilminster News: GOOD GRIEF TOYS: Created by Sarah Helton, from South Petherton

Palliative care and learning disability expert Professor Irene Tuffrey-Wijne, who is supervising Sarah’s PhD, said it was vital the subject finally got some long overdue attention.

“Thinking about our experiences of death and grief is difficult for everyone, but so incredibly important,” Professor Tuffrey-Wijne said.

“Children with special educational needs or disabilities may struggle with words or complex concepts, but that will not prevent them from experiencing the distress of bereavement.

“I have been extremely impressed by Sarah’s efforts to find new ways of encouraging children to communicate about grief and helping staff not to be afraid of supporting them. Her Good Grief Toys are a wonderful resource.”

Sarah has spent the past few years working part-time at as the assistant head of a special needs school in Beaminster, Dorset.

Alongside teaching, she has been running a company delivering bereavement training and consultancy support for schools and others helping children with special educational needs and disabilities through difficult times.