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Veterans help UK children keep calm, cope with virus stress

Hula hoops, camouflage mats and tires aren't typical supplies needed during the coronavirus pandemic. But they’re useful props as British army veteran Mike Hamilton prepares to lead children in a military-style game designed to boost their resilience and mental health at a time of atypical stress.

Hamilton, who served with bomb disposal teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, is working with 10 children in a schoolyard in Manchester, England. The mission: Picking up the virus — a small ball — with wooden blocks, racing to a trash can and dropping the ball inside before pretending to wash their hands.

It’s one of many games devised by Hamilton, the founder of a company called Commando Joe's that sends former soldiers to U.K. schools to guide exercises in teamwork, dealing with adversity and staying calm under pressure. The firm, which is partly funded by the government, works with hundreds of schools. Hamilton says that since the pandemic began, he has received many calls from teachers looking for lessons to help their overwhelmed students cope.

A child at Seymour Road Academy takes part in a Commando Joe's character education program run by former soldier Mike Hamilton during the coronavirus outbreak in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. Hula hoops, camouflage mats and tires aren't typical supplies needed during the coronavirus pandemic. But they're useful props as British veteran Mike Hamilton prepares to lead children in a military-style game designed to boost their resilience and mental health at a time of atypical stress. (AP PhotoJon Super)

“Schools are wanting programs to focus on character, mental health and well-being and probably getting the children used to having a routine again,” he said. “We’ve got lots of tactics to help build up positivity in a time of stress — that’s part of our training.”

In Britain, schools never completely closed during the virus lockdown. Some remained open for students whose parents still had to work outside home in key professions, as well as for children under social care.

The familiar routine may be reassuring, but it's an unsettling time for many of these children. Playgrounds and classrooms typically bustling with hundreds of kids are now hushed and quiet.

Children at Seymour Road Academy take part in a Commando Joe's character education program run by former soldier Mike Hamilton during the coronavirus outbreak in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. (AP PhotoJon Super)

Sienna-Leigh Murphy attends school while her mother goes to work as a nurse. Her parents are separated.

“I feel happy because she looks after people and makes sure they don’t die or anything,” Sienna-Leigh said. “I do miss playing with my friends and going to places that are really fun with my friends like the park or something. And I really miss my dad.”

Sophie Murfin, executive headteacher at the Wise Owl Trust, which includes three schools in Manchester, says the key was giving the children a friendly and positive environment.

Children at Seymour Road Academy take part in a Commando Joe's character education program run by former soldier Mike Hamilton during the coronavirus outbreak in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. Hamilton, who served with a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan and Iraq, is working with several children in a schoolyard in Manchester, England. The mission: Picking up the virus - a small ball - with wooden blocks, racing to a bin, and dropping the ball inside before pretending to wash their hands. (AP PhotoJon Super)

“It’s about ensuring the children’s worries are alleviated by giving them different activities to complete in a fun and engaging way,” Murfin said.

Childline, a helpline run by Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said thousands of youngsters have reached out to speak to counselors about the coronavirus. The charity said children have called about parents losing their jobs, worrying about their family’s health and struggling to look after younger siblings while their parents are ill.

Many children stuck at home while schools are closed and most public activities are prohibited are affected by isolation, experts warn.

Former soldier Mike Hamilton gestures as he interacts with children at Seymour Road Academy during a Commando Joe's character education program in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. Hula hoops, camouflage mats and tires aren't typical supplies needed during the coronavirus pandemic. But they're useful props as British veteran Mike Hamilton prepares to lead children in a military-style game designed to boost their resilience and mental health at a time of atypical stress.(AP PhotoJon Super)

“When asked what they would do to manage stress, a quarter of those children who ever feel stressed said that they would normally go outside. Now, this option is only very limited,” Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield wrote last month.

Children who don’t have access to smartphones and laptops for video calls with friends and family members are more isolated than ever, she added.

For his part, Hamilton says he hopes his exercises help kids understand “it's OK not to be OK.” Eight-year-old Sonny Turner, who took part in the “catch the virus” game, said it gave him a confidence boost.

Children at Seymour Road Academy take part in a Commando Joe's character education program run by former soldier Mike Hamilton during the coronavirus outbreak in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. Hamilton, who served with a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan and Iraq, is working with several children in a schoolyard in Manchester, England. The mission: Picking up the virus - a small ball - with wooden blocks, racing to a bin, and dropping the ball inside before pretending to wash their hands. (AP PhotoJon Super)

“It makes me feel confident about not feeling coronavirus is going to get me," Turner said.

Follow AP pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

A child at Seymour Road Academy takes part in a Commando Joe's character education program run by former soldier Mike Hamilton during the coronavirus outbreak in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. Hamilton, who served with a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan and Iraq, is working with several children in a schoolyard in Manchester, England. The mission: Picking up the virus - a small ball - with wooden blocks, racing to a bin, and dropping the ball inside before pretending to wash their hands. (AP PhotoJon Super)

Former soldier Mike Hamilton gestures as he interacts with children at Seymour Road Academy during a Commando Joe's character education program in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. (AP PhotoJon Super)

Children at Seymour Road Academy sit in designated areas in the playground as they take part in a Commando Joe's character education program run by former soldier Mike Hamilton during the coronavirus outbreak in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. (AP PhotoJon Super)

Children at Seymour Road Academy take part in a Commando Joe's character education program run by former soldier Mike Hamilton, center, during the coronavirus outbreak in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. Hamilton, who served with a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan and Iraq, is working with several children in a schoolyard in Manchester, England. The mission: Picking up the virus - a small ball - with wooden blocks, racing to a bin, and dropping the ball inside before pretending to wash their hands. (AP PhotoJon Super)

A girl raises her hand as she takes part in a Commando Joe's character education program run by former soldier Mike Hamilton at Seymour Road Academy in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. (AP PhotoJon Super)

Former soldier Mike Hamilton, left, gestures as he interacts with children at Seymour Road Academy during a Commando Joe's character education program in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. Hula hoops, camouflage mats and tires aren't typical supplies needed during the coronavirus pandemic. But they're useful props as British veteran Mike Hamilton prepares to lead children in a military-style game designed to boost their resilience and mental health at a time of atypical stress. (AP PhotoJon Super)