The Art of Participation: How Creative Arts Enhance Engagement 

The Art of Participation: How Creative Arts Enhance Engagement 

Written by Nichola Combe (Project Lead on UNCRC Capacity Building at Children’s Parliament)

Children’s Parliament adopts a children’s human rights-based approach, as set out in the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) to develop open and honest relationships with children, and to create opportunities for them to feel safe, challenged, and trusted. The aim of our work is to encourage children to explore the salient issues in their lives and consider what they can do to influence their own situation and that of others in relation to these issues. This is done by respecting their human dignity and valuing their opinions and ideas, but these opinions and ideas are not always expressed in spoken words or writing.  

All our participation is, therefore, rooted in creative arts practice which help elicit “voice” by providing children with multiple ways of expressing themselves and engaging them in dialogue with adults who make art alongside and with the children, putting everyone on an equal footing. Methods such as drawing, painting, and sculpting and activities such as puppetry, videography, poetry, drama, and collage making can all be used to amplify children’s voices. There are a vast variety of arts-based methods that can be used to meet individual expressive needs, and group art activities foster discussions and co-operation and provide a space for innovative problem solving. At Children’s Parliament we treat children as equals and that includes putting their artistic endeavours on a par with adults, just as we do their views and opinions. 

Our minds can wander freely when we are engaged in fun creative activities. Creative processes include divergent thinking, broad associations, cognitive flexibility, problem solving, imagination, improvisation, pleasure, and absorption (Vygotsky, 1976) (Russ S., 2014). Art encourages us to explore the world around us and to reflect on our lives and learn new things about ourselves in fun ways that involve sensory perceptions and emotion as well as intellectual responses. Creative art activities also promote equality and are empowering. Educationally marginalised children and those with challenges in their personal and home lives find sanctuary, nurture and self-esteem through creative arts and therefore find their voice. When children express themselves through creative arts activities we can capture ambiguities, liminalities and complexities that may not be easily communicated through words. They empower children to share their stories and perspectives in ways that feel comfortable. Participating in creative arts also plays an important role in supporting children and young people to recognise and value the variety and vitality of culture locally, nationally, and globally. Studies have shown that children who take part in regular arts activities show significant improvement in social cohesion, cooperation, and pro-social attitudes (Schellenberg, et al. 2015), and children who engage in the arts are more likely to volunteer and to vote as adults (CLA, 2017). 

Perceived barriers to creative arts participation include the misconception that additional resources and skills, such as time, budget, equipment, training, and facilitation, which may not be readily available to professionals, are needed for effective creative arts participation with children. While we advocate using good quality, professional materials whenever possible, to elevate the status and ensure the longevity of children’s art, there are many low and no cost activities including using natural and recycled materials. Adults have a tendency, as do children, to think they are “not artistic” or skilled enough to facilitate art activities, but everyone is creative and, just as we must get back in touch with our childhoods to participate with children, we also need to get back in touch with our own creativity. It can be as simple as providing pens and paper, a selection of natural materials to make imprints in homemade playdough or clay, or simple fabric shapes to make some basic puppets. You do not always need to demonstrate activities. Giving children a tray of natural found and recycled materials and asking them to make art exploring what dignity means will illicit wonderfully varied and unique qualitative data, and in today’s digital world there are a plethora of online free and downloadable art resources to help with inspiration when planning creative arts-based participation. The children themselves are often keen to lead on activities they have done before or to share their own artistic interests and ideas. Consulting with children from the outset of participation planning, to gain their creative ideas on resources and to see what artistic skills and knowledge already exists within the group, helps assuage facilitators’ fears about a lack of artistic knowledge. 

As with all kinds of participation methods, there are ethical considerations when using creative arts-based methods such as respecting the dignity, rights, and interests of children, especially when dealing with sensitive or personal topics and never forcing conversations. It is imperative to obtain children’s informed consent, and to ensure compliance with GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) in obtaining permission to use and to share children’s artistic outputs. You must ensure acknowledgement of the ownership and authorship of participants’ art by giving them credit and recognition for their contributions while protecting privacy and confidentiality, ensuring visual arts do not reveal children’s identities or personal information – this can easily be achieved by using only first names on artwork and securely recording ownership/authorship. Facilitators should ensure that creative arts-based methods are suited to individual needs and that they allow for discussion of participation aims. 

There is often a time gap between children giving their views and feedback being available on the result of their engagement with adults. This can make children feel disillusioned with participation and anxious that their views have gone unheard or ignored. It is therefore helpful to seek out opportunities to display and exhibit children’s artistic outputs following engagement to give value to their art and their calls to action, and to extend the reach of their work. There are many ways that this can be done, such as highlighting children’s drawings and artwork on a project website that they can then view at home and share with family and friends, framing or mounting their artwork to show how much it is valued and, with their permission, getting children’s work put on display or exhibited in a local library or gallery. The following are examples of how we do this at Children’s Parliament. 

 

Doves of Peace 

Last year some simple origami doves, decorated inside with our MCP’s (Member of Children’s Parliament) calls to action, were made during a participation session linked to one of our projects. The doves were then “flown” as part of internationally renowned artist Michael Pendry’s Les Colombes installation at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh to raise hopes for the future and show the power of community. This was part of a citizen art project advertised in the national press that we were able to link to our participation themes. The children were thrilled to be part of a professional installation seen by thousands of adults and felt that their views, and art, were given due consideration and weight. “This could really make adults think about what we are saying.” “We are actual artists; this is so awesome!” “Thousands of people have viewed our art. It feels like everyone in the country is listening to us!” 

Picture of paper cranes

 

Finding a permanent home for children’s artwork and Calls to Action

At the end of our How Professional’s Make Rights Real Investigation in East Lothian we had an art exhibition of the children’s framed artwork as part of the launch of our resources and we invited along public authority professionals, school staff and families to separate viewings. The children were thrilled to organise the exhibition, choose which pieces would be framed and choose how to display their artwork on the day. They were immensely proud to have their views and opinions given such importance and exhibited in their local community. The children then got to choose their favourite framed artwork to take home and the rest of their art has now been hung on permanent display at East Lothian Council’s head office highlighting the children’s Calls to Action on how professionals can make rights real for children. This allowed the participation conversations and the children’s calls to action to be carried on at home, in school and in their wider communities. It gave the work reach, which was meaningful to the children in their own communities, beyond the scope of the project – which was to provide a website with resources to help professionals improve their children’s human rights-based practice. All the children involved in this project asked if they could take part in wider participation work in the future, and one now aspires to be an MP, proving that creative arts-based practice fosters deeper engagement and enhances participation. 

 

Falkland Honeycomb Mural 

When Falkland’s Centre of Stewardship were working on the development of the Falkland Estate to ensure its sustainability and enhance community involvement, Children’s Parliament were asked to support children’s participation in the development process. We worked with children from local nurseries and schools on the Falkland Imagineers project to capture children’s views and ideas on what they and their families value about Falkland Estate and how people of all ages could best enjoy playing and learning on the Estate now and in the future.  The children’s drawings of their ideas were integrated into a Honeycomb mural which has now become part of the landscape at Falkland.  

  Picture of the Falkland honeycomb mural

 

Weaving Ideas Together 

The Children and Families Panel from our UNCRC Framework project recently produced individual recycled bicycle wheel weavings to help them consolidate their individual family’s thinking on the skills and knowledge needed for the Framework. The weavings are abstract representations of the core values of children’s human rights. The individual wheels will soon be made into a large kinetic sculpture weaving together all the threads of thought that the families have contributed from their lived experiences – the different coloured yarns representing diversity in Scotland and the children’s wheels representing childhood.  

Bike Wheel woven with wool Bike Wheel woven with wool

  

Everyone is an Artist 

On one of our Children’s Parliament projects I worked with a nine-year-old MCP (Member of Children s Parliament) who was profoundly dyslexic and whose difficulty with pencil control made it almost impossible for them to draw or paint. We found that playdough was an effective way to get their thoughts down and through that medium the child was able to share with us their traumatic experience of being in foster care. They then provided amazing insight and innovative ideas about how social workers could improve their practice for children when they were meeting a foster family for the first time which we were able to use in an online learning resource for professionals. The children interviewed their Westminster MP as part of their research for this project. Our dyslexic MCP (Member of Children’s Parliament) made a playdough model of his MP and gave him a photograph of it to keep. The MP later wrote a special letter from The Houses of Parliament, thanking him for the “amazing likeness in your fantastic artwork” and explaining that the photograph of the model had been framed and given pride of place on the wall in his Parliamentary office. Our MCP who was experiencing many challenges in school and home life was beyond thrilled and filled with pride and a sense of achievement. A year later when I met up with our MCPs (Member of Children s Parliament) for a feedback session the first thing that MCP said to me was “I’ve still got my Houses of Parliament letter, I’m keeping that safe to show my grandchildren.”  

An amazing model of Kenny made by Jacob

 

Eloquent Expression 

One of our ten-year-old autistic MCPs felt unable to talk about her feelings openly in front of everyone but was desperate to share her views. Sometimes any conversation at all was difficult so we simply asked her what would work for her. She chose to draw pictures, sometimes removing herself from the group altogether to do so. We had a relaxed attitude to this and allowed her to come and go as she pleased. One day we were talking about love being a core value of children’s rights and this MCP asked to draw a superhero of love. At the time everyone in the group complimented her on her unique drawing and she smiled and said, “It’s probably not what you think but I don’t want to elaborate at the minute.” 

Felt tip drawing of child with screen for head

We used the drawing in our Feelings Inspectors programme as one of a group of Superheroes of Mental Health and Wellbeing and she was thrilled to see her character as part of a professional learning resource. A few months later, once she felt more comfortable with the group, and while I was asking the children for feedback, our wonderfully artistic and eloquent MCP produced the following picture and accompanying text on what being an MCP, and participation had meant to her.  

“Before I felt silly and drew myself small and trapped in a box, but now I have drawn myself as a huge fierce Japanese dragon who is calm and nice, and the queen of love who knows she is perfect just the way she is. She is called Kikisumi and is powerful. She will call you perfect the way you are too. Kikisumi is me! I know I am fierce now.” 

Picture of dragon 'Kikisumi' drawn by child

 

Wild Ideas 

Sometimes you just cannot link what you are doing to a relevant creative art activity because of the subject matter. In those situations, you need to think creatively. As part of a series of interviews with professionals one of our MCPs was keen to interview the local countryside ranger. Due to Covid we had to carry out these interviews outdoors in the school playground in very windy conditions. We decided to have a taxidermy safari where the ranger brought along stuffed animals and we centred our interview questions around what wild ideas professionals might employ to ensure that children’s rights were real. There followed great discussions about how children could be free, like wild animals, and comparisons on the things that animals versus children needed to be happy, healthy, and safe. The children then took their own photographs of the animals, learning photography skills in the process, and feedback showed that this was one of the most fun and favourite engagement sessions of the whole project.  

Picture of fox    Picture of stuffed pine marten

By giving agency to children to express themselves through creative arts we empower them to explore their own stories and lived experiences in a way that they choose and allow children the headspace and time to formulate considered and meaningful answers when seeking their views and opinions. The process enables children and adults to collaborate in a mutual space while sharing ideas which may be difficult to put in writing. Creative activities also provide diverse ways for children to express feelings and emotions all of which ensures that we are effectively meeting their right to be heard. 

A paint pour of the dinosaur named the Dinosaur of Dignity

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