Making safe spaces online for Creative Life Story Work

As I sit here at my laptop writing this, I am remembering many of the wonderful, hilarious, heart-warming, moving moments that have occurred through this small computer screen and the power that it has had within the delivery of the Creative Life Story work sessions that I have facilitated online for Blue Cabin.

I am one of eight artists who started on this epic journey of creating a series of sessions that help care-experienced children use arts activities to explore their life stories. COVID-19 made us change from face-to-face delivery to adapting and revamping our arts-based sessions into an online space.

PLANNING AND LOGISTICS FOR COVID SAFETY

There were many discussions between myself and my fellow artists about our anxieties of delivering in an online space. As artists practising within communities, it is often through face-to-face delivery that strong bonds and connections can occur and that stories can be shared and heard. The challenge was how could we replicate this when not in the same physical space as the children and their carers. To alleviate our fears and provide a safe space for us, we set up our ‘Cuppa Collective’ where we, as artists, could virtually meet, chat over our session plans and share ideas for games and activities that would work online.

We also had to take into consideration that the materials would need to be delivered to the children and their carers. Careful planning and preparation made sure that this could happen. Blue Cabin and the three local authorities that we worked with were able to receive our boxes of resources and deliver them personally to the children, all within COVID safety measures.

ZOOM ROOMS

We ensured that within the online sessions, the space would be safe by having a producer who could control the Zoom space. Their task was to manage people entering Zoom and to explain how it worked to ensure a smooth running of the session. There was also a Pastoral Support Worker (from the local authority) who could be contacted before, during and after the sessions in case any of the children became upset or distressed by what we were discussing. This provision was vital to ensure the safety of the carers as well as the children and hopefully made them feel safe, comfortable and supported throughout.

BOX OPENING RITUAL

When the children first met us online, they would have received their box of materials and they were able to see the other children with their boxes too. The opening of these boxes and weekly parcels became like a ritual; almost like a joint birthday celebration every week and the excitement and anticipation was a joy to behold for everybody in the online space. The positive energy and fun that was had also contributed to the feeling of safety.

GROUND RULES

Within my sessions I set ground rules using a selection of Makaton (1) signs for things such as camera, microphone, time, space, staying safe, and being kind. I was able to turn this into a game whereby I would test that they knew which sign was used for which rule and what the sign meant. This simple task at the beginning of every session led to a sense of shared understanding of what we should be mindful of whilst in the online space.

USE OF MICROPHONES, MUTING AND MUSIC

When setting the children tasks to do with their carers, I explored the use of microphones and music. I would ask everyone to mute themselves and give them a certain amount of time to complete their task.  A selection of calming tunes would be played whilst the children discussed and made the items with their carers. This was often a very moving moment for the pastoral support worker, the producer and myself to witness. We were able to see the children’s and carers’ body language and expressions and watch their connection and relationship grow. There were often opportunities for the carers to share their stories with the child too and encourage the children to open up about things within their lives. By having the microphone muted, this information was shared initially between them. When we all returned to our screens to see what had been made, there was always the option for them to share their makes and discoveries.

CHOICES AND VOICES

Allowing choice in how much they wished to share proved to be one of the most interesting elements of the sessions for the children. In line with Choice Theory, the children were ‘empowered to take responsibility for their choices ’ (2), thereby giving them a powerful tool to take ownership of their story and determine who is going to hear it and when. This is a useful tool in life for anyone, for keeping themselves safe. Whilst this choice was always offered to the children in face-to-face sessions, what became apparent whilst delivering online was their eagerness to share and their ability to listen and respond to each other’s stories in a more focused and controlled way.

SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS

In 2019, 55.9% of looked-after children had a special educational need, compared to 46.0% of children in need and 14.9% of all children. (3)

In both face-to-face and online delivery, the adaptability of a session or task to meet a child’s special needs is vital for them to be able to access the provision fully. Some of the benefits that I found working online for children with additional needs included:

  • Not having to sit down if they didn’t want to – freedom to move around in their own space. I also made sure that some of the warm-up activities had elements of movement and suggested that they didn’t have to stay in front of the camera.

  • The computer screen as a focus – activities could be done away from the screen and then they could return to show and share if they wanted to.

  • Allowing the children to be as loud as they like (within the carers’ discretion) by using the mute button – with the producer or myself managing the space so that it wasn’t an auditory overload for everyone.

  • The use of the chat function – one autistic child that I worked with built up his confidence to speak through conversing via the chat function. He was able to send messages to the group or me personally with his carer’s consent. I witnessed a huge transformation in this boy – from being quiet and reserved in the first session to him making a big, bold thank you speech to everyone over Zoom in the last.

  • Physically being in their safe space – the carer’s home. By being in a space familiar to them, it allowed them to be themselves and not constrained by the regulations that a specific venue might have in place.

HOLDING THE VIRTUAL SPACE

Whilst we are not trained therapists, the Pastoral Support Worker (PSW), Producer and I could be seen to be ‘holding the space’ for these children and their carers:

“Holding space” means being physically, mentally, and emotionally present for someone. (4)

There was a real sense of shared responsibility in the online space:

  • the Producer in making the Zoom room safe and structured,

  • the PSW being the eyes and ears of the operation and being able to take notes, sometimes picking up on subtleties from the children that might be missed by myself through leading the activity. They were also able to provide extra knowledge of the individual child and carer when needed.

  • my role as facilitator in providing feedback and responses to their creations, validating what they had produced and offering time for them to be seen and heard.

In a physical space, not all of this might have occurred – especially during the times of COVID where the children and their carers had to sit at a distance from the other pairings, the group activities were limited through lack of touch and forms of communication, and the size and shape of the space impacted on what could/could not be achieved.

The online world, which at first seemed very limiting, suddenly transformed the sessions into a new entity – one that could provide a different shape and structure so that discoveries and sharings happened in an ultimately more supported and safe way.

It was an absolute honour and privilege to facilitate these sessions and to be there as the children and their carers opened up and shared their life stories. Whilst COVID may have forced us to change the way we delivered these sessions, the online realm has surprisingly provided a safe and focused space, where children can feel empowered and where their relationships with their carers can blossom and grow.

Elena is one of the Associate Artists who helped to deliver a new model of life story work in three North East local authorities. Find out more about Creative Life Story Work here

(1) ‘Makaton is a unique language programme that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable people to communicate. It supports the development of essential communication skills such as attention and listening, comprehension, memory, recall and organisation of language and expression.’ https://makaton.org/TMC/About_Makaton/What_is_Makaton.aspx (accessed 22/02/22)

(2) https://wglasser.com/what-is-choice-theory/ (accessed 17/02/2022)

(3) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/884758/CLA_Outcomes_Main_Text_2019.pdf (accessed 17/02/2022)

(4) https://gstherapycenter.com/blog/2020/1/16/what-holding-space-means-5-tips-to-practice (accessed 17/02/2022)