The importance of creativity in the lives of care-experienced children and young people

Pat Petrie, Emeritus Professor, UCL, joined us as keynote speaker at MC², a mini-conference on social pedagogy and inclusive practice. Here’s an insight from Pat into the place of creativity and social pedagogy in education.

This blog draws on academic research and evaluations, cooperating with many colleagues along the way, as well as my early experience as a drama teacher. Drama led me into work with young people, many of whom had experienced hard life circumstances, including young offenders in a secure unit. I found that offering young people an entry into creativity could provide a different focus in life. It made possible other ways of seeing themselves, without denying the harder parts of their stories. I didn’t think very deeply about it at the time – but I knew they enjoyed it. Much later, my research introduced me to social pedagogy – a subject area and professional field well known in continental Europe. Many of its practitioners are involved in daily face to face work with young people in care, and often the arts and creativity are an important part of their professional education. Of course, creativity isn’t limited to the arts. It exists in many aspects of life and in professions as dissimilar as social work and product design. In both, creative practitioners find new ways of addressing very different professional demands.  But this blog focusses especially on the arts and the aesthetic dimension of creativity.

I’ll start with an example where looked-after children were drawn into making an opera: creating a story and communicating it in words and music. This was one of several varied examples in a Youth Music/NCB project, all concerned with introducing children in care to music (Petrie and Knight, 2011).  It was, by the way, how I came to meet Jenny Young and got involved in other art activities with young people in the North East of England.  I’ll go on to look at the place of the arts and creativity in the education and practice of social pedagogues in continental Europe, and end by discussing, very briefly, the concept of artistic creativity.

Creativity: a children’s opera 

This is an example of making an opera in which care-experienced children played a full part. I’ve chosen it because it shows how a group of ‘unlikely’ children can be successfully drawn into an experience of creativity, composition, and performance.  It was an ambitious achievement which drew on a rich local network, made possible by experienced arts practitioners, a high adult/child ratio, the practical support of the local authority, and the children’s own creativity.

The opera was a project devised by Myrtle Theatre, Bristol. A dozen or so 7-11-year-olds made up a story and collaborated in setting it to music. They were all currently in a foster family or, less frequently, kinship care. Many were seen as having ‘special needs’ and, at the time, some were under threat of school exclusion. The group met on Saturdays for a day throughout the winter term. Significantly, Myrtle saw the opera as a ‘whole group’ project. Everyone, adults and young people, ate together, everyone helped clear up, and some adults participated in acting and singing. The young people agreed what was to happen in the first scene, then each week decided what would come next. When they’d agreed the words for a song, they painted large sheets of paper with different colours, shapes and images to express what they wanted the music to convey. Then they would gather round the keyboard and the musical director asked them how the music should go, fast, slow, happy, sad, up, down or . . . .? and he would improvise according to their answers until they were satisfied. He said that this seemed to open the music door for them and helped them understand the relationship between words and music.  He reported that the young people themselves sometimes suggested their own settings for different lines or came up with an answering musical phrase. A musician working on the project said that musically the children were ‘amazing’ and gave as an example a moment when Steve, aged 8, spontaneously sang the right note for an adult singer who was having difficulty finding the pitch, and another child came in to help, too.

Over the Christmas break, the children were asked to listen to a recording of all their songs, but they didn’t otherwise run through the whole opera until the dress rehearsal.  This took place on the day of the performance in the Colston Hall, Bristol, before 150 carers, relatives, children’s services staff, and some of the children’s teachers. Their teachers were very impressed as was a local authority music advisor, who said she would not have approached this level of music with secondary school students, let alone younger children. Another musician said that the music was ‘sophisticated’, but the children did not find it difficult to sing. He thought this was because children were not so worried about musical conventions and in making up melodies tended to break the rules – about changing key, for example – as many modern composers have done anyway.

My own strong impression of the rehearsals I observed and of the performance was that the children enjoyed the whole creative event and were highly absorbed by it.

Creativity and the arts in the education of Social Pedagogues: Danish care study

The children’s opera was a leisure project. Now I turn to social pedagogy and an example of how the arts and creativity can inform everyday work with children and young people. This is not the place to describe the profession of social pedagogue in any detail but, in short, their work centres on education in its broadest sense: supporting people’s development across the age range and into old age – although it’s fair to say that they mostly work with children and young people. In much of mainland Europe, social pedagogues can be found in both mainstream and special provision, including children’s residential care (e.g., Petrie et al 2006). The arts play an important part in their professional formation. Helen Chambers and I made a study visit to one country, Denmark, to examine this more closely*, (Petrie and Chambers, 2009). Together with other research and experience, the Myrtle children’s opera, and the Danish study paid into our Learning Framework for Artist Pedagogues (Chambers and Petrie, 2009).

In Denmark, we were told that including the arts in social pedagogy courses aimed to further students’ appreciation of their own creativity, and to open their eyes to the rich possibilities available when professionals recognise and respond to the creativity of children. Some tutors spoke of enabling students to provide young people with opportunities for enjoying beauty and creativity, and for wonder. A music lecturer, a guitarist, told us about how he’d played for young people and the ‘wow factor!’ it had produced among them, which the students had witnessed. Another said that the aesthetic is important for children, ‘you can see it in their eyes’. A different tutor spoke of children’s spiritual response to beauty, the recognition of other, something outside the self. Yet another talked about their ‘going with the flow’ when they became totally engaged in an activity.

While part of their work was ensuring children’s physical wellbeing, students also learned that routine care could carry important messages, positive and negative, for those they cared for. Accordingly, bedtimes were to be seen not merely as “putting children to bed”; they could be made cosy and secure with rituals, stories, and song. This could also contribute to building warm, trusting relationships between children and staff. Similarly, mealtimes were opportunities for enjoying each other’s company, conveying respect and appreciation – they were not just for feeding children.  It was hoped that students experience in the arts would help them to be alert to these other human dimensions, that exist alongside the material aspects of life.

What is creativity?

Both Myrtle Theatre and the Danish example speak to me of artistic creativity, whether as artist or audience, as one of the good things of life alongside love, friendship, playfulness, and fun. In whatever profession, creative people discover new solutions for practical problems. Via the arts, they find ways of communicating ­­­­­­ that go beyond the literal and matter of fact, also they are happy to see young people make their own discoveries, and don’t pour cold water on them. I’m reminded of a story about a child who said he was going to sail across the sea to discover America. ‘America’s already been discovered,’ someone pointed out. ‘But not by me,’ the child replied.  A related approach can be found in Picasso’s statement to George Sutherland that his art came not from an act of seeking but of finding – suggesting that he did not go about his work hedged in by prior decisions and understandings, but that he was available for discoveries to emerge.

Another way of thinking about artistic creativity is as being willing to enter the zone of ‘as-it-wereness’ – it’s not ‘real life’ but it can relate deeply to it.  It’s a realm where nothing is fixed, where there can be change and growth: anything is possible and new discoveries are waiting. The creative arts are at home in the cultural dimensions of our existence: dimensions where symbol, ritual and metaphor can permeate and enrich the more material and pragmatic aspects of life. We all – including care experienced children and young people – need them!

Hear more from Pat at MC² on 26 November – find out more here.

*We visited three colleges, in different parts of Denmark. Interviews were achieved with seven staff, in six departments: two drama, two arts, one music and one general pedagogy department. The interviews, which lasted from 1-3 hours, were lightly structured and centred on how and why creative activities were included in the training and practice of pedagogues. In addition, we had some short, but illuminating, conversations with other lecturers, took part in a drama session and attended a student’s final examination in drama.


Petrie, P., Boddy, J., Cameron, C., Simon, A., Wigfall, V., (2006) Working with children in care: European perspectives, Open University Press: Bucks

Chambers, H., and Petrie, P., (2009) Learning Framework for Artist Pedagogues, Learning-Framework-for-Artist-Pedagogues.pdf (

Petrie, P., and Chambers H., (2009) Richer lives: Creative activities in the education and practice of Danish Pedagogues, Microsoft Word – social pedagogy and the arts v3.doc (

Petrie, P. and Knight, A. (2011) I want to Sing. Sing Up/NCB Looked after Children Programme Evaluation.  Sing_Up_Looked_After_Children_full_report.pdf (