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It’s tricky to write this blog post. Tricky in a number of ways – and tricky is probably an understatement. With the current influx of Covid-19 worldwide, the whole world has tipped on it’s head. As a freelance artist this is a worrying time – and as a parent – it’s home schooling time! You’d think this would fill me with joy, being well versed in delivering participatory activities in all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, teaching your own children isn’t always as plain sailing. We’ll get there though, and I can only see the coming weeks as a small gift, of time with my children, however testing it may well be.
Back on task – Blue Cabin asked me to write a post about my experience of All About Me part of the Life Story Work programme developed in partnership with a group of Associate Artists, Blue Cabin, South Tyneside Council, Supanaught and Child Trauma Interventions Services. As Associate Artists we have designed and facilitated sessions with care experienced children and young people. As usual, I’m going to talk around the houses before getting to the point! (I’m sure my dearly beloved wife loves me for this on a daily basis).
The All About Me sessions my fellow Blue Cabin Associate Artists and I had been planning, biting our nails and preparing for in 2019 finally put our practice into action. With extensive training and development, the six sessions with care experienced children and young people began. I had two groups, one group aged 5 – 13 and a second group of care leavers aged 18 – 20. We also had accompanying adults in the room for both groups. These included a Pastoral Support Worker from South Tyneside Council, key adults with the younger group of children (foster carers or guardians) and Personal Advisors (P.As) with my older group. This was a carefully considered decision by South Tyneside Council and Blue Cabin. Who is in the room during these sessions is crucial to their success. The young people and young adults need to feel supported, along with the artist delivering. It is also important to consider the adults supporting the young people. Care experienced children and young people hold a wealth of histories and the reasons for them being in care. We must find ways of communicating and demystifying these histories in a delicate and honest way. The carers and guardians in the room need to be on board with this, as they are the key to continuing this work, whilst supporting them through discovering and understanding new information.
The six, weekly sessions covered the 6 All About Me ‘themes’
What is my identity?
Who is in my life?
Where am I?
Why am I where I am?
A few of my favourite things
These themes were identified within our training with Professor Richard Rose, Child Trauma Intervention Services. As Blue Cabin Associate Artists, we took these themes and developed creative methods of further articulating these themes. With my children and young people we explored map making, book making, paper folding, emotion card creating and centred this around the creation of stories, letters to their future selves, memories and beautifully crafted items. By the final session they had all produced a beautiful container all about them, a time capsule for them to look back on in years to come. We discussed this being a moment to celebrate and evidence in lots of wonderful ways. They certainly went above and beyond the brief!
Now, 2019 seems many moons ago, having just completed a second round of All About Me sessions in early 2020. If you had asked me at the beginning of this journey what I might think / feel at this point, I don’t think I would have had a clue how emotionally drained I would feel. Positively drained. Wonderfully drained infact! The total 15 young people I have worked alongside have been open, honest and have met me half way with enthusiasm and joy. We’ve asked questions of each other and explored ways of expressing sometimes difficult circumstances.
2020 saw me working with a small group of 3 children, 2 support workers and a pastoral support worker. This has proved one thing to me and that’s how much the organisations I am working with care about these young people. This group were a little different to my last groups, as they are currently living in the care of their families and birth parents. These sessions were organised to see if All About Me works with other young people under the care of South Tyneside Council. Every effort was made to ensure they could attend the sessions successfully. Home visits were made to ensure one young person was up to speed and comfortable attending sessions that had already begun. Family workers cleverly crafted their involvement in the first few sessions so that a young person could successfully engage with his disabled Mum and their bond could be nurtured and grow.
It was wonderful to see relationships flourish and children thoroughly enjoying the creative challenges I set them. It was also a challenge for me though. Working alongside these young people and hearing their stories and circumstances is important, but also takes it’s toll.
I learnt something from the 2019 sessions and that was to Play. I have always seen this as an important part of my creative practice, but not always identified as such. In the 2019 sessions I found that the sessions happened quickly, moved at pace and it was easy for time to run away with us. The time most successfully spent was when we stopped and spoke, played a game, shifted the dynamic of the room ever so slightly. I needed to trust in this approach further. Informed by my Doodle Jams, Big Draw that I’d collaborated on in the summer and other thinking, I changed the pace of the next set of sessions. I intentionally made more space for playing, a thing I haven’t consciously done consistently in each session before. At the end of each session we toasted marshmallows over a fictional campfire, made catapults, aeroplanes and scrumpled up paper to aim for targets. We made time for not doing anything exceptional. We made time for each other, laughter and being ridiculously playful. For these families so much time is spent being observed, completing paperwork and actually what I felt I needed to do was allow them space to be, just be. Having little competitions with no sense of failure or winners meant we could enjoy each-others company as humans, big and small, in a room together.
Inspired by all of the activity – I am reading Michael Rosen’s Book of Play, which I’d highly recommend to all and sundry. Within the first chapter he talks of inspiration, which he states ‘literally, means to breathe in. So take a moment and create in the world around you and think of the world as something you can play with.’
This perfectly mirrors the artist Self Care and Reflection session Blue Cabin offered to the Associate Artists, facilitated by CBT Therapist Matt Stalker. We spoke about the toll the weight of the project is taking on us all personally and emotionally. This really hit a nerve for me. As an adoptive parent, lots of the stories and experiences have naturally struck a chord with me and my children’s own stories are not too distant from those young people I have worked with in South Tyneside. How do we hold this information and not let it be debilitating? We breathe. We talk and we share. But most importantly we breathe. Mindfully or otherwise. But we accept that information, how we feel and take stock of that response, making sure our own values take centre stage on our to do lists. Then we begin again and create in the world around us.
And as I write this blog post, I shall take heed of my own advice as I ‘home-school’ my own children through this challenging time, though someone said ‘Unschooling’ is a much more fitting term. Absolutely…let’s play!