Michelle Wood, Sea Tern Print

Creativity and conversation: helping care-experienced children and young people explore their life stories

Printmaker Michelle Wood describes how creativity can help care-experienced children and young people explore their life stories.

How do we help care-experienced children and young people explore their life stories in a safe, meaningful and thoughtful way?

Blue Cabin set this innovative challenge, to work with their team, alongside other Associate Artists and South Tyneside Council Care staff. As artists, we were challenged to design creative approaches to help care-experienced children and young people explore their life stories, placing their experiences at the centre of this ‘All About Me’ project. As an artist, this was an amazing challenge to respond to.

The aim is to make a life story book that is more than a book – a series of unique outputs, exploring different questions to prompt conversation, through a series of inventive, creative, colourful, exciting and accessible art activities. This is a way for each child to explore their life-story, to articulate their experience, and to capture this through carefully designed creative experiences and a beautiful and unique artistic output.

As a printmaker, offering creative print sessions to groups of all ages and abilities for health and wellbeing, I know the ‘power of print’ is that everyone can participate. It offers them new experiences and a chance to learn new skills, where everyone can achieve, produce unique and beautiful outputs and feel a sense of self-worth.

My approach to the ‘All About Me’ project is to bring a variety of playful, print-based activities to create a hand-made ‘artist’s’ book with each child. The structure of each ‘artist’s’ book is based on a series of key questions and a carefully designed activity; the content of each book is unique to each child and their unique story. Questions include: who am I? who is in my life? why I am where I am? my favourite things, my emotions and advice to future self.

The younger children I work alongside loved making prints, using a traditional printing press, using colourful inks, using the rollers and printing equipment, using rubber stamps, making marks, using sparkly gel pens, using different printmaking papers. Offering children access to good quality materials and carefully prepared, thoughtful activities brings a sense of value that says “you are valued, your views matter, you are listened to, this is about you, you can make beautiful and unique things”.

Some children were keen to help as the weeks passed and as they learnt new skills, knew what to do, knew how to roll out ink thinly on the rollers, knew how to use the printing press. They wanted to, and were able to, help. Their experience of care gave them a caring approach, they know how it feels, they were tuned in with their feelings.

Towards the end of the 6-week project, each child’s book was carefully made by hand to incorporate all their beautiful and unique outputs, prints, drawings, words. It was then wrapped in gold tissue and presented to them at the sixth session. Although unfinished, with pages and gaps to add to, this made it an ongoing project, just as their life-stories are ongoing. The children opened their books carefully, shared them with their key adult, then re-wrapped them as treasure to take home.

There were times when it was challenging and I asked myself “Can I do this, will this work, what happens if it doesn’t work, what happens if they don’t like it?”. The process also unlocked issues and emotions in the child and their carer. The Life Story and Social Pedagogy training we received helped prepare us to experience those difficulties. Also vital is the amazing support provided by Blue Cabin and other associate artists, to be supported weekly, through a simple message “Hope it goes well, we’re thinking of you, let us know how it goes” and a chance to share and reflect through conversations, meeting up and online learning space. The considered and experienced support of the Pastoral Support Worker has also been invaluable.

As an artist, it was a roller-coaster, emotional journey. It is a privilege to be asked to design and create new art activities with a purpose, to ask questions, to listen and watch, to reflect on how the activities might be improved and refined, to work alongside the children and their carers. It is a privilege to make new friends, to see children talk to each other, to hear “thank you” and “I’ve loved it” and “I want to do it again!”.

The All About Me approach is a chance to offer unique creative experiences and a chance to nuture relationships. It is a privilege to work alongside Blue Cabin, South Tyneside Care Team and Associate Artists on this innovative project.

Michelle Wood