Creative Life Story Work graphic

The All About Me Sea

Associate Artist, Elena Miller reflects on her role as an Associate Artist working on a Creative Life Story Work programme in partnership with South Tyneside Council.

I’ve found myself returning to writing this blog many times over the past few months. I’ve worried about how to encapsulate such an incredible, emotional, and important journey. The people I have met, the stories that have been shared, the support that has been offered and the nurturing on every level has been second to none!

After reading through the reams of notes that I had shared with the Blue Cabin Team and the other artists involved in the project, I came upon a crucial piece of self-reflection which, at the time, provided me with the confidence to keep going but for the purpose of this blog, provides a concept for discussing the project and its impact – the idea of creating vessels for which the sea of personal discovery can be explored.

How it began…

I was approached by Blue Cabin in August 2018 and attended a meeting where myself and other artists from a variety of backgrounds came together to discuss Blue Cabin’s collaboration with South Tyneside Council (STC). They were to begin a large-scale strategic project supporting STC to develop their Life Story Work for care experienced children and young people. After researching Life Story Work and hearing how vital it was for children in care that they had this knowledge to help understand who they are, where they were and why, I was excited to explore different artistic mediums to help further this work.

We then attended some exceptional training – Social Pedagogy with Thure Johansen and Therapeutic Life Story Work training with Richard Rose. In the background, STC were working closely with other members of the Blue Cabin team and the social care team to create a special framework that would help feed into a child in care’s statutory review – a three tier model of All About Me, More About Me and Therapeutic Life Story Work, inspired by Richard Rose’s approach. All About Me would be the initial stage for all children who are in care in the local authority to experience the Life Story Work process. It would help children to think about 6 areas:

1.    What is my Identity?

2.    Who is in my life?

3.    Where do I live?

4.    My feelings

5.    A few of my favourite things

6.    Over the next 6 months I..

We were then tasked with developing creative experiences (the vessels) for children and young people in care, which would inform their individual Life Story Work through the process of ‘All About Me’ (the sea). Their carers would be present and so it was imperative to include them on the journey too.

This opportunity filled me with immense excitement but also fear – I felt thrilled to be working with such an amazing team of artists and be supported by Blue Cabin but felt scared at the prospect of not providing something good enough when dealing with children/young people and their carers lives.

I’ve always thought of myself as a jack of all trades, master of none -another reason for the fear. Whilst the empowerment of children and young people has been at the heart of my working ethos for many years, it has utilised many different creative art forms – not one specific one. Examples include clown doctoring in North-East hospitals, performing and facilitating workshops in various community settings, puppeteering/ puppet making, delivering reader-in-residence programs in schools and providing supportive, creative play opportunities for prospective adoptive parents and children in care. I was worried that by not having one key art form to base the sessions around that this would impact on the quality. However, by having a huge melting pot of creativity to explore, the sessions were varied and vibrant and kept the children/young people and their carers on their toes, leaving little time for distractions.

Travelling across the ‘All About Me’ Sea to find iTreasure

My initial early thoughts for the creative experiences stemmed from story-telling – using boxes filled with sensory objects to promote discussions, share stories, make new ones and that these stories would inform the child/young person to develop their own boxes. This then led to my idea of the iTreasure box – a personalised box with a series of mini-boxes inside which related to the 6 areas of All About Me. Other important items from a child/young person’s life could also be stored and it was something that could be added to/revisited as time went by.

As the date for the first 2 blocks of sessions came nearer in September 2019, I became wary of over planning. I set myself a loose structure but, from my experience, knew that until I had met the children and their carers, some of the ideas planned just might not work. I had already specified that I was happy to work with the younger age range of children 5-10 year olds. This age range provided me with an incredible insight into children’s levels of understanding about who they were and the world around them.

Interestingly for my first block of sessions, I ran two per week with 2 different age ranges within those parameters – 1 session was with five children aged 5-7 (with a 3-year-old sibling also attending) and the second was with 3 children aged 10 years. Whilst the younger children were eager to be playful the older ones were slightly more wary of the activities and less likely to share key moments about themselves. This meant that even though the two sessions were running side by side, different techniques and activities were used and often sessions had differing outcomes.

Digging for Treasure

Play was intrinsic to the very first session – children were invited to choose a box which contained items to play with, with their carers. Some were obvious in what was expected of the items – others had to use imagination and/or experimentation. They had a time limit and other rules which were to be abided by for everyone to be able to participate. This enabled me to watch how the children interacted with their carers – sometimes power struggles were obvious, lack of eye contact between pairings presented itself and it was interesting to watch how playful (or not) the adults became.

Next came their personal iTreasure boxes – the amount of care and attention each child put into decorating their boxes was incredible. The carers loved assisting and offering suggestions although it was sometimes hard for them not to take over. One older boy’s referral note’s said he didn’t enjoy arts and crafts, didn’t like games and didn’t really want to come. However, his box was so carefully and beautifully created, and he was so happy with it at the end – he was also really excited to come back.

As the weeks progressed, I found ways of adding sensory play to the mix – the best example of this being the creation of super soft slime as part of the Feelings Session. This was then used as a helpful way of having something to do with their hands as they discussed feelings and emotions with their carers – carers were then able to write down responses as the literacy of the children was of mixed ability. That being said, we often found other ways of expression without words, e.g. drawing pictures of favourite things, using bodies and faces, creating plasticine items etc.

Whilst I had envisaged that iTresure boxes would be a box with lots of little boxes, as the weeks went on a real mixture of items were made:

·      portraits of their carers with words of affirmation around them,

·      friendship bracelets,

·      paper fortune cookies,

·      jars filled with buttons that represented the special people in their lives,

·      Tree of Me – a pipe cleaner tree in a pot where the leaves had key moments from their life added to it,

·      large human sized scrolls where the carers had drawn round their children and wrote about what they want to do, be, see, say and where they want to go in the future.

·      Letters to their future selves.

By exploring the elements of the All About Me process in a group, it led to a shared sense of appreciation for each other’s stories and a level of understanding that people’s stories can have similarities. An example of this was when two boys discovered that they didn’t know where they were born – they were sat next to each other when this revelation happened but the carers and myself were able to let them know that, whilst we might not know the answer right now, we would be able to find that information out.

I had many comments from the carers saying that they had used the ideas in the sessions back at home and that often conversations were continued when sharing their boxes with other people. I also provided packs at the end to the carers which included descriptions of the activities that we had completed and suggestions of what to do next. My only criticism for myself at this point was that this was not more formally/artistically presented, due to time constraints, but my hope is that if this was to happen again that they would be better!

Stormy Seas

It wasn’t all plain sailing though – for children in care there are a lot of unanswered questions and the feelings and emotions stirred through the discussions in the session had some negative connotations. One girl had broken down at home after the feelings and emotions week and her carer was worried about how to deal with her outpouring. What was amazing about the support surrounding these sessions, though, was that I was able to contact Blue Cabin who could then pass the information on the necessary person in the STC care team for them to be able to offer counselling and ensure that the girl’s social worker knew also. Support sessions were also offered to carers throughout the course for them to attend, without their child, to discuss any other issues that they had.

Another steep learning curve came when the second round of sessions began. A different group, in that the majority of adults were connected carers* and so had family ties to the children. The sessions had begun but one extra family wanted to come along to the sessions. Initially I was more than happy to have more people come along – we had expected 6 pairings but only 4 had started the programme. After receiving information about the children and their foster carer, I was a little anxious as the children had quite complex additional needs and were at quite a critical point in their care plan. They were siblings and, with only one carer, I wondered how we could best support them. Blue Cabin ensured that we had extra support in the session alongside our brilliant STC Pastoral Support Worker (PSW) and so I became more confident that we could incorporate them into the remaining sessions.

However, when the children arrived their behaviour towards their foster carer, other people and the space became very challenging. When the session was finished, I felt like I hadn’t really been able to support anyone else with their creative experiences apart from the two new children. Much reflection happened on the session and after chatting to the PSW and Blue Cabin it was decided that we would offer some individual home sessions for the children. If the children and their foster carer had been present at the first session, where we had chatted carefully about what was going to happen and what was expected of everyone to make the sessions fun and safe, then this outcome may not have happened. This session highlighted for me the need to have continuity as a way to keep the space safe and secure for self-exploration to occur.

Continuing the Journey

As artists we must remember how cathartic creative experiences can be for anyone – and this means being able to deal with the calm waters or rough seas that can present themselves at anytime! This was the key learning for me from this project. Whilst I am not a trained therapist, often the process and/or outcome of work that occurs through providing creative arts is therapeutic. The iTreasure boxes were a way to encapsulate the areas of Life Story Work for the All About Me process. Children were invited to little islands to explore and leave if they didn’t feel ready but could return to at any time. My hope is that the carers will use this as a way to help their children explore their past, presents and futures in a safe and supportive way and continue to sail away and discover together!

Elena Miller

*Connected carers. Connected carers are significant people in a ‘child in care’s’ life who have been given the responsibility of looking after them on a day to day basis. … The child benefits from the additional support from their social worker but is offered the opportunity to remain within a familiar setting.