Why do I work with children through the arts?
I work with children and young people through the arts for two reasons: first, it’s an area and methodology in which I’m deeply interested in and relatively skilled; second, many of the benefits that children experience from engaging in a creative process overlap with the outcomes we hope to generate through our direct work with them.
I spent much of my own childhood drawing, inventing stories and creating imaginary casts of characters. My doodling survived into adulthood and in the late 1990s I started working in a community youth project in Dublin that placed the arts at the centre of its practice with young people. I had the opportunity there to work on a long term arts programme with a small group of children in partnership with an artist. This process awakened me to the possibilities inherent in working through the arts with children and young people, particularly over sustained periods of time.
The exchange of skills that occurred through the artist-youth worker relationship also sparked my own creativity and in time, I returned to college and studied photography. Since then, I have occupied both the role of artist and youth worker in different contexts.
For the past twelve years, I have worked in a child and family support project with children aged 4-12 years and their families. Our target group is younger than Community Youth Projects, but the outcomes we hope to achieve and the ways of working we choose to use have much in common. Sometimes, where funding and appropriateness allow, we work in partnership with artists and musicians to create and deliver interesting programmes. More often, we use our own creative skills, gained steadily through training and experience to incorporate the arts into our work with children.
Over the years, the setting for creative work with children has proved very significant: a space in which group dynamics and individual needs are minded and paid attention to, creates the safety and support in which playful exploration can take place. Through the supportive relationship fostered by a youth work approach, I have observed children who are struggling, engage meaningfully in and benefit from creative processes.
It would be impossible to definitively list the myriad benefits that can accrue to children and young people from the creative process. However, there are several that immediately come to mind. I have observed how the arts connect the child or young person with the richness of their inner self. From the well of the inner self, the capacity to imagine arises and the child’s unique point of view emerges.
In a world that is often very busy, difficult and focused on the external, it is fascinating to witness children totally absorbed in their imagination and in the quietness of creating. Young children are at home in the world of imagination. Yet if imagination is fostered through creative experiences, it can also become a rich resource for young people and adults in seeing possibilities beyond what society prescribes and taking creative risks that enrich their lives.
Each week I observe how children and young people express themselves through the arts. Developing the ability to express themselves and realizing the uniqueness of their expression builds the confidence of children. Creative methodologies can also provide a safe way for children to step back and look at their experiences and thereby make sense of them. By using experience and environment as a source for creative expression, children can engage more deeply with life. The tactile nature of paint and clay and the physical expression of dance and drama contribute to the holistic development of children and young people.
There are of course challenges in working through the arts. With younger children, it is a challenge to guide them through the process so that their experience of art is fluid and not connected to ideas of right or wrong, of ability and non-ability. As children grow into teenagers and absorb negative messages and low expectations from society about themselves, it is sometimes challenging to support their continued participation as they begin to doubt the validity of their expression. I think that is where the youth work relationship and quality arts work play a vital role.