Using creative mediums in research to promote engagement and communication

Many qualitative researchers carrying out child focussed enquiry such as, focus groups, interviews, or a range of other participatory methods, often incorporate creative methods like drawing, playdough, puppets, Lego, music, etc., or possibly technological media’s like photography and video. This is because research communication can be enhanced with children when structured around several activities (Castro, Swauger, and Harger, 2017), the benefit being it helps young participants remain engaged and on task with the enquiry in hand. A variety of techniques can prevent boredom and sustains interest. Having something specific to respond to also helps the young person who struggles with concentration (i.e., those with attention or concentration difficulties), enabling them to make connections with the topic of enquiry.

Playful and creative approaches can be especially useful when carrying out a sensitive line of enquiry whereby difficult feelings are likely to be expressed. Creative activity in these cases can be helpful because the child can talk about something else rather than themselves enabling them to more safely externalise their difficulties. Therefore helping to keep the conversation light and playful as this reduces stress and provides children with an opportunity to bring their own distinctive contribution.

A word of caution however when embracing the concept of using creative activity you must firstly ask yourself, do the creative methods truly have a place in supporting your line of enquiry, and are you sure you are not hiding any adult insecurities behind such structured activities?

When creative mediums are felt to be appropriate to promote communication and engagement with children researchers must consider the development and holistic needs of the child. A piece of seminal work carried out by Rhoda Kellogg between 1948 through 1966 tells us that researchers need to also consider the child’s artistic development. Rhoda, a psychologist and a director of a nursery school in San Francisco, examined the development of artistry by collecting over one million drawings from children of different ages. She then categorized these into developmental stages, as outlined below:

  • The Scribbling Stage ages 2-4 - This is random mark making.
  • The Pre-schematic Stage ages 4-7 - This is where the child begins to name their scribbles.
  • The Schematic Stage ages 7-9 - The child represents a real object, creating symbols that can be simple or really intricate. The child is representing their own artistic vision.
  • The Dawning Realism Stage ages 9-11 - The child becomes aware of their art making and begins to judge it. They will be interested in others and are aware of their peers and society.
  • The Pseudo-Naturalistic Stage ages 11-13 - There is more of an emphasis on the end product, being aware of their own artistic talent and having phases of creativity.

It is helpful to remember that once a child has reached school age, they will more frequently question their wider world and their place in it and might look to you for more guidance and ideas. Therefore, it is important to have this in mind that is, if a child asks a question like: “What do you think about heaven”? The appropriate response would be to encourage the child’s wondering. So, for example, you respond with “1 am not a heaven expert, but what do you know and think about this and what are your thoughts and feelings?”

Once a child moves into the teenage years, self-criticism and the idea of artistic talent being something they do or don't possess will be in-built. Hence, using creative mediums is different to engaging younger participants. It is necessary therefore to think carefully about the methods you will use. Ask yourself, does the activity have potential to patronise? Crayons and paints may make some teenagers feel like children if the activity is not age appropriate. Drawing is, however, appropriate when the activity is age appropriate for example. Gauntlett (2007) asked teenagers to draw pictures of celebrities to understand their aspirations and their identifications with media figures. Varied and imaginative research methods such as vignettes (short stories), YouTube clips, or photos work well with older children, as does incorporating internet, mobile phone, or webcam activities. This is because many young people are very used to being bombarded with vibrant, fast-moving visual pictures and the downloading of photos and videos onto social media via Apps such as WhatsApp and TikTok. Researchers have found these mediums to be less intimidating than asking teenage participates to wholly participate in a one-to-one interview. Media such as film clips and photos have been seen to promote a relaxed atmosphere, appearing to increase the young people’s confidence whilst being interviewed (Punch, 2006).

A useful reflexive exercise to do when looking to use or develop creative activities to promote your research communication is to take the time to watch children or young people in your targeted age play or engage in leisure activity. Ask yourself the following questions: What are they doing or playing with? Who are they playing with? What makes the activity fun?

Gillians reflection below outlines the power of creative medium, not only enabling successfully engagement with a vulnerable young person, who spoke little English, in therapy but also how evaluation of this intervention could be carried out neutrally and sensitively via pictures and scales.

Reflection: The power of art as a medium to cross language barriers and when carrying out sensitive enquiry

I was working with an unaccompanied asylum seeker, also known as a separated child (as this term places the child first), who had faced many traumas in his war-torn country. His mother had paid traffickers to get him safety to this country but when making this journey he had experienced more trauma. He presented with post- traumatic stress disorder and he was having flashbacks to the traumatic incident

I often used art to engage and communicate with him, as his interpreter was not always available. He would use the art materials to draw images of his village, family, and friends. He drew a picture of a boat which depicted how the boat had been attacked and had sank. This drawing invited me into his experience. Although we could not communicate, he knew certain words and I could empathise through facial expressions and making my own artwork in response to his painful traumatic experience. This reciprocal art making became the conversation. I also used emojis that depicted differing facial expressions for him to rate how he was feeling during the session which helped me gauge his emotions when I was uncertain.

To gain feedback from the session. I used a session-by-session rating scale with a line divided into green amber and red that ran from the thumb’s up to the thumb’s down. This method helped to evaluate our trauma work.

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