I am delighted to share this guest post on the wonderful, creative work from Professor Monica Lakhanpaul of the CHAMPIONS Project. Here, she shares her thoughts and experience of using creative arts in research and for influencing policymaking.
Using creative arts to hear children’s experiences
By Professor Monica Lakhanpaul on behalf of the CHAMPIONS Project
All children should have a home. It’s a fundamental right. No child should suffer from experiencing homelessness.
But what makes a home? Four walls and a roof is one answer, but it’s not a complete one. A home should be an environment that supports and nurtures a child and their family, enabling them to grow up Safe, Healthy, and Educated (SHE).
A home – especially during childhood – is where you build the foundation of your future self: where you create memories and where your surroundings and experiences shape the person you will be. We all have some memories of early childhood, perhaps a favourite toy, or a parent’s smile, maybe the smell of cooking or freshly cut grass.
But what many don’t realise is that all these events and stimuli are affecting how our brains develop. Everything we hear, smell and see influences our development and how we respond to life, even later on. There is evidence that points to how experiencing stressful situations as a child has a negative impact on brain development and the rest of our lives.
Knowing this, it’s easy to see why a secure and happy childhood environment is so important. But for too many, it is not the case – more than 120,000 children were in temporary accommodation in England at the start of 2022 – so how do we change that?
How do we ensure that every child has the resources to thrive (this is, after all, the primary issue with homelessness – a lack of resources and a challenging environment for families)? If we can’t build more homes, how do we improve the experiences of children while they live in temporary accommodation?
To achieve the best results, we must bring together professionals and volunteers from health, education and housing, along with families with experience of homelessness, to influence policy and practice and act early to prevent reaction by services later.
But as a practicing paediatrician and an academic, I am aware that it takes a long time to use research and evidence to do so and that, unfortunately, words are often read and then easily forgotten. Not many members of the public spend time reading academic journals, for example.
Fortunately, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Visual representation and using the creative arts are methods that I have turned to more and more in my recent work as a way of giving deeper understanding of people’s lives. After all, unless you see or hear what someone’s lived experiences are like, it is very difficult to truly understand. And it is even harder for researchers to relay that information second hand to a wider audience in a way that will make a difference.
The arts are a medium that enable people to share their stories from their own perspective; to drive the narrative and show what is important to them.
That is why, as part of the CHAMPIONS Project, we have partnered with creatives such as Graffwerk, Bee Squad and SoundVoice to create street art, photography, music, and more as a way of sharing the lived experiences of children and their families. These have produced some incredible pieces so far that speak to their hopes and ambitions, such as this zine that collects some of the artwork created with Graffwerk.
Our collaboration doesn’t stop there, and we look forward to working with children much more in the future – letting them take the lead and following the stories they want to tell. We will be hosting as much as we can on the CHAMPIONS website, as well as sharing art with the public and raising awareness through events like the British Science Festival, where we are presenting in September 2022.
Raising awareness is not the only benefit of creative activities. Participating in them has been shown to have therapeutic benefits and improve mental health and reduce stress by lowering cortisol levels (a hormone that is present in high levels during stress).
Ultimately, academic research is still important. My experiences of working with policymakers have shown me that the most effective tools to persuade them are data and statistics. However, for generating interest, raising awareness, and building relationships with communities, creative methods are ideal.
A combined approach that brings together academic and non-academic techniques, whilst sometimes challenging to implement, enables the experiences of individuals to be best shared while still collecting the data necessary to influence policymakers.
For more information and to view the artistic work, please contact Professor Monica Lakhanpaul at:
All images from London Borough of Newham, CHAMPIONS Project, Graffwerk workshop, December 2021, with thanks.