Branching Out

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Artscapers from Spinney Community Primary School discovering their local woods, 2018
Artscapers from Spinney Community Primary School discovering their local woods, 2018

Branching Out is a partnership between Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination (CCI), Cambridge Acorn Project (CAP) and Fullscope (FS), with academic partners University College London (UCL) Institute of Education and Anglia Ruskin University (ARU). The project is investigating how elements of our established mental health art-in-nature programmes can be scaled up to benefit more children, contributing to a national research initiative seeking to understand how local, cultural, natural and community assets can mitigate health inequality.

In Detail
Amongst policy makers there is recognition of the need for creating the right environment and context to support children’s mental health in order to reduce the growing need for interventions from mental health services. Schools have been identified as having a key role in providing such support, yet they receive few resources to do so. This pilot training programme directly addresses this. Branching out will is testing new approaches to increase the capacity of schools to support children’s mental health:

  • 6 primary schools from across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have joined the pilot - Hampton College, Hartford Infant and Juniors, Jeavons Wood, Ridgefield, Weatherhalls and Wilburton.  Each school has developed a community artscaper team of teaching assistants and volunteers who will be undertaking a training programme in September as ‘community artscapers’, devised by CCI and CAP
  • New resources have been co-created with primary school artscapers from Mayfield Primary School, artist Suzanne Jasilek and researchers Gabby Arenge and Emily Dowdeswell.
  • The community artscapers will use the resources to deliver a programme of activity for small groups of children, with ongoing support from Susanne and a therapist from CAP, during autumn 2022.
  •  Researchers will evaluate and ascertain the feasibility of this approach, considering capacity building and the potential of further scaling up of this model at a national level

Context
Professionals across health, social care and education sectors are increasingly concerned by the growing number of children requiring support for their mental health, and the subsequent increase in demand for mental health services. This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is estimated that there could be as many as 1.5 million requiring added or new support with their mental health as a result.

Studies of the impact of Covid-19 on children’s mental health have found that regular time outdoors is associated with better mental health; supporting a wealth of previous research suggesting that substantial benefits for wellbeing may be derived from contact with nature. Despite this, children are spending less time outdoors, leading to societal concern about children’s loss of connection with the natural environment.

A novel way to approach this is through art in outdoor places, with evidence suggesting that the arts can aid physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development, as well as improving mental health and social inclusion.

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Aoife Greenham, a volunteer from ARU’s illustration programme, supporting students from Mayfield Primary School as they visited Eddington, 2018
Aoife Greenham, a volunteer from ARU’s illustration programme, supporting students from Mayfield Primary School as they visited Eddington, 2018

About
This project is supported by Fullscope, with the research fund managed by the UKRI on behalf of the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Collectively these research councils have sort to fund research to establish how cultural, natural and other community assets can mitigate health inequalities. This project is one of 12 across the uk. The National Centre for Creative Health are hosting this UK wide programme and you can read more about the initiative here.

The Branching Out research is coordinated by Nicola Walshe, Hilary Bungay and Anna Dadswell. Read about Eco-capabilities, research into art-in-nature practice led by Nicola Walshe, here.  The project is coordinated by Lucy Wheeler. Please contact Lucy for further information or join our mailing list to receive updates.

Turning your senses on

06/06/22

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Turning your senses on

The Branching Out project was invited by the new National Centre for Creative Health to open an All Party Parliamentary group discussing young people, co-production, creativity and mental health services. Three children who had taken part in the project joined Ruth Sapsed (Director of CCI) and Paula Ayliffe (Co-Headteacher, Mayfield Primary) to share their thoughts on having time to make art outdoors. The children advocated passionately about the learning and wellbeing benefits of being creative outdoors:

You can be with yourself, find a nice quiet spot and just relax.

Learning isn’t sitting in the classroom learning your 12 x 12, learning is discovery, finding out new things.

Outside the sky is open, there are trees, and if you have all of these sense on […] it’s so much more memorable, you are much more likely to remember and enjoy your experience.

They also discussed how important the open-endedness of Artscaping was to finding their own creativity:

They didn’t tell us what to make, or how to make it, they just said make some artwork with it.

You don’t need set rules, just a framework […] a loose structure to build on, you can then build around the structure.

The session, chaired by MP Rachel Hopkins, was virtual with over 100 people tuning in to listen many of whom commented on how articulate the children were in discussing the benefits of this work and the impact it has had on their wellbeing.  Below is our contribution to the meeting. The full recording can be viewed here.

How to ‘not die of boredom’

06/06/22

For the first phase of Branching Out, we spent two happy artscaping days with year 5 children (9 and 10 year olds) from Mayfield Primary School. It felt important for this project to start with children from a school that prioritises arts in nature experiences, who will help us to think about what types of activities and materials children most enjoy working with and responding to outdoors, whilst also explaining to us how adults can best support children to have an Artscaping experience. All of their ideas have been carefully documented and will feed into the training and resources that will be created for the Community Artscapers, who will be giving their time to assist Artscaper sessions in schools later this year.

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How to ‘not die of boredom’

We’re in the same place, but we are seeing things differently!

On day 1, we based ourselves in the conservation area, blanketed by cow-parsley and bird-song, with a pond as our centre-piece, a little world away from the hustle and bustle of the school day. After explaining to the children their role in helping to create resources for other children to get time to be Artscapers, artist Susanne Jasilek provided some drawing materials and asked children to find a spot to observe the cow parsley. In groups and individually children found their place in the landscape, some using tree stumps to perch, others hiding themselves away, obscured by low lying branches and cow parsley. From a simple starting point, the children found their own way, with gentle support as necessary, with one child observing - we’re in the same place, but we are seeing things differently. Children commented on the freedom and calmness making outdoors brings. Collectively, we reflected on the balance of noticing, leaving and being responsive - granting children time to move and think, and to be lost in thought; allowing children to channel their creative process without disruption, and gently supporting idea generation through conversation, providing a helping role, or simply working alongside.

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How to ‘not die of boredom’

Make it less of a lesson and more of an adventure.

On day 2, children worked in small groups to devise their own Artscaping activities. Some brilliant ideas were created, including:

  • A music thing with sticks and stuff – using natural materials to make music to play to the birds
  • Collect, Guess, Sculpt – collect some natural objects in a bag; blindfold your partners, let them guess the object through touch; use the natural objects to make a sculpture
  • A Boat called Tomato Leaf – making boats with natural materials and tape and floating on the pond
  • Nature by Numbers – make a drawing outline, then fill it with natural objects
  • Pond Cleaning, Boat racing, Fishing – create fishing rods with tape, string, natural objects
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How to ‘not die of boredom’

Reflecting on the experience, the children discussed the feelings of pressure, unpredictability and freedom that being ‘the teacher’ brought about, something for us to remember that the community artscapers might feel during this process. We spent time discussing golden rules for grown-ups to remember when helping children to Artscape. Ideas included: make it less of a lesson and more an adventure; children find their own way; provide enough freedom to not ‘die of boredom’. We look forward to sharing the outcomes of these workshops in late summer!