Creativity, connectedness and empowerment as a personalised foundation for well-being and learning through Arts Award

Creativity, connectedness and empowerment as a personalised foundation for well-being and learning through Arts Award

Picture of Guest Writer

BY: Guest Writer
06 Mar 2023

To kick off our theme on the blog this month celebrating neurodiversity, Catherine West, Arts Award adviser and Director at Significant Seams shares with us how the young people they work with use the arts to process their life experiences and follow their interests on their own terms. Significant Seams is a social enterprise focussed on building community and supporting people in vulnerable life moments using art and creativity. Catherine also talks about the importance of valuing individuals, building trust and community and how learning is a personal journey…

Artists give themselves permission to be different, to deviate from the norm, to make a mess, and to think through issues using their art. Young people who are struggling with conventional learning environments tend to feel different. Many in this position are neurodiverse which confirms difference, without illuminating, positively, the strengths of their way of thinking or being. Deviations from the norm in those awkward tween years can be immensely unsettling. Feeling different due to school refusal, home schooling, or blended learning - even if supported by family, and the right learning choice - can be emotionally challenging for a young person. Sadly, neurodiverse young people can feel like they’ve made a bit of a mess - and not an arty one, and not one they fully understand. Thinking through their life experiences by engaging in a creative process can be a total revelation. We find many young people perceive the national curriculum as dictatorial: whether impenetrable or repulsive, they can be disempowered and turned off learning. For me, this is why the flexibility, reflective approach, and openness of the Arts Award framework is so valuable. 
40% of Significant Seams youth programme attendees have or are anticipating a diagnosis that labels them neurodivergent. We do not deliver from a framework of education or youth work or even neurodiversity. Our framework is artmaking. We deliver with complete confidence that creativity is good for well-being, and that we want to share the experience of that first and foremost – for all of our participants. Everything else we seek to do naturally follows. Every participant gains something from our approach - which is always on a small scale where we can foster mutual support and build trust and community.

Our first approach to Arts Award was delivery through the Devon Holiday Activity and Food programme for 11-16 year olds: four hour sessions over 12 days in August 2021 with a variety of artists talks, art forms, and opportunities provided an intensive approach that was foundational to the centre’s relationships with young people. We learned their skills, challenges and interests.  We made art together, and their well-being and learning began to flourish from there. 

Here are some flashbacks:

Photo by Erika Cann
Picture3I’ve been looking at Molly’s art portfolio. Despite having booked a spot on our programme, a few days earlier we weren’t sure she would join us, because of her acute anxiety, autism spectrum diagnosis, and pathological demand avoidance profile. She wanted to attend, but she was struggling emotionally. She’d told her mum that on a scale of 1-10 she was feeling zero. Last night she told mum she now felt a 7. She felt 7 because she believes we believe in her, and of course we do. So today, she decided to bring in her portfolio. She hasn’t been attending school, but she has continued to study in her own way. Her sketchbook has an astounding, labelled, anatomical drawing of the skeleton of a raven and pictures of hands making various gestures.
Picture2During James Lake’s artist talk, another young woman caught my eye. Lily was gently bouncing in her seat and becoming visibly excited. Her hands were moving quickly in intentional forms. I let her hold my eye, and rather than disrupt the talk, she mouthed something to me. The artist, James had sparked a connection with Lily’s personal experiences. He was discussing having cancer as a teen, and how his dyslexia brings strengths to his sculpting. He then moved on from his personal journey to instructions for sculpting a hand from card. This too inspired Lily. She uses makaton to communicate when she becomes overwhelmed and makes ‘love’ gestures to describe this project. Photo by Erika Cann 


Balancing art-making, friendship and fun during an outdoor drawing session, and Lily making the ‘Love’ hand gestures in Makaton. Summer 2022.

Photo by Catherine West



Picture4When following James’ instructions, a younger participant’s sculpted hand was that of a robot. Buttons on the wrist control characters emerging on a nearby sheet of paper. Our art facilitators asked questions and encouraged his creative inclination to draw and create stories. For his Bronze Arts Award, the robot-master doodler reviewed an exhibition featuring illustrator Martin Brown (Horrible Histories). In his own words, it opened a potential and valid career trajectory for him, “It was inspirational as he said, ‘You never know where your doodles will lead you.’”

Mostly our participants don’t think of the sessions as learning; it is social time doing something they enjoy with others who enjoy it too. They make friends, and they learn. For some, they realise for the first time that they can enjoy learning, and they can direct the trajectory of their learning.

After a few experiments of delivering Arts Award, we are learning that we don’t need to lead with the qualification as the objective, but rather our values and approach – those of being artists – give Arts Award appeal to those who have the most potential to benefit from it: creative young people struggling with well-being and/or school.
We follow young people’s interests.  Each young person’s Arts Award project diverges from a standardised curriculum to learning that emerges from connectedness (the first pillar of the five ways to well-being and the CHIME mental health recovery framework*), enhances their empowerment (another pillar of well-being) and reflects their individuality (another of the five ways). They learn that their interests matter. They matter, and their very human desire to create has an impact, and is worth working at.

Young people learn to love learning, discovery, and rigour, on their own terms. 

We create an inclusive space where we help young people feeling excluded to be included. And we create. 

Hear about Significant Seams’ Holiday Activity Programme and Arts Award outcomes from the young participants and a parent in this clip from BBC Spotlight.

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