The recent Youth Strikes 4 Climate Change by children was one of the most hopeful collaborative political acts that I have witnessed. As adults, we are constantly telling children to take responsibility for their actions and yet as adults, we seem in denial about the likely ecological disaster that is unfolding in front of us. Children are told what to do and how to be by adults. This single act of protest was built on a value system held by these young people which was clearly questioning the social norms; it was an act of ‘critical agency’ (Sen, 1993). Their determination should give us some renewed hope.
The idea of child agency is rooted in a ‘capability approach’ to learning and childhood. This view positions children as capable political, social and active agents with a recognition that they are not just a homogenous group but are able to express their values, views and aspirations inked to a flourishing life. It acknowledges that they have cultural values that matter to them individually and collectively. Children need to be given opportunities to make choices about the things that matter to them so that they can be successful and develop the skills or capabilities that they need to actually carry those choices through. This requires a large shift from current neo-liberalist educational policy which favours a ‘back to basic approach’ to a recognition of children’s potential as social agents and responsible choosers (Baraldi, 2014).
In the Youth 4 climate change protest, children were exercising their right to ‘agency freedom,’ which they did collaboratively. Sociology of childhood studies focuses more wholly on children’s social participation than individual capabilities. Of key importance to our work in the Story Makers Press and Story Makers Company, this view promotes the importance of specific kinds of social participation which highlights children's right of choosing and making decisions.
Our own research (Dobson and Stephenson 2017) highlights the role that drama and creative writing processes can have in promoting opportunities for collaborative agentic learning. The construction of specific scenarios through ‘dramatic enquiry’ positions children as decision makers within complex fictional social situations. Within story worlds children co-create narratives with an artist educator. They use their own collective experiences to create characters, settings and backstories. Events within the story are negotiated and children have power over ethical decisions made within this world. These creative explorations often reveal the complexities of human situations and characters with no obvious ‘right’ answer. Children are exposed to a range of multiple viewpoints.
This requires a series of complex social and emotion literacies such as recognising emotions, negotiation and active listening. Community, belonging and self-understanding is nurtured, and difference is approached through the facilitation of a shared understanding. These co-created narratives can be performed, filmed, written or spoken. We suggest that this creative process can support and improve children’s capabilities for a 21st Century world, as it promotes their participation beyond their right to speak and to be heard to a wider concept of ‘active citizenship.’ In other words, not only having a voice but a right to choose or practice agency collaboratively. Crucially, story or fiction spaces are ‘safe spaces’ for children to engage in these complex unpredictable social processes which are so important in navigating a constantly changing world. It is also a space of imaginative freedom.
This view of literacy as socially constructed, critical and child centred is embedded across all our ITE Primary Courses through drama processes and this was shared recently with other Universities at a United Kingdom Literacy Association presentation.
According to a report by the National Children’s Bureau and Young Minds 2018, ‘we are a facing a growing mental health crisis in our schools’ (Cowburn & Blow, 2017). Whilst there is increasing guidance and advice for schools which advocates the development of whole school preventative factors to support children by fostering a sense of belonging and control (Department of Education, 2016), there is little or no support in how to implement this. The long-anticipated Government Paper on Mental Health (2017) advocated a more widespread implementation and ‘iterative learning methods’ to inform best practice including a multidisciplinary approach to supporting schools. They cited a narrowing curriculum and exam pressure as contributing factors to mental wellbeing. Our research (Stephenson and Dobson, in press) draws from children’s experience to suggest that drama and creative spaces can offer important sites for practicing agency and developing capabilities linked to their positive flourishing and wellbeing. It is ‘holistic’ teaching. (Ofsted 2019)
At Story Makers we work with children to make stories that matter, our work creates spaces both in and outside school to facilitate this opportunity for more children. We support and nurture artist facilitators, bringing them together to share and create work.
The Story Makers Press
The Story Makers press, our new publisher is focused on encouraging children’s voices and creativity. We aim to publish underrepresented narratives and issues and make sure that every child can see themselves in the books they read. We use drama and storytelling with children in order to get them to explore different narratives with us, which we then transform into engaging fiction books. The Press team includes Dr Tom Dobson, Lisa Stephenson and Ana Sanches de Arede.
Our first story the Nightmare Catcher and accompanying Explorer’s Guide has been co-authored with children. The accompanying Explorer’s Guide identifies key parts of the story to explore safely through drama and creative writing activities and provides a step by step explanation of how to do this for teachers and artist educators. Furthermore, the book and guide were co- created through collaboration and research with schools, CAMHS professionals, teachers and outreach educators who confirmed that schools need more support in creating meaningful opportunities for addressing areas of emotional literacy, diverse representation and ‘active citizenship’ through fiction.
Our book launch and Story Makers Festival: Story Rebels, will be on Saturday 8th June at Leeds Beckett University.
- BARALDI, C. and IERVESE, V., (2014). Observing children’s capabilities as agency. In Children’s Rights and the Capability Approach (pp. 43-65). Springer, Dordrecht.
- COWBURN A, BLOW, M (2017) Wise up: Prioritising wellbeing in schools Report. Young Minds and National Children’s Bureau youngminds.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/wise-up/
- DOBSON and STEPHENSON and Stephenson (2017) Dobson, T. and Stephenson, L.,, L., 2017. “I think it fits in”: using process drama to promote agentic writing with primary school children. Literacy.
- SEN, A K. (1993). Capability and Well-being in Martha C. Nussbaum and Amartya K. Sen (eds), The Quality of Life, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 30: 53
- STEPHENSON and DOBSON (in press) Releasing the Socio-Imagination: Children’s voices on Creativity, Capability and Mental Wellbeing. Support for Learning