The appeal of creative methods in research has been well noted across literature, including their potential for enhancing participant-led forms of expression (see Ascroft, 2021; Kara, 2020; Vaart Van Hoven et al., 2018). Despite the wealth of learning resources available, it can be difficult to find a practical guide for all the bits in between, such as how to set up the right kind of space or how to tailor activities for meaningful engagement.
‘Truth is, you never really know which creative activities will land well and which will lose participants’ interest.’
This blog post is my attempt to fill the gap with some useful tips to guide you in facilitating creative spaces with arts-based methods. These tips derive from my personal experience conducting research during my PhD, in which I explored the arts-based co-creation of sexuality education materials. Although I worked with young people on topics of gender, sex and sexuality, the following five tips are applicable for work with all groups of participants and across research areas.
- Tailor activities based on participants’ creative interests. It is really tempting to go into research with a fully detailed set of methods that you think will work. Truth is, you never really know which creative activities will land well and which will lose participants’ interest. One way of tackling this is pre-emptively asking participants about their creative interests and why they want to get involved in this project. I used a simple online form to capture these details and it was so helpful in steering me in the right direction when designing workshop plans.
- Offer a range of creative activities. By giving participants’ a choice, it helps put the ownership in their hands and does wonders for enhancing their engagement. In each workshop I offered participants a choice of two activities, that touched on a similar theme but pulled from different arts-based methods. For example, during one session, participants could choose to explore image cards to build a story board around dating and relationships, or alternatively, design a map of the community and pair it with some ‘need to know’ dating guidelines for new students.
- Move away from the set-in-stone instructions. For example, I arranged the activities and arts materials on different tables and watched how some participants moved between spaces, worked individually, in pairs, or as part of a wider group. Some often asked to finish their artwork at home or at breaktime. This pattern of working changed with each workshop and the fluidity signalled to participants that they have the freedom to engage with the research however they choose.
- Curate the space. If you’re working in a formal space such as a classroom, can you move the chairs and desks to the side? I worked in an art classroom, which was nicely set up with colourful groups of tables and stools. For group discussions, I made sure to sit on the floor, take my shoes off and spread the artwork out in front of us. Bit by bit, I watched how some participants chose to lie down, sit on tables or lean against the stools as they got stuck into the snack tray. These small changes do wonders for making the space less intimidating, and are certainly more attractive for participants to keep coming back to. This is food for thought if you’re planning to work with a group over a longer period.
- Think about why your participants are here. Are they intrigued about your topic and have questions they’d like to explore? What can you offer to meet their curiosities? In my research, participants were curious about the unspoken elements of sexuality, gender and relationships. In response, I created an anonymous questions box and held a discussion circle at the end of each workshop. Some of their curiosities included: ‘Is it normal for penises to be bent?’, ‘How do I know when I’m in love?’, ‘Is the first time you have sex always meant to be painful?’. This simple practice validated participants’ curiosities, encouraged sharing within the group and established a reciprocal learning space for all.
Following these guidance tips can do wonders for enhancing participants’ research experience, while also helping to build trust and meaningful engagement within the group. I have found these guidelines to be essential in establishing a conducive space in my research with young people and I hope they can offer you a boost in your creative research practice.
Ascroft, E. (2021). Gender violence through the eyes of the Bajan youth: Using Photovoice methods in small island states. Visual Studies, 36(4–5), 537–553. https://doi.org/10.1080/1472586X.2020.1827975
Kara, H. (2020). Creative research methods (2nd ed.). Policy Press.
Vaart, G. V. D., Van Hoven, B., & Huigen, P. (2018). Creative and arts-based research methods in academic research. Lessons from a participatory research project in the Netherlands. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 19(2). https://doi.org/10.17169/fqs-19.2.2961