Agony Artist: How do I know the arts make a difference?

10 November 2021

Welcome to our new Agony Artist series – where each month we’ll be answering your questions about using the expressive arts with young children! We’re kicking off with the question – how do I know the arts make a difference?

There’s a lot of evidence about the benefit of creative delivery from wee ones (and you can find some links to them on our reflective practice worksheet). But often, we need to evaluate the impact it has much closer to home – with the wee ones we work with!

Here are our top tips for measuring engagement with expressive arts experiences:

Engagement Signals
Starcatchers developed 7 engagement signals with the University of Exeter, University of Edinburgh and University of Strathclyde. We’ve created a resource so you can understand them easily. Once you’ve had a read of them, keep an eye out for the ways babies and young children engage with different creative provocations. Remember, not all children participate in the same ways, and even if a child doesn’t physically join in, if they’re watching intently, or keeping eye contact, they’re still engaging!

Mind Mapping
When children have agency over their own creative experiences, it can feel more challenging to measure impact if you don’t know which direction they might take. Before you share a new creative provocation, take five minutes to draw a quick mind map and predict some of the ways children might engage and some of the potential outcomes. Afterwards, it’s just a case of ticking off what did happen, and noting any other surprise outcomes!

See Starcatchers Engagement Signals in action

Gathering Evidence
There’s lots of different ways to gather evidence, here are some suggestions from our artists:

  • Film/photograph delivery so you can look back later
  • Chart children’s engagement before, during and after on a graph – the Leuven Scale can be useful for this
  • Use emotion stickers (smiley, sad, unsure etc.) to let wee ones pick how the experience made them feel
  • Physical feedback “show me what you thought of that experience”
  • Case studies – think of it as a narrative, how has a child changed? What have they learned?

The Voice of the Child
The expressive arts give children an opportunity to express their voice – this can be verbal or non-verbal – as Starcatchers Chief Executive Rhona Matheson says, observing baby and young children’s gaze, expressions, and body language can tell you a lot about how engaged and inspired they are. When wee ones respond positively in these ways, they are communicating with us about what is important to them – it’s our job to listen!

Think about how you evidence that voice in your setting. Tell the story behind the picture “Rory has chosen the book about bugs every day this week – today he showed us how worms wiggle along” , – this can really help colleagues, as well as parents, understand their children’s interests and how they learn.  For verbal children, think about using direct quotes on wall displays, social media alongside photographs of children’s art or experiences they engage in. A photo of a child dancing might not instantly show how they’re learning, but a quote like “me a wiggly worm” can help them understand the process behind what they’re doing and how they’re learning.