Ingredients: Paper, collage materials, glue, scissors, pens

The Big Sell: We’re going to try some drawing some Trees of Life. You don’t have to be brilliant at drawing and you don’t have to show this to anyone. This is for you and it is to help us think about where we are in our lives and where we might like to go next.

Strategy: I have tried this recently with a group of young people and have tried it in the past whilst teaching students. It comes from The Evaluator’s Cookbook, published by NE-CF and Katalyst Tales (2005).

 The group of young people that I worked with were classified ‘NEET’ (which means not in education, employment or training). I’m not keen on all these labels for young people as I feel they can depersonalise their experiences and place the blame on the individual rather than looking at their whole life situations. I would prefer to say that these young people needed their confidence and self esteem building in order to value themselves and enable them to make best choices about their future. On this occasion I worked with a team of experienced youth workers and a small group of young people aged 16 – 21 years of mixed gender.

I asked the young people to draw a basic tree on an A3 piece of paper. I then asked them to decorate their trees and add comments according to the following rules:

1) The roots are your influences – who / what made you who you are today?

2) The trunk is your life today – what is the structure of your week, what fills your days?

3) The leaves are your information sources – who do you listen to, how do you find out about the world around you?

 4) The buds are your hopes – what would you like to achieve in the next week, month, year, decade?

5) The fruit are your achievements – what are you proud of? What have you accomplished?

6) I also added… weeds, which are things that may be holding you back from achieving your buds, or listening to new leaves.

If you don’t like writing (some young people had severe dyslexia) you can draw symbols for your ideas. You can make your tree as colourful as you like using the collage materials – enjoy the doodling!

Is anyone willing to show and discuss their finished tree?

The Verdict: This was the first time I had met this group of young people and the fact that they all took part and stuck at the activity for one and a half hours astounded me. Most found the activity very challenging – equally the drawing (which they some said they were no good at), the writing and the revealing of personal feelings. But they all completed their Trees of Life and some even were brave enough to show them to the group. This provided an opportunity for the youth workers to ask further questions or make comments. “I didn’t know you liked playing guitar!” “What do you think is behind your lack of confidence at job interviews?”

I think it may have helped that, as an outsider, I came in to lead the workshop – with a more trusted adult they may have found it easier to back out. But I also think it helped to have adults present who knew and could tease out their answers. I remained calm but gently pushed them through their complaints to stick with the activity – for one who did not want to draw her tree I drew a basic outline for her.

The final tree led to an open reflective discussion and the youth workers said they would like to keep the trees in the young people’s portfolios to aid one to one discussions in the future as they move forward.

Catchphrase: “What are your hopes?” “To get a job”. “What would improve the structure of your week at the moment?” “To be working”.

It was interesting to note the primary concern of all the young people, above what I had expected would be friendships, romance, cash, etc.. was EMPLOYMENT. It makes me very cross when young people are labelled as lazy or irresponsible. Most young people are very concerned rightly at the moment about their future careers given the global economic situation.

Left wanting more?

It is a very worrying time for us all but especially our future generation of decision-makers. On 6th November 2011 the Observer published an article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/nov/05/arts-education-defended-by-campaign?INTCMP=SRCH) about the star-studded cultural backlash against government plans to concentrate the British schools’ curriculum on a core of “traditional” subjects through the government’s push for an English Baccalaureate system. They are supporting the newly published ImagineNation: The Case for Cultural Learning, a campaigning report launched by the Cultural Learning Alliance (see http://www.culturallearningalliance.org.uk/page.aspx?p=100). I agree that unless we invest in our children as creative thinkers, both within and outside formal education, we will not nurture the transferable skills necessary to formulate a resourceful, hopeful, forward-thinking society to overcome the current hangover left by the recession, leaving only a sense of frustration and injustice.

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