Collective Creativity and Wellbeing through story

Collaborative story making experiences can offer children the opportunity to experience different ways of seeing as they navigate shared experiences in fictional worlds.

Children standing in front of a projector, making movements with their body, taking part in a creative activity. There is a teacher in the foreground.

Dr Lisa Stephenson is a Senior Lecturer at the Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University and director of the Story Makers Company. Her teaching and research specialism is creative (drama) pedagogies and dispositional learning. A previous, primary school teacher and senior leader, Lisa is founder and director of Story Makers Company, a practice-based research centre which champions creative pedagogies. She talks to us about her work to support children and young people's mental health and wellbeing.

Young people are living in unprecedented times of social, economic and environmental uncertainty, reflected in a worrying rise in poor wellbeing and mental health.

“There is an urgent need to understand creativity to enable young people to handle the uncertainties of life and equally teachers need to expand their repertoire of pedagogical practice in order to nurture learners’ creativity” (Cremin & Chappell, 2019, p.3).

Currently, education debates focus on how best to support young people to navigate these uncertainties by broadening educational goals. Indeed, wellbeing is a slippery concept with varying definitions. The OECD defines wellbeing as involving more than access to material resources. Specifically, it includes how well people feel they are, what they know and can do, how healthy and safe their places of living are, and how connected and engaged people are. As young people face so many uncertainties, they will need to come up with imaginative possibilities and solutions beyond textbook answers. This will require collective creativity, communication, imagination and critical thinking to navigate the challenges of an unpredictable world.

As a former Primary school teacher, and now university lecturer and researcher, I believe we should place relationships at the heart of learning. The term co-agency, termed by the OECD (2019) refers to ‘the mutually supportive relationships that help learners to progress towards their valued goal’ and is a key component of both collective creativity and wellbeing. This shift acknowledges the value of both collective and individual notions of creativity. It places renewed emphasis on collective problem solving, responsibility, communication and emotional literacy.

However, young people need the time to practice these complex skills, dispositions and knowledge within the curriculum so that they can see themselves as agents of change. Evidence from the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education in 2019 shows that young people’s access to creative learning in and out of school, is inequitable. It raises questions about how to create more opportunities to nurture confidence and competence in these areas of learning. Whilst acknowledging that there are many ways to activate relational learning, creativity in general and the creative arts in particular have a special contribution to make in activating learner agency and in cultivating divergent, imaginative and possibility thinking.

The impact of creativity on young people’s wellbeing

In 2017, I began a practice-based research Centre focusing on creative pedagogy and relational learning called Story Makers, at Leeds Beckett University. We focus on story-based approaches to pedagogy, using methods such as drama and free writing to develop young people’s wellbeing. Stories offer a way to integrate different subjects and activate emotions. They can be applied in many disciplines.

Collaborative story making experiences can offer children the opportunity to experience different ways of seeing as they navigate shared experiences in fictional worlds. Young people are invited to use multiple and diverse expressions, such as visual and aural forms of communication. This encourages choice and voice. These learning experiences can facilitate increased empathy, compassion, culturally appropriate learning and even tolerance.

Story Maker Company - children with a map

Using story to explore social problems

During my own PhD I explored a story-based approach which I call Drama Worldbuilding with a class of Year 5 children. This method focusses on addressing social problems within a fictional context. Learning is playful and expressive but challenges young people to think imaginatively together, taking responsibility for collective action. Using an action- reflection cycle, young people are challenged to negotiate rules on their own terms, to ask, what is possible in this situation? The analysis of children’s responses to the learning across eighteen months, revealed a set of 8 Creativity and Wellbeing dispositions (Stephenson, 2022). These were: agency and openness to others, ​​displacement from reality,​​ positive feelings and wellbeing,​​ conflict and negotiation,​​ imaginative freedom,​​teamwork and belonging,​​ self-efficacy and confidence and critical thinking. Responses from children demonstrated that for them, there were tensions between ‘normal’ school-work and creative freedom. The children articulated these as follows:

“Well sometimes I feel that I can’t use my imagination properly and then in drama I can because you can share your ideas and get to use your imagination more and I can actually be positive more about my imagination.” (Child reflection)

“It’s different as you have to use your imagination more and it actually gives you more ideas than the other lessons. You learn yourself instead of being taught it by someone else. You have to think together.” (Child reflection)

“I’ve learned how to fight without fighting.” (Child reflection)

These dispositions were seen to be transferable competencies which developed over the year. Children could articulate the ways in which they could learn in new ways, showing increased awareness of how they learned and enhanced emotional literacy. Crucially, struggle and openness were seen as opportunities for encouraging new ways of thinking rather than signs of failure.

There seems to be an urgent need to research and further share creative pedagogies which develop young people’s agency and ability to collaborate through creative and critical thinking in our classrooms and beyond. This is inherently linked to wellbeing. Our current work at Story Makers includes a two-year teacher development project across seven schools in Bradford. It focuses on integrating drama and storytelling for oracy across the Foundation subjects. Teachers and artists plan together, teach together and reflect together through a coaching approach to professional learning. We will be sharing all this and more at Story Makers International Conference, Beckett University on 15th July 2023. We hope you can join us!

In terms of disseminating the work more widely, we are working Internationally, through our Erasmus funded project called, arted. We are co-developing free open access creative arts resources for Primary, Secondary, Initial Teacher Education and parents and carers with artist educators across 6 European Countries.

Further reading

Ball, S., (2018). The tragedy of state education in England: Reluctance, compromise and muddle - a system in disarray. Journal of the British Academy, 6, pp.207-238.

Cowburn, A., and Blow, M. (2017). Wise up: Prioritising wellbeing in schools Report. Young Minds and National Children’s Bureau 

Cremin, T. and Chappell, K. (2019). Creative pedagogies: a systematic review. Research Papers in Education, 1-33. 

Ford, T., John, A. and Gunnell, D. (2021). Mental health of children and young people during pandemic. BMJ, 372.

Lofthouse, R. (2019). Coaching in education: A professional development process in formation. Professional development in education, 45(1), .33-45.  

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Future of Education and Skills 2030. Paris: OECD

Sadler, K. et al. (2018). Mental health of children and young people in England, 2017.

Stephenson, L., 2022. Collective creativity and wellbeing dispositions: children's perceptions of learning through drama. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 47, 101188.

Dr Lisa Stephenson,

Director of Story Makers: Centre for Creative Pedagogies and Relational Learning


Twitter: @Lisa_stephenso@StoryMakersCo