Manchester Art Gallery

How can art enhance public health services for young families?

In January 2017 I started working at Manchester Art Gallery as the Learning Manager, Families, a role that I love. I am responsible for making our amazing gallery as relevant and engaging as possible for all families in Manchester and beyond.

Our family programme consists of public events, like our school holiday art sessions and our Open Doors sessions for autistic children and their families. We also have the Clore Art Studio and Explorer Tool Belts which are available every day. You can find out more about our family offer here.

The environment as the third teacher

Much of our other work with families isn’t visible, this blog will give you an insight into the ways we support other services working with families across the city. For over a decade artists and museums have been exploring new ways of working with early years children, their families and teachers, much of this work has been inspired by the principles of Reggio Emilio, examining how the environment children inhabit can be the third teacher. At Manchester Art Gallery we have begun looking at not only how art can support the crucial development of 0-5 year olds but also how this knowledge can enhance the delivery of public health services for young families.

Since early 2017 we have been working in partnership with the Manchester Health Visiting Team and Sure Start. This collaboration came about due to the closure of Manchester Town Hall for refurbishment. St Peters Sure Start based at the town hall needed a new home and as the gallery is next to the town hall and part of Manchester City Council we offered our spaces.

Since previously being involved in another research project my primary school is at the museum, my dream has been to locate a Sure Start centre at an art gallery so I jumped at this opportunity. My primary school is at the museum tested the hypothesis that there may be beneficial learning, social and cultural outcomes for primary school children and their families when a significant portion of their learning takes place in a museum setting, as well as demonstrating the benefits for museums. I felt there may be similar beneficial outcomes for children and families who had a significant portion of their public health services delivered in a museum setting and was keen to test this out.

We now run a weekly Healthy Child Drop In and Sure Start Children’s Centre Baby Stay and Play session at the gallery. The families that come to the clinic are a diverse group from the Manchester City Centre ward and localities and most have not visited the gallery previously. This weekly health clinic is the first place where parents of babies access health advice and are often signposted to other agencies. Two Health Visitors and a Sure Start Early Years Practitioner are present at the clinic, both agencies work closely together welcoming and supporting parents, sharing observations and key data about families to ensure they receive a successful and holistic service.

Artist Naomi Kendrick is also present at the clinic. Each week Naomi is commissioned to build an immersive environment inspired by our exhibitions and her observations of the babies and parents. Using carefully selected materials Naomi creates a place for families to inhabit, playing with textures, light and space. The Sure Start Practitioner uses the environment as the setting for stories and songs.

Social and non-judgmental spaces for parents

However, in many ways the immersive environment is the waiting room for families to see their Health Visitor or Sure Start practitioner, some of the parents that come to the clinic are anxious about either their babies health or their own health. We are finding the environments Naomi creates are fantastic social and non-judgmental spaces for parents that promote interactions with their baby.

We are beginning to look at how the addition of creative and arts input has a positive influence on the health and well-being of child and parent and how both are better equipped for progressing together in life. Alongside Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) we have been successful in obtaining funding from the Economics and Social Research Council to fund a PhD that will explore the benefits of running this vital health clinic in a cultural venue with an artist present. This long term action research project will enable us to understand how culture and the arts can support the delivery of health services for young children and their families.

Since starting the clinic, other ideas for delivering services differently have arisen. Currently we are doing a trial at Clayton Sure Start looking at how we can take the positive aspects of the clinic’s immersive environment to enhance and innovate the delivery of developmental reviews for 2 year olds.

Developmental reviews for 2 year olds are ASQ tests, this is a clinical assessment and parental evaluation tool. The Health Visiting Team have a high proportion of families not turning up for these reviews. The health visitors believe this is partly due to the clinical nature of the tests. Parents are sent a form about their child’s abilities prior to their visits and this can put people of, parents worrying that their child can’t perform the tasks or thinking they can and that it is a waste of time attending. During the review children often feel unsettled in a strange scenario and parents feel under pressure for their child to perform.

We are exploring creative child-led ways we could perform the review in a specially designed artist environment. We hope by inviting families to this holistic play based session it will give children, parents and health visitors a more positive and productive experience creating opportunities for observation and active commentary. As a team we are looking for ways to ease parental social isolation, assess and improve maternal and infant mental health, promote attachment and confidence in feeding. MMU researchers are helping us evaluate and articulate the benefits and potential barriers of delivering the 2 year old reviews in this alternative environment.

We are exploring creative child-led ways we could perform ASQ reviews in a specially designed artist environment.

Working in collaboration with other agencies

Another collaborative project sees us working with young mothers who are living in a temporary housing unit in Clayton. The mums are a group that the Manchester Health Visiting Team and Sure Start workers struggle to engage with, appointments and important health checks are often missed. We have set up an art and creativity club at the unit which has created a new less formal environment for the mothers and their babies to meet with their health visitors. In the future we are hoping to extend this work to other units across Greater Manchester.

As our reputation for working in collaboration with other agencies grows so do our networks. In September we are exhibiting a new commission, The Other in Mother by artist Sarah Greaves that explores perinatal mental health and the impact of the transition into motherhood on women’s wellbeing.

We have also begun working with Salford University midwifery department using the galleries collection to support student midwifes with their mental health. We are looking at how art can be used as a provocation to discuss the stresses of working in a maternity unit and as a tool to manage stress. Later this year we hope to work with the Infant Feeding Team (Health Visiting Services Manchester Foundation Trust) and The University of Manchester Centre for Epidemiology to support an early intervention initiative in North Manchester that aims to reduce visits to A&E and referrals to paediatric units by offering extra support to families around nutrition and feeding.

I’m really excited about all the work we are doing, learning from others about the realities of delivering health services for families and exploring new ways of working. From a public health perspective, our collaborative projects rest firmly on the principles and policies of Health 2020: the European policy for health and wellbeing, with its emphasis on inter-sectoral collaboration and integration, as well as on the evidence base for the effectiveness of asset-based, co-production approaches to service development.

In November I will be talking more about this work at the engage conference.

Katy McCall
Learning Manager, Families

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