Imagining our health! Crafting creative responses to questions about our health with families in Tower Hamlets

By Meredith Hawking and Esca van Blarikom

At this year’s Festival of Communities, Meredith and Esca hosted a stall where families from Tower Hamlets could use their imagination to form creative responses to questions about their health. The stall also displayed photos from a creative photography project Esca organised as part of her PhD study.  In this post, Meredith and Esca share their reflections on a wonderful day full of meaningful conversations and play.

The Festival of Communities is a free summer festival organised by Queen Mary University of London at Stepney Green Park. The event is a space where university researchers can engage with families from the local community and beyond. It was created to bring together Tower Hamlets’ residents, community groups and organisations, share some of the activities going on at the university, and help university researchers to get more involved in our borough. 

At our ‘Imagining our Health!’ stall we displayed photographs that resulted from a creative photography project organised by one of the Apollo researchers, Esca. For this project, she asked working-age people from Tower Hamlets who live with multiple long-term conditions to take photos related to their daily experiences of managing their health. A selection of these photos formed a mini-exhibition to entice people to visit us and kick-start chats about health.

Photography and other creative methods are useful tools for research because images and art can express thoughts and emotions beyond the act of speaking. That is why we invited our visitors to engage in creative imagination about their health. We provided a wide and colourful choice of craft materials, such as clay, paints, glitter, pens and stickers and invited children to sit down around our table and create something that answered the question ‘what makes you happy?’.

Thanks to the colourfulness and hands-on approach of our activity, our table was soon cheerfully covered with beautiful figurines, drawings and collages. What stood out immediately was that the backdrop of the photo exhibition provided useful inspiration for our visitors to think about their health. For example, our exhibition included some photos of flowers.

Many of the children used the clay to create their own favourite and imagined flowers. When asked why she chose flowers; one child responded that as she lived in a small flat and didn’t have flowers at home, she loves to visit parks with all their flowers. 

Another one of the images on display showed a drawing a participant made representing herself and her mother. One of the children at our stall similarly created a beautiful, small figurine of her grandmother, who was sitting next to her, smiling. Some of Esca’s research participants had also taken photos of their beds as spaces where they can unwind and feel safe, and sure enough, one of the children created a clay bed as well. Finally, one of the images in our exhibition showed pots containing coloured pens and crafty stuff, which corresponded with the response one of the children gave when we asked her what made her feel happy: “this makes me happy!” she said, holding up a ball of clay.

Not all children’s responses were like the images on display, though. We saw a huge array of creations come to life throughout the day, including but not limited to: footballs, ice creams, burgers, fruits, and cupcakes; various colourful animals such as butterflies, pandas, cows, dinosaurs, lions, tigers and Peppa Pig; two volcanos and even an entire globe. Two boys who are also neighbours created comic figures. They told us how they were always making up comic stories with each other and loved to now create their action figures in real life. Another girl also loved making and drawing comics, however she ended up creating a book that represented her favourite story: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  

Our stall seemed to serve as a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the festival (which attracted 5600 visitors that day), and we noticed how some of the more introverted and quieter children spent a long time at our table absorbed in their artwork. The parents enjoyed sitting down and unwinding from the busy day too! As well as the crafty activity, we handed out free recipe books that Meredith created in collaboration with a mother, Alison and her daughter Sasha, who live and go to school locally. The recipe and activity books were based on cooking lessons that Sasha organised for her friends during lockdown. These books were really popular amongst the children, some of whom recognised Sasha and Alison from school. 

Finally, we also invited our visitors to engage in a prize draw to win a child-friendly camera. 143 people entered this prize competition, as the camera was a real eye-catcher! 

Reflecting on our activity at the festival, we realised the importance of creating fun and accessible spaces for local communities to play, relax and engage with researchers. We really valued the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with Tower Hamlet’s families. 

Thanks to the organisers of the Festival and all of the people who came to visit our stall – we hope to see you again next year. 

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