How to Effectively Use Arts-Based Activities in Youth Work

Posted September 14, 2016 Inarts-based methods, arts, program evaluation, youth programs, questioning

Diana Coholic

 by Dr. Diana Coholic
 Academic Director, YouthREX Northeastern Hub
Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Work, Laurentian University




In this follow-up blog, I explain how arts-based activities can support the goals of youth work by serving as tools for exploration, sharing, and discussion. 


One of the key lessons for youth workers to learn when engaging youth in arts activities is asking effective open questions that can broaden or deepen a discussion.


Directly asking a young person what something means or why they created something is usually met with a shrug of the shoulders or “I don’t know.” In my experience training others to use arts-based approaches to youth work, practitioners often have to learn to ask very open questions about the youth’s creation in order to facilitate effective discussion. 


When I first look at a drawing, I examine it holistically and consider what stands out about it. I ask myself the following questions about the drawing: Does it evoke a feeling? Does it take up the whole page or is it limited to a specific area of the page? Does part of the item appear to be off the page? What colors are used? Does it appear solid or faint and wispy? Do parts of it appear to be moving? 


One arts-based activity that we have found to be very effective is called “Me as a Tree.” This activity helps young people begin to consider and talk about themselves, and to learn about each other (if you’re using it in a group format). It is a good exercise to use if you want to learn more about your youth participants, build group cohesion and facilitate a group discussion. 


How to Facilitate the “Me as a Tree” Activity:

The activity begins by asking each youth to draw or paint themselves as a tree. Everyone can draw a tree, but everyone’s trees will be unique. The instructions can be very simple or more full. You can encourage the participants to think about what the tree would look like and what might be around it. By representing oneself as a tree, it enables the youth to talk about themselves in a more abstract and ‘safe’ way that may be more comfortable for them. You can also discuss the diversity in the group by pointing out all of the unique trees, and how diversity is a positive characteristic. Encourage the youth to draw the tree without thinking too much about it. 

After youth have drawn themselves as a tree, here are some examples of open-ended questions and statements that youth workers can use to facilitate discussion from this activity:

me as a tree
1. Please tell us about your tree.
2. What kind of tree is it?
3. Your trunk appears… (adjective – solid, strong, small, colorful)
4. Your tree has lots of… (objects - roots, branches, leaves, animals, fruit). Can you tell us about that? 
5. If you gave a title to this drawing, what would you call it?
6. It looks like your tree is in a (season – winter, spring, fall, summer) scene.
7. Does your tree make a sound? What does it say?
8. It looks like your tree is… (verb – growing, reaching for the clouds, swaying, losing all it’s leaves).
9. You used a lot of colors to draw your tree.
10. I'm wondering how you feel about your tree.


 Let’s take this tree as an example. We might all see something different in this picture. To me, the trunk appears solid. Many times, when there are lots of roots in a tree drawing, youth will talk about how they feel grounded and what helps them feel grounded or rooted in life. However, this tree appears to be drawing up water. As a result, I might ask Julie1, who drew this picture: “What comes to your mind when you think of water?” or “The branches are interesting and I can imagine them to be swaying. Are they?” I could also enquire as to what type of tree this is (the tree takes up the whole page so it is not an insubstantial tree), and what title she might provide for this drawing if she was to give it a title. Julie explained that the tree is a Weeping Willow and it symbolizes that she has had many difficult life events to deal with, which have made her shed many tears. At the same time, she now feels solid and secure in her life. 

In my book, I  discuss other “Me as a Tree” drawings and what we can learn from youths’ drawings. You might be surprised at the richness of what you can learn about youth participants from this simple activity that is engaging and fun. 


1 Thank you to Julie Beare, BSW, RSW, who provided permission to use her drawing in this blog. 



Learn More

Using Arts-Based Activities to Collect Program Evaluation Data

Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs from Urban Youth and Other Experts

Art Jams: Evaluation Outside the Lines

Integrating Arts-Based Inquiry in Evaluation Methodology Opportunities and Challenges

Arts Activities for Children and Young People in Need



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