As we launch findings from our recent series of engagement events with young people and families in Complications from Excess Weight clinics, Lindsay Starbuck, AYPH Youth Participation coordinator, reflects on the importance of creating safe spaces for young people to share their experiences and how simple creative tools can help.

The first thing most young people tell AYPH they want from any health service is a space where they feel comfortable. When we spoke to young patients at NHS England’s new Complications from Excess Weight clinics, they said this in a number of ways. One young person put this in the context of the intense pressure they face during exams saying, ‘we need one space where you are not stressing frequently.

Another young person told us that a comfortable space encourages open conversation’. Ensuring young people from such a vast age range (2-18) feel comfortable in a clinical setting may feel like a difficult task. However, there are some simple ways to introduce creativity into any environment that can help young people feel more comfortable and in control when talking about sensitive health issues.  

One thing young people said helped them feel comfortable was having ‘something to do with your hands like drawing or playing with something like clay/putty or a fidget toy.’ This can make talking much easier for many young people because it reduces the discomfort of direct eye contact and the pressure when struggling to articulate thoughts and feelings. This is especially important for neurodivergent young people as well as those with anxiety and other mental health issues.  

In our workshops with young people, we offered air drying clay to all participants. Clay is a good medium since the young people can bring home their creations to remember the day or leave it behind for another participant to play with. In a pinch, blue tack can serve the same purpose. Fidget spinners and sensory toys can also keep hands occupied during everything from clinic appointments to group sessions. 

If you are a doodler, you’ll know that when someone is drawing it doesn’t mean they aren’t listening or able to talk. Drawing or jotting down words that come up in conversation helps some people process things better. That’s why we cover the tables in paper and encourage participants to doodle throughout our workshops. Some young people will immediately start drawing things they are interested in, which provides an opportunity to start a conversation about something besides their health condition. As one young person told us, getting to know you as a person is important which can make me feel more comfortable’. 

Whilst creativity can be therapeutic for young people, this is not about providing art therapy. What’s important is that creative resources are available to young people to use however they want. In one of our workshops, young people used the post-it notes we provided to make paper aeroplanes and conduct a flying contest down the corridor. This spontaneous activity led by young people provided a perfect representation of the unique journeys they and their family make through the CEW clinics. We used images of paper aeroplanes throughout our report to honour their creativity.  

Find out more about our creative engagement with young people and parents at CEW clinics

Young people tell us that children’s services can feel overly childish and adult services sterile. ‘As a young person you don’t feel like you fit in either of these spaces, there is no middle ground so they feel less inclusive.’ Providing a range of non-prescriptive creative options means that both a 7 year old and a 17 year old could find it easier to open up about what support they need just by having some marker pens and a piece of paper in front of them.  

To find out more about what young people and parents said about CEW clinics, read our interim report