A story by Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theatre
Bright Spark works collaboratively with up to 12 young people with complex additional special needs who struggle with mainstream activities. We provide space and time, using multi-artform techniques working together developing trust, friendships, increased confidence and improved mental health.
What Bright Sparks did
Bright Sparks are weekly hourly sessions in Dundee Rep, providing up to 12 additional special needs participants aged 8-21, 50% of whom have significant degrees of autism and who may find mainstream school especially difficult, an alternative learning environment which is a different space away from their normal which can pose considerable challenges.
Participants attend from Dundee, Angus, Fife and Edinburgh They may also have limited opportunities to engage socially with peers without expectation or judgment and struggle to make and maintain friendships. Through Bright Sparks, young people seeing the world through a different lens can interact with others in a way that celebrates being unique.
Using less formal, creative-based activities, we co-create a tailored, holistic learning environment developing the young people emotionally, intellectually, socially and physically, using the four capacities of the Curriculum for Excellence; successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors and the CfE’s seven broad principles: Enjoyment and Challenge, Progression, Breadth, Depth, Coherence, Choice and Personalisation and Relevance.
We use different sensory tools for communication; sounds, props, drawing, dancing, or movement to tell a story or explore a topic, making it ideal for those with communication issues. Participants develop their imagination through exploring new characters and worlds, building social skills through encouraging turn-taking and collaboration, giving them the opportunity to create in a safe and supportive group environment.
Bright Sparks provides a trusted outlet; a safe way of expressing/releasing mental, physical or emotional tension, so reducing stress, aiding relaxation, helping the young people to understand and manage their feelings and emotions and cope with everyday challenges. Bright Sparks meets Outcomes 1 and 4, providing short periods of respite to carers.
What Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theatre has learned
Project planning and budgeting
In these days of increased pressures on funding and heightened costs, we had to re-visit our project budget to ensure that we were managing it on a full-cost recovery basis, particularly due to the significantly increased energy costs which are having such a major impact on our building and the cost of living which is impacting on so many. We offered three free bursary places to ensure equality of access to all.
Targeting families most in need of support
Last year we engaged with three new families, but the majority of participants have remained with us for the full eight years Bright Sparks has been in existence. One member was referred to us through our Children and Young People’s drama therapy service and two of our volunteer creative assistants also came to the project through this route. Our drama therapy service, funded by funded by Dundee Health & Social Care Partnership, offers drama-based clinical support to those in metal health crises and we are one of only two theatres in the UK which offer this service.
Developing new short breaks activities
We were delighted to be able to introduce an element of live performance through participating in the BOOST festival last summer. This gave the young people something tangible to work towards, taking them well out of their comfort zone, but they all rose magnificently to the challenge, delivering an amazing performance before of a live audience. We plan to repeat this summer.
Lessons we have learned and will put into place are to recognise and ally some of the anxieties and fears which arose around this initiative; for example some of the participants became overwhelmed by in the increased levels of activity within the building in the build-up to the production, so we shall seek to provide calm spaces and introduce some more opportunities for relaxation.
Having said that, the young people are really thrilled at having the opportunity again to perform on stage this summer and having been given a key as inspiration, are already working on their piece which is based around the story of Pandora’s Box.
Team members were also delighted to attend the Better Breaks conference in Glasgow where Amanda Lowson, our Creative Practitioner gave a presentation around our work. This has led to the possibility of a future joint venture with another organisation which we are very excited about.
How Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theatre has benefitted from the funding
We benefitted from the funding in that in these times of severe pressure on budgets due to cost of living rises, inflation and increases in insurance and energy costs, the Better Breaks award allowed us to continue offering this much-need programme to children and young people from the area. Attending the Better Break’s conference and making a presentation on our work provided the team with validation and a confidence boost in hearing from others in the same sector that what we were doing was well-regarded.
Children and young people feeling more confident, interconnected and keen to experience further creative activity, including arts-based activity for self-expression.
This year for the first time, Bright Sparks participated in our live BOOST festival, performing in front of family and friends in a co-produced piece called "Tumbleweed." Having been give a clock as inspiration, the Group worked together over the weeks to develop this piece based around time; how it is important to the structure of our lives and how much we depend on it in our day to day routine. Performing in public was a huge challenge for many of the group, but the first question many asked at the end was ,"When can we do this again!" It was wonderful to see the growth in confidence and self-esteem exhibited by individual Bright Sparks and we look forward to building on this in the coming year.
This boy who has recently turned 18 has been going to Bright Sparks for several years, he finds the drama helps lift his mood, especially in his transition from school to college. He finds the activities fun and loves the drama. He now wants to explore drama more, from what he has learnt. The group has helped him make friends and meet different people in a safe and secure environment. He has felt involved in all the different activities and never left out. He likes to expand on being creative using the skills learned, making and putting on shows for friends and family.
Carers will have a weekly Saturday afternoon break, feel more refreshed and interconnected to other parents and carers in their particular situation.
We are pleased to note that four carers have formed their own informal peer support group which meets regularly in our Café Bar during the Bright Sparks sessions.
As a parent I have seen how my son’s confidence has grown and how he has pushed himself out of his comfort zone. He had quite a small circle of friends, but now enjoys being part of a group. He has an improved grasp in how to express himself, not only verbally but creatively through dance and drama. It also provides me an hour free for myself; usually time to walk to exercise so to improve my own well-being.
Children and young people participating in our project will demonstrate improved well-being, both physical and mental/emotional, through participating in creative arts activity over the course of the year.
Bright Sparks have complex, multiple needs including but not limited to ASD/ADHD, cerebral palsy, hearing, visual and speech impairments and Down’s Syndrome. Some also face a multiplicity of mental health challenges. Sessions changed weekly but focused on central themes, creating a calm, safe outlet for sharing hopes and fears and how challenges might be overcome together. We used different sensory tools for verbal and non-verbal communication; sounds, props, drawing, movement and role play to explore a topic, encouraging self-expression through embodiment, storytelling, or enactment, so gradually being better able to express inner feelings and release emotions in a trusted space. This provided an outlet to release mental, physical or emotional tension, so reducing stress, aiding relaxation, understanding and management of feelings and emotions, forging friendships, building confidence, trust and leadership skills and promoting independence.
Before becoming a member of Bright Sparks, this young girl aged 10 was unable to attend other classes aimed at her age group, due to her anxiety about larger, more unpredictable groups of participants and her anxiety/lack of confidence in her ability to meet the expectations of these groups. She had also never expressed a sense of belonging or a feeling of fitting in with others and would be resistant/reluctant to leave the house at weekends. Since attending Bright Sparks, the young person looks forward to and will happily leave the house to attend the group. She will discuss things they may do before the group and talks happily at the end about the fun activities and games she has taken part in while there. She enjoys spending time with the other participants, helpers and staff and feels completely at ease with them all and expresses a feeling that they all understand her and her needs. This has also led to her stating this is the one place outside of home where she feels she fits in and has a sense of belonging. The young person’s wellbeing has been drastically improved by Bright Sparks, as it has made her believe in herself and her abilities when in a safe, secure and understanding environment. It allows her a period of time out of the house with reduced anxiety, when she doesn’t mask, as she feels comfortable being herself, due to knowing there will be no unrealistic expectations of her. The young person’s confidence within the group has improved immensely, resulting in a period of time where her anxiety is reduced. This has even enabled her to feel comfortable enough to join the group on stage in front of an audience. As a carer it improves my wellbeing as I can relax knowing she is happy and calm while there. I also know it is a very understanding environment that will cater for her needs in regards to her stage of development rather than her age. As a very friendly and understanding group that encourages and enables the young person to have fun and be herself, knowing that it helps reduce her anxiety and enables her to leave happy will always improve my wellbeing as a carer.
Additional project outcome
Bright Sparks participated in a new festival in June 2022 at the Rep. Leaving the safety of their studio to perform Tumbleweed on stage was challenging with heightened nerves/anxiety, but it highlighted the connection and support parents/carers collectively have as we celebrated amazing performances
We are delighted that one of the original Bright Sparks, who started with us eight years ago, decided for himself after the performance that, aged 16, he had finally achieved all he needed to from the group and that it was time for him to move on. This young person’s Mum previously said, I’m delighted, my son has come on leaps and bounds with his social skills and his confidence. He’s happy to chat to people which is what you want from a child with additional needs who struggles to interact with other people. I just like how he’s able to be himself here- he doesn’t have to worry about all the social norms outside of this building- the group embraces him, with every member valued for who they are. It’s fantastic as a parent to see him come in and flourish in that environment, because elsewhere, sometimes it can be quite challenging for him.