By Holly Campbell-Smith
As the Local Coordinator, I help to run The Yard’s two community centres, Hub67 and The Hall. One of the programmes we run from them is Yard Young Artists, which gives young people aged 4-19 the opportunity to engage with, take part in and make theatre on a weekly basis throughout the year and remove barriers of access to the arts.
These weekly sessions were also a chance for young people to grab a slice of pizza, make new friends and have a good old chat. Then 2020 happened, and the pandemic forced us to move all of our Yard Young Artists work online and changed the way we ran our programmes.
We believe wholeheartedly in the talent, creativity and ideas of our local young people and are always determined to provide them with a safe and nourishing space to express themselves. At times moving online has felt frustrating and uninspiring, but through a bit of trial and error we’ve created some great theatre, made strong connections and had a lot of fun!
I know better than anyone that it can be a challenge to transition vibrant, pizza-filled sessions to the digital world, so I’ve compiled a list of Yard Local’s top reflections for making the most out of online work:
- Let participants know the technical requirements in advance of online sessions and ask whether they need support with technology/internet access.
Even if participants have access to a phone to go on Zoom they’re still not getting the best experience. You can’t see more than 4 participants at a time, so even a lively session can feel small. We’ve been lending out tablets to some of our young people to help them get more enjoyment out of sessions and they can also use them for school work outside of sessions. I made a guide for zoom on the tablet that you could use too.
2. Work to ensure that your digital space is as accessible as possible and give participants the space to ask for support before and during your project.
- Have they never used Zoom before? We send participants a handy guide on how to join zoom before a project starts, and make sure to do a tutorial during the first session.
- Do they have access requirements that you’re not very knowledgeable about, for example they need a BSL interpreter or captioning? Find an access consultant or training to learn more and hold part of your budget to implement these requirements. Last year, we took part in great series of online workshops by Daryl Beeton Productions, #ADiffWayToThink, which discussed access and inclusion while creating at a distance.
- Do they find looking at a screen for long periods of time challenging? We try to build in at least two ‘off screen’ activities from the screen, from writing on paper to fancy dress.
- Do they not have a private room in their house to do the session in? Make some fun graphics for the group to use as virtual backgrounds .
- Do they feel a bit nervous about being online? We run practice zooms with young people before a project starts. If you live nearby, maybe you can drop around to show them how their tablet works – that worked well for us.
- Can they not turn their camera or mic on? Or are choosing not to? Find a way to make the activity still work for them, they could use the chat or send a reaction.
- Do they seem really quiet online compared to in person? We usually organise a 1:1 chat in a breakout room with each participant during a project to make sure everyone is getting the support they need. (More information on how to do this safely below.)
3. Keep sessions short and sweet.
Our online sessions are half as short as our in-person ones because it’s so tricky to stay engaged on zoom for more than an hour. We make sure to end the session on time and on a positive note, whether playing an energetic game of Go Fetch (a brilliant Zoom game) or giving each other a compliment about our contribution during the session.
4. Go with the flow.
Sometimes things don’t work online as they do in person and that’s fine. There’s always an awkward silence when we’re waiting for everyone to join on zoom, even with young people we’ve been working with for years! To help this we play some music while we wait and start with some ice breaker questions. Ask what their best part of the day has been, what weather describes their mood today, or what superpower would they choose?
During one session our Yard Youth group were feeling slightly distracted from a writing task they had been set and started rotating their camera around like they were stuck inside a washing machine. We made this into a dance and it became part of their final project!
5. Make creative packs to post to participants’ homes.
Everyone loves receiving post, however small. This could be a pack of arts and crafts to use during the session, some snacks or as simple as a postcard to say hello.
Last year we sent The Committee, our group of aged 15-19 Changemakers, an invite and a party pack to end their project, with sweets, party poppers, and a party hat with decorations. We then played a game of quick drag, where everyone had 5 minutes to dress up in their sparkliest outfits and personalise their hats.
6. Have fun.
This is a difficult time for everyone and online sessions should be an escape. We’ve embraced playing lots of games and being silly, and have realised that not everything has to be about outcomes when it comes to working with our young people. This list of online drama exercises, put together by the Youth Theatre community, has been a great source of ideas.
Our young people’s favourite zoom games are:
- Go Fetch: give the group a list of items that they will have in their house. At the count of 3, everyone has to run and fetch the items and bring it back to the camera as quickly as possible. The first-person back wins. You could adapt this by asking for items with a certain theme (items that describe your lockdown or 5 items that are red). You could also ask everyone to make up a story behind how they got their object or create a fictional use for it.
- Pictionary: split the group into 2 teams and share screen with the whiteboard on Zoom. Each team must then select a drawer for the group who will be sent a list of things to draw. The team must then try to guess what the drawer is drawing, the team with the most correct guesses wins.
- News report: start as a new reporter giving the group a fictional piece of news from your local area, for example ‘this just in there has been an explosion at the cake factory and the sky is raining donuts’. End your report with ‘over to you [next person’s name]’. The next person then takes a turn as the news reporter and creates their own fictional story and this continues around the group.
And our young people’s least favourite game by an overwhelming majority is Musical Statues! Please don’t make them dance. Ever.
6. Don’t forget your safeguarding policy
A safeguarding policy is a clear set of guidelines about how you will keep children and young people safe in your spaces and respond to child protection concerns.
Moving our programme online opened up a whole new world of safeguarding questions and concerns, so we read up on NSPCC Learning’s page on Social Media and Online Safety, sought advice from other youth groups, wrote up a risk assessment for zoom sessions and created a code of conduct for our young people to follow.
We decided it was important in our safeguarding policy that someone from the Yard local team is present in every breakout room. Although this isn’t possible on Zoom, we discovered that we can join the session with multiple devices in order to keep an eye on both the main room and breakout room. It might feel a bit ridiculous to juggle but it does get easier!
Whilst we can’t wait to finally go back in-person with our young people and never want to hear the dreaded phrase ‘you’re on mute!’ again, we hope these reflections prove that there are a lot of positive things to takeaway from the past year. We learnt so much more about our young people and have had the privilege to experience their endless imagination and creativity in an unpredictable world. From films, to showcases, to 1:1 performances in the park, we’ve found the joy in working together while being apart.