Young at ‘Art’: How community arts programs can promote thriving in young people

The recent release of the Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services 2019 indicates that within the “community services” budget, federal spending on youth justice will be $842.4 million while the child protection services budget will reach $5.8 billion this year. What appears to be missing is significant funding on positive, community-based developmental programs for youth. In today’s post, social worker and professional dancer Anjelika Thwaites reports on the findings of her Honours thesis for Victoria University (and co-supervised by Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand) into the many benefits of investing in arts-based programs for young people.

Young people and the arts: Research foregrounds outcomes over process

The literature regarding young people, creative arts and youth programs has a strong focus on outcomes over lived experience. As someone who is immersed in arts practice, I was curious about what young people themselves had to say on the matter. I conducted nine in-depth interviews with young people engaged in community arts programs using a semi-structured interview process which explored their sense of identity and community connection. The result was a diverse, passionate and inspiring collection of stories that showed that the arts creates more than just a ‘good feeling’. For young people, the arts can provide safe environments in which to learn social skills, to work through and give voice to internal or interpersonal struggles, and to experience a sense of agency and belonging. Engagement with the arts can have profound and lasting effects on the development, wellbeing and education of young people, enhancing their potential to be positive contributors to their communities and wider society. A summary of the key findings are presented below.

Participation in the arts helps young people develop a sense of self and create meaningful connections with others.  Photo courtesy of the author  (pictured, below) and  Rainbow Yoga .

Participation in the arts helps young people develop a sense of self and create meaningful connections with others. Photo courtesy of the author (pictured, below) and Rainbow Yoga.

The arts offers both formal and informal opportunities for young people. A sense of inclusion, responsibility and purpose were commonly reported as important for participants. For example, Celeste[i] spoke of her transition from unemployment to volunteering through participation in numerous programs.

Well to be honest I was home everyday, all day, just watching Netflix and eating [prior to engaging with a community arts program]. That’s it. Basically, I was doing nothing, I didn't have a life.

Celeste now volunteers her time to a number of programs and recognises a growth in confidence and the importance of a sense of belonging:

I’ve become more confident with everyday life, I’m out the door by nine o’clock and I probably don’t get back until 7pm… (In the past, my life) revolved around binge watching everything I could get my hands on. So now I’m just like ‘oh cool I’ll go do this’. I’ll go to an event like the lantern parade...and we marched in that. Feeling like you belong, it’s pretty awesome.

The arts can be a ‘non judgment zone’ for growth and confidence. Arts programs provided immersion in a space where participants are free to make mistakes and develop their skills, which is integral to confidence building. Leila explained it like this:

I think confidence is the thing that holds us all back, our… lack of confidence in ourselves. And I think that that is why community arts is so important to have at a young age - because you can gain confidence in yourself. Schools aren’t really developing that, you’re constantly being graded and being told you need to be better and that pushes you down… everytime you’re told you’re not good enough you instinctively take that on and it’s really hard to get rid of...Community art, the goal is not necessarily the’s the idea of the process... I think everything is so scary in the world, for everyone. So being in a supportive environment… where no one cares if you make a poem and it’s shit, you know? It’s about just challenging yourself and being able to like… do that.

Programs can facilitate self discovery, re-assessment of values, and teach cultural and societal concepts. They may also be a point of contact for supportive and empowering environments in which participation creates opportunities for ‘skill-building and horizon-broadening experiences’ (Roth and Brooks-Gunn 2003, p. 94). Jacinta said, helps me be critical of my place in the world…I’ve also just learnt about society and privilege… all that stuff. And so I’ve kind of learnt about what I care about through that. I’ve just had exposure to people that I wouldn’t have had exposure to and the effect of that is… cultural competency… being more aware of the society that we live in and how it works and… what my place in it is.

Art can play a transformative role in both an immediate sense and also over time. Through both presentation and self-reflection, art enabled the participants to access emotions and make ‘a bit more sense’ of their lives. Phoebe describes a time when she was surprised by a powerful moment that tapped into something deep inside of her. The experience of connecting with and releasing hidden emotions can be facilitated through arts participation and be cathartic and profound.

I didn’t expect it to have as much as an impact on me as a person and on how I approach life as what it did… I don’t even know how to describe it. But I spent a lot of the weekend crying, in a good way but at the time thinking ‘well this is weird’ like crying is not a good thing - I shouldn’t be cry at this, I should be happy. And after leaving I was like ‘oh my god, that was the most best thing ever’. So [I] just released all this stuff that I didn't know was like building up inside of me and it was just like ‘ah, nice’.

A positive outlook has impacts on the individual's physical and mental health, psychological growth, happiness and overall well-being.  By developing positive experiences and social contracts as part of a routine or daily life, individuals create life-long positive habits or habitus (Bourdieu 1977; Houston 2002; McDonald 2009) that will carry into the future and influence the young person's life trajectory. Nasrin explained,

when you're doing something and you just feel it… you just feel a different type of happy. Not the laughing type of happy but just happy happy…  After a dance day I go out and you can see the energy is high… It just shows to other people … when you do stuff that you love and you go out, you bring the same energy to people … that's why if you don’t do stuff you love, you’re down. But when you do stuff you love it shows every day… Even if there's a day your don’t do the thing or arts you are still happy because it's still something that you do in your life.


Implications for Practice, Policy and Research

Alternate and Collaborative Practices

Social service and other ‘helping’ professionals who understand the reciprocal and continuous creation (and re-creation) of cultural context and individual identity can collaborate with artists, writers, and other social activists and citizens in the pursuit of a common interest in social change (Rappaport 1998).

As the Positive Youth Development model[ii] increases in popularity, social workers who engage with young people would further best practice by recognising the developmental value of the arts.  Creative arts programs provide a strong venue through which to engage and foster the potential of youth, utilise protective measures, and to collaborate with the wider community in the creation of art while fostering individual growth and change.

Holistic Interventions

In recognition that arts-based programs often encourage high levels of participation, practitioners can use these programs as a foundation for entry-level engagement.  Access to programs can link young people to other supportive services, for example, arts-based therapies such as music therapy, behavioral therapy, and narrative therapy. These therapies can be of value for voluntary clients as well as referred youth clients.

Engaging with youth through an arts-based context can enable social workers to gain a greater understanding of the client's internal dynamics as well as relevant context, culture, and environmental impacts (DeCarlo and Hockman 2004; Tillie Allen 2005 (1); Gentleman & Byers 2015 (2).This allows a more holistic approach and enables practitioners to provide the appropriate services and supports.

Development of Future Programs

When developing future youth programs, those based in the arts should be seen as more than ‘time fillers’. Research indicates programs that take a positive approach to young people’s capabilities and seek to build on those resources (like the Positive Youth Development framework), rather than emphasising the ‘fixing’ of problems, have the most positive impacts for young people. Youth programs that focus on the following ‘Big Three’ design features are most effective at positively impacting youth development (as reported in Lerner et al, 2006 (3)):

  1. Leadership opportunities are provided

  2. Life skills development are emphasized

  3. The program is underpinned by a caring and sustained adult-youth relationship

Policy implications

Adolescence and early adulthood has been identified as the peak age for the onset of mental ill-health, which, left unaddressed, will likely continue into adulthood (Zarobe and Bungay 2017). Mission Australia’s Youth Survey reported that mental health is one of the top three concerns for young people for the first time in the survey’s fifteen year history (Bailey et al., 2016). The 2010 National Youth Strategy (Australian Government 2010) revealed high numbers of young people considered ‘at risk’ across a number of key areas including homelessness, sexual health, mental health and safety

There has been no minister for Youth since 2014 and the federal government has cut much funding for young people including defunding AYAC - the peak body for young people in 2014.  Contrary to the federal governments stance the Victorian State Government claims to have made significant commitments to young people in response to recommendations of the 2016 Royal Commission into Family Violence (Victorian Government n.d; YACVic 2017). It has also implemented a number of youth initiatives such as the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria (YACVic), youth forums, and the Victorian Youth Summit. These steps have actively contributed to the current youth policy: Building Stronger Youth Engagement in Victoria (2016).  This policy aims to give young people increased opportunities to participate in decision making and to engage them in the development of policies, programs and services (Victorian Government 2016). Additionally in the 2018-19 Budget the Victorian Government committed to keeping more young people in education and training and providing support into gainful employment (Victorian Government 2018).

Policies and programs should recognise that the arts are a significant contributor to the wellbeing of young people. This research demonstrates that community arts programs can enhance the success of these policies by providing young people with access to safe spaces in which to build skills and explore ideas. Given the resources and right support, young people demonstrate the ability to find solutions to both their own immediate problems (Connolly and Harms 2012) and those faced by their wider communities (Brankovic 2012).


[i] All names used here are pseudonyms.

[ii] Positive Youth Development is grounded in the belief that all young people have positive ‘assets’ (both internal characteristics and external resources) that can be leveraged and enhanced to improve long-term developmental outcomes.



(1) Tillie Allen, N M 2005, ‘Exploring Hip-Hop Therapy with High-Risk Youth’, Praxis, vol. 5, pp. 30-36

(2) Gentleman Byers, J 2015, ‘Expressive Arts in Play Therapy’, in Handbook of Play Therapy, O'Connor, K J, Schaefer, C E and D. Braverman L D  (ed.), John Wiley and Sons, pp. 277-288

(3) Lerner, R M, Lerner, J V, Alerigi, J, Theokas, C, Phelps, E, Naudeau, S, Gestsdottir, S, Ma, L, Jelicic, H, Alberts, A, Smith, L, Simpson, I, Christiansen, E, Warren, D and von Eye, A 2006,  ‘Towards a New Vision and Vocabulary about Adolescence: Theoretical, Empirical, and Applied Bases of a “Positive Youth Development” Perspective’, in Balter, L, and Tamis-LeMonda, C S (ed.), Child Psychology: A Handbook of Contemporary Issues, Psychology Press/Taylor and Francis, New York