Art at the Start


26 August 2019

We're very excited to tell you more about Art at the Start, a collaborative PhD between our Learning team and the University of Dundee's Psychology department.

The research asks 'what happens when we make art together?' and explores the impact of engaging with the visual arts on infants' well-being, development and attachment relationships. Read on to find out more and see how you can get involved...

Two children and an adult playing with a box full of blue rice and toys with a sea theme


Having been in her role for nearly 20 years, DCA's Head of Learning Sarah Derrick has seen a lot of wee ones taking part in shared art making experiences. Through that experience she has many anecdotes about the positive effects of creativity and making on young children but wanted to pull together stronger evidence to demonstrate the impacts and benefits of engaging with art at DCA.

This is where a meeting with Art Psychotherapist Vicky Armstrong in 2017 sparked some exciting ideas. Vicky had already been working on the Art at the Start project as part of Create Together art therapy groups in 2012 (you can find out more about this published research here) and the two thought it would be extremely beneficial to look at creating an evidence base for the social impact of art making (and viewing) in early childhood. 

"We're very excited to be working on this project over the next four years..."

Together the Psychology Department at University of Dundee and our DCA Learning team successfully applied to the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) for a collaborative PhD programme to study the impact that art participation has upon the social well-being of young children and how shared art experiences may help to build strong attachment relationships.

We're very excited to be working on this project over the next four years and to have two students on board, Vicky Armstrong and Holly Rumble, selected through a recruitment process. 

Meet the team

 Vicky Armstrong – Art Psychotherapist

“I’m an HCPC registered Art Psychotherapist. I am particularly interested in the attuned relationship between a baby and their primary carer. I started the Create Together groups because I wanted to develop a way of using art therapy to help maximise the positive experience of this relationship for both baby and parent. I am happy to have received a studentship from University of Dundee to continue this research into art making in the early years with a doctoral research project”.

Holly Rumble – Artist Educator and SGSSS funded student

“I joined the University of Dundee in September 2018, to undertake an MSc in Psychological Research Methods before commencing PhD research in 2019, funded by the Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences. I have almost 15 years experience as a practicing artist, focusing on intergenerational participation and 2015-2018 I worked as Public Engagement Coordinator for Tramway, Glasgow, beginning with the public participation programme for Turner Prize 2015. My interests lie in the power of arts participation to increase confidence, wellbeing and literacy. I am looking forward to working with DCA to measure the long term impact of their family participation programme.”

Sarah Derrick – Artist Educator and DCA Head of learning

“I have spent over 30 years working with museums, galleries, artist studios, workshops and individual artists on a local, regional and national scale designing, delivering and evaluating visual art activity and engagement for all ages. But having watched young children grow up with the rich cultural experiences that DCA can offer over the past 20 years I am especially interested to support long term study.”

Dr Josephine Ross – Psychology Lecturer

“I am a lecturer in Developmental Psychology at Dundee University. My primary research interest is in the development of self-awareness. I am interested in researching how early relationships and interactions contribute to children’s growing self-awareness, and how parents and caregivers can support children in this journey.” Find out more about Dr Ross' work here.

Close up of a baby using their feet to paint onto a piece of paper

What we're doing

Over the next four years we'll be working on a range of activity, some public and some via closed groups, linking with art and creative making at DCA across Exhibitions, Discovery Film Festival and Learning programme.

Talking About Art - Working with family groups, Holly is exploring how they use the self-led activities and resources around the exhibition programme at DCA. Look out for more information about her findings coming later in the year.

Art Therapy Groups - Vicky leads these closed groups twice a week in DCA Create Space, exploring parent/baby attachment and art making in the early years.

Messy Play + Creative Sessions - These public workshops, devised and led by Vicky and Holly, run during term time in DCA Create Space and add another layer of research. Get involved - details, dates and booking information can be found on our website

Shorts for Tinies - These interactive sessions will allow wee ones to engage with short animation programme during Discovery Film Festival 2019. Watch out for more information coming soon here.

Dip a toe / Have a go Sessions - We are also planning to work with parents and carers on building confidence in viewing and making art at home as a result of receiving many requests.

The Research Context

If you're as fascinated about the subject and aims of the project as we are, here's a look at the wider context of the research:

The quality of the loving bond between caregivers and infants in the first three years of life lays the foundations for social, emotional, and biological development. Warm, reciprocal interactions demonstrate to infants their positive influence on the social environment and build expectations of safe, supportive responses from others.

In short, positive attachment experiences help to build the resilience central to good mental health – and art making and viewing experiences can contribute to this.

Beyond the specialist field of psychotherapy there is a growing interest in how arts in general can impact upon wellbeing (Clift 2012). A number of participatory arts programmes working with the mothers of young children showed promise in improving attachments and psychological development (South London Gallery, 2015) and there are attempts to make frameworks for evaluations in this area (Daykin et al 2014, Fancourt & Joss, 2014, Public Health England 2016). However, discussion of specific mechanisms for evaluating art facilitated change is limited.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing Report (2017) specifically recommends that Research Councils should fund interdisciplinary work that evidences the link between arts and well-being. In recognition of this, a wider objective of the project is to explore the social functions and consequences of art making in community settings.

The fact that this project is embedded within DCA helps to provide this broader context, as our core aim is to enrich people’s lives through art, culture and creativity.


Find out more

You can find out more about the project here and follow along with what we're up to on Twitter

Art at the Start logo - once large hand print in blue next to a smaller yellow hand print and the words 'create together'University of Dundee School of Social Sciences logo

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