Art at the Start

Published on 20 April 2020

This project looks at the impact arts participation can have upon the social well-being of young children and how shared art experiences may help to build strong attachment relationships

On this page

The Art at the Start project is a collaboration between art psychotherapist Vicky Armstrong and experimental psychologist Dr Josephine Ross. Our project explores a number of approaches to answering this question, looking at both art therapy and participative arts. We work in art galleries, health settings, the baby lab and even festivals.


Seeing the need for an intervention to help improve attachments at an early stage, Vicky developed ‘Create Together’ art therapy groups in 2012. This initiative gave struggling parents the opportunity to attend a series of community-based art therapy sessions with their young children where they are supported to use baby-safe art materials together in a playful way. The process of making art together can support bonding between parents and infants, helping them to develop new ways of relating and encouraging their enjoyment of each other through art and play. These groups were well received and the parents involved all reported an improvement in their relationship to their infant.

Looking to build an evidence base for the benefits of art therapy with parents and babies, and to embed her project further into psychological science, Vicky approached Josephine for help in 2014. Josephine is a senior lecturer in Developmental Psychology, 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.

This began a fruitful collaboration, where we were able to develop a unique technique for the observation of parent-infant interactions in the context of art-making. We compared video footage from the first and last sessions of Create Together art therapy groups and observed an increase in the number of positive interactions between parents and infants. This is important since warm, reciprocal interactions demonstrate to infants their positive influence on the social environment and build expectations of safe, supportive responses from others, facilitating good mental health. We also used questionnaire measures of well-being to demonstrate benefits for parental mental health.

In 2017, Vicky met with Sarah Derrick, Dundee Contemporary Arts centre’s Head of Learning to explore how we could work together. Having been in her role for nearly 20 years, Sarah had 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. Working together, the Psychology Department at the University of Dundee and the DCA Learning team developed a proposal to investigate the impact of early art experiences on relationships, looking at both the art therapy interventions for vulnerable families and at the public family art programme within DCA.

We successfully applied to the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science for a collaborative PhD programme to support this aim, as well as securing funding from the University of Dundee. This allowed Vicky to join the psychology department as a postgraduate researcher to evidence parent-infant art therapy and we were excited to be able to recruit another researcher to embed ‘Art at the Start’ within the gallery. Holly Rumble joined the project in 2018, aiming to measure the long term impact of DCA’s family participation programme. With almost 15 years experience as a practising artist and art educator, Holly’s interests lie in the power of arts participation to increase confidence, wellbeing and literacy.

Throughout 2019-20 we will also be joined by a number of undergraduates and taught postgraduate research assistants, all keen to have experience working with the community and to learn about the power of early art-making.

Over the next four years, we'll be working on a range of activity, some public and some via closed groups. This includes art therapy groups in the DCA with referrals from health visitors and community-based groups working with charities such as the International Women’s Centre and Homestart, monthly public sessions for parents and infants to try messy play, and evaluation of the impact of using the DCA create space on how families engage with the exhibitions, and public events embedded within the DCA learning programme. Our website and twitter feed try to give ideas for art-making with little ones that parents could try themselves at home.


Press Office, University of Dundee

Story category Research