An unlikely superhero is bringing a creative approach to the promotion of empathy and friendship in our primary schools, find Shazza Ali and Becky Vincer
Steampunk Bob is not your average superhero. He doesn’t wear a latex suit; instead, he sports a feather duster hat and a long red cape covered in dozens of intricate clock pieces. He doesn’t have a city to protect; his “beat” is primary schools (a different one each week). And rather than an arch-villain watching his every move, he has a team of researchers from the University of Kent monitoring his actions.
But what Steampunk Bob does have is an alter ego: he is also US-born artist Bob Karper. He even has a team of sidekicks – an indestructible team of kindness experts from charity People United, like Mega Becky and Super Shazza – and a superhero mission: to seek out kindness among primary pupils. And, just like the heroes from Marvel and DC, he is loved by children.
So, why is a team of researchers monitoring Karper’s activities? It’s simple: to see if the People United methodology of Steampunk Bob promoting acts of kindness and encouraging empathy, friendship and tolerance through creative intervention can actually make a difference in schools.
It works like this. A week before Steampunk Bob is scheduled to appear at a school, researchers from the University of Kent visit to collect pre-project data. The children fill in a questionnaire that includes measures from a unique Arts and Kindness model developed by the charity People United (Broadwood, Bunting, Andrews et al, 2012).
The model – based on an extensive review of the arts literature – suggests that there are four key pathways through which engagement with the arts can promote kindness. These are: emotions (understanding how other people might feel); values (exploring what matters most in life); learning (developing creative and collaborative skills); and connections (developing friendships and a sense of belonging).
Accordingly, the questions measure children’s ability to empathise, willingness to help peers, perceived connections to the community and their interest in the arts and creativity.
And then, a week later, Steampunk Bob suddenly appears in the playground (with lots of planning behind the scenes, of course) to kick off a school arts and kindness week. He is an exciting anomaly who positively interrupts school’s schedule. He stays all week.
Surveying the playground
It begins with Steampunk Bob using his magnifying glass and fold-out ruler to search high and low for KPs (kind people) and KQs (kindness qualities), which, he asserts, can be found anywhere if you search hard enough.
Naturally, he is met with many questions, such as “What are you looking for?” and “Are you a time traveller?”
He responds: “I listen to older folks about their past, to younger folks about their future, anybody and everybody about their now, so time can sometimes get mixed up in lots of interesting ways.”
Bob shares stories of kindness. Soon after, he takes an assembly to introduce himself. He then visits classes throughout the week.
Together with Bob, the pupils write kindness haikus about their school, generate physical motifs of kind and unkind attitudes, and share stories of kindness through drawing, writing and role play.
At break times, specially selected “kindness champions” don superhero capes to help Bob to inspire acts of kindness in the playground.
And finally, Bob collects all the stories to create a “grati-tune” – a kindness anthem, which is then performed by the whole school during a celebration assembly. A week later, after Bob has gone, the researchers return to assess the children once more.
You may be thinking: has any school really got time for this? But, really, can any school afford not to do it?
Does it work?
Kindness (or prosocial behaviour, as it is described in psychology), refers to any behaviour that is intended to benefit others (Abrams, Van de Vyver, Pelletier et al, 2015), such as sharing, helping and comforting. From an evolutionary perspective, these behaviours may have played a fundamental role in the development of stable societies and, consequently, the success of our species (Simpson and Beckes, 2010).
In this regard, kindness is an important prerequisite for cooperative and harmonious living. Moreover, prosocial behaviour in children is positively related to social approval, social acceptance and academic achievement (Eisenberg, Fabes and Spinrad, 2006).
But does this approach actually work? Some studies have shown that engagement in the arts increases prosocial behaviour, as well as overall wellbeing, resilience, coping mechanisms, self-esteem and positive emotions, such as hope (Beauregard, 2014). The arts and kindness weeks with Steampunk Bob are a test of how far an arts-based approach can make a difference.
Across participating schools, the intervention has been shown to significantly increase levels of empathy and prosocial intentions to help, share and care for others. Other findings include improvements in children’s ability to look at social situations from an alternative perspective, known as theory of social mind, and a decrease in the value that students place on being rich and powerful.
Interestingly, in one school, boys rated themselves as significantly more creative after the arts and kindness week, whereas there was no difference for girls.
Anecdotally, there is also a clear impact. Emma Gold, a teacher from St Stephen’s Infant School, explains: “Without a doubt, our arts and kindness week has had a lasting effect on the children and staff at our school.
“As an infant school, it is easy to build on our children’s imagination and, through music, words, poetry, art and drama, every child had the opportunity to express themselves.”
The findings highlight how the arts can be a catalyst for promoting societal cohesion. However, in the UK in recent years, the arts sector and creative subjects have faced huge cuts, and evidence towards this decline is only growing.
Could Steampunk Bob be our saviour? He can certainly be part of the solution; a talisman to show what is possible.
We get only one chance to educate children. With that power – as the uncle of another great superhero, Spider-Man, once said – comes great responsibility. We believe that the positive outcomes from our creative approach to encouraging prosocial behaviour demonstrate, yet again, that the inclusion of the arts in schools should be a central part of that responsibility.
Shazza Ali is Economic and Social Research Council CASE (Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering) PhD researcher at the Centre for the Study of Group Processes in the School of Psychology, University of Kent. Becky Vincer is creative programmes coordinator at People United, an innovative charity that explores how the arts and creativity can grow kindness, empathy and a sense of common humanity
This article originally appeared in the 6 SEPTEMBER 2019 issue under the headline “Kindly caped crusader seeks student sidekicks”