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Emotional Learning Cards with Lyn French

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

What do relationships mean to you part of the Emotional Learning Card series published by iniva & A Space. Image courtesy of iniva & the artists.

The Emotional Learning Cards are often used in educational and therapeutic settings but there is a connection to COTT in that they are used to connect personal experiences to broader social themes, grounding a sense of self within a shared discourse. The cards use the complexity and diversity of visual culture to create a space where the complexities of personal and social experience can be explored. People using them have the choice to just talk about what they see or connect experiences to an image that’s already out there in the world. This can act as an in-road to eventually start exploring more personal areas - they offer a slight removal from directly tackling personal issues. We spoke to Lyn French from A Space about how the cards were developed and how they are used in facilitation.

Lyn French is an art therapist, psychoanalytic psychotherapist and Director of ‘A Space’. A Space delivers art and therapy services across schools in East London. For over ten years, Lyn was a sessional lecturer on the MSc in psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy with children and adolescents at Birkbeck College, University of London. Lyn established a partnership with the Institute of International Visual Arts (iniva) in the early 2000s which continues to the present day. This has resulted in many A Space/iniva artist and therapist-led initiatives, one of which is the Emotional Learning Cards. They feature contemporary art, psychologically resonant commentary and questions exploring themes relating to identity, difference and diversity. Sets are sold internationally through iniva’s website and are used by a wide range of people including therapists, educators, and parents/carers.

Lyn, what are the Emotional Learning Cards designed for and who uses them?

LF: Our cards are designed to support therapists, educationalists, artists facilitating workshops and parents/carers to open-up conversations that will help build emotional awareness and understanding. They can also be used for individual reflection or for training therapists and teachers on how to prompt exploration and discussion, especially around what some might perceive as difficult or uncomfortable subjects relating to diversity and difference. One of our aims is that card users will become more aware of when unconscious biases come into play, both in themselves and others.

How is the project funded?

LF: The first set of cards was jointly funded by A Space and iniva. A Space and iniva are both registered charities and our Emotional Learning Cards are sold to generate funds which support creative learning projects aligned with our charitable missions. The sets have been supported by grants from trusts and foundations and funders including Arts Council England. We have also been supported by generous in-kind contributions by specialists and sponsorship from the Opossum Federation of schools.

Why is a game format useful/desirable?

LF: The sets of cards aren’t games as such, but they can be made into one (e.g., by suggesting participants match images together that they think share common themes; matching feelings cards to images etc). Therapists in particular (whether working with adults or children) find the cards very useful as they can select a few which might best apply to their client and put them out on the table to look at and reflect on. The commentary and questions on the reverse can be read in advance by the therapist to support their thinking about what to focus on or can be read out loud in the session.

Have you been inspired by other games?

LF The idea for the first set came from affirmation cards I’d seen which were published in the USA in the early 2000s. Using these as a starting point, we began developing a set of cards which would take this idea further by focusing on themes relating to identity, sense of self, and emotional learning more generally. Students from the Graphic Design and Illustration departments at Central St Martins (CSM) created the prototype for us. As A Space and iniva were co-running artist and therapist-led workshops at the time, the decision to use contemporary art evolved naturally. iniva’s programme foregrounds artists from the Global Majority or with diasporic experience so their creatives were well positioned to source artists’ work for inclusion as well as securing the relevant permissions to use the selected images.

Was the intention behind replacing CSM student designs with iniva artist designs to make the cards more widely appealing? Did you have other motivations there?

LF: A Space, iniva and the CSM students all agreed that the design for the cards themselves and the box would be based on their prototype but the illustrations would be replaced with images by artists, something everyone was very excited about at the time. Using contemporary artists nominated by iniva served a number of purposes. iniva's mission is to raise the profile of culturally diverse artists and to widen the conversation about race, class, gender and difference and diversity more generally. A Space has a core aim of de-stigmatising therapy and applying psychoanalytic ideas to everyday life (e.g., how the past [even unspoken or buried histories] influences the present; how parents' traumas around migration and dislocation can play out in future generations and so on.) Using artists' works seemed to fulfil both of these aims as the themes explored by artists are multi-layered, often reflecting subjects that have to do with identity and with processing personal and collective histories.

Also, using culturally diverse artists more accurately reflects the identity of many of the students and clients that teachers and therapists work with as opposed to using (predominantly white) Euro-centric artists that many were used to seeing. Back in the early 2000s when we were developing the first set of cards, exhibitions at galleries such as Tate were not so diverse. As a side note, the therapy world is still dominated by white therapists (I'm white, Canadian) so having the Emotional Learning Cards out on view in a therapy room can signal that A Space welcomes conversations about difference.

On a practical front, partnering A Space with iniva meant that iniva could enhance the cards' reach as they have an international audience. iniva and A Space share a commitment to democratising creativity and the arts. The Emotional Learning Cards promote the idea that looking at art is an active process, one to which we bring our own experiences and emotional history. The text on the back of the cards and the accompanying questions can help break down barriers, encouraging students/clients to find personal associations and to feel less inhibited by what art 'should' be or who is 'entitled' to make meaning out of art.

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