Multisensory Space as a Creative Environment for Social Services Thesis Process: Summary of Taisekwa Sigobodhla’s Study on a Multisensory Approach in Strengthening the Development of Multicultural Identity and Supporting Parents

Teksti | Taisekwa Sigobodhla , Tiina Wikström

Multisensory Space (MS) has been used as a creative and innovative open learning environment for several purposes within Laurea University of Applied Sciences (UAS) education over 10 years. It has been a part of different projects both at Laurea and its partner organizations, and, in addition to all the visitors in the MS, it has provided a multitude of opportunities for students to learn more about such themes as identity, multicultural work, sociocultural empowerment and dialogue. As a concept, Multisensory Space allows both theoretical and more hands-on approach and hence it has been a rewarding environment for both practice and thesis development for many Laurea students. Also, it can be actualized as a permanent space or as a mobile version including a tent with projectors. Even lighter one-wall versions can be used.

One of such theses completed by the end of 2018 was created by Taisekwa Sigobodhla, a student of Social Services Degree programme. This program, which is offered in English, has a great variety of students from different cultural backgrounds, and its scope is to educate Social Services professionals who are competent both in the Finnish and global field of Social Services.

The topic of Taisekwa Sigobodhla’s thesis was focused on applying Multisensory Space for strengthening children’s cultural identity development and providing support for parents in multicultural families. The study focused on supporting the role of participating parents by giving them an opportunity to reflect on their culture while building and participating in Multisensory Spaces that explore different aspects of culture that are relevant or of interest to them. The core of the multisensory method is the client-oriented approach and the participants in this case were the families and parents who could decide what aspect or aspects of their culture they wished to explore.

This article focuses on some of the findings in Taisekwa Sigobodhla’s thesis as well as presenting such theoretical concepts as culture, cultural tools, cultural heritage and cultural identity. Additionally, support for parents, thesis implementation process and the feedback received are discussed. The part of the text introducing the framework is written by Senior lecturer Tiina Wikström followed by summary of Taisekwa Sigobodhla’s study below.

About Culture, Cultural Tools and Cultural Heritage

Culture is a complex yet ever-changing phenomenon that is central to our identities as individuals. Culture is both implicit and explicit, and there is a generational and learned aspect to it, while it is also something that is shared and distinctive.

According to Familia Ry (2016) during the period 2008-2014 the number of dual culture couples and families in Finland had grown by 26% to 71 316; a growth being of about 15 000. These figures include different relationships in which one of the partners was born in Finland. The figures for families in which both parents have an immigrant background are also growing.

These couples create a type of “third culture” (Väestöliitto n.d. a); one that is as unique for the couple and family that exist within it. That third culture consists of aspects of the parent’s culture that they hold dear and find important to pass onto their children. Part of this process of creating this “third culture” includes reflecting on one’s own culture and cultural identity.

Parents with an immigrant background living in Finland need support in their role, as they are the primary teacher of this culture to their children. The role as a teacher or facilitator of cultural learning to one’s child takes on an additional challenge when one’s home or current place of residence is somewhere else than in your “home” country or place of origin where one would be immersed in the culture in question.

As visualised below, Spencer-Oatey (2012, 4) explains how culture can be observed in three distinct levels. Firstly, it can be seen as the observable artefacts which can be dress code, the manner in which people address each other, smells, feelings, emotional intensity, books etc. (Shein 1990,111 referred to by Spenser-Oatey 2012, 4). Secondly, culture manifests in values and lastly, as basic underlying assumptions. In line with this, Hofstede (1991, 8) also stated that culture is made up of “physically visible” components that have a cultural meaning that is invisible.

Figure 1: The Levels of Culture & their Interaction (Spencer-Oatey 2012, 5) as an adaption of the original by Schein (1984, 4).

Another aspect of culture is the concept of cultural tools. Cultural tools include language, pictures, models as well as ways of doing things that are passed on generationally. When writing on the topic of cultural tools, Doyla & Palmer (n.d.) refer to Vygotsky’s thinking and writing on “true education” where Vygotsky argues that by giving children a set of cultural tools for thinking and creating, their learning abilities develop. Vygotsky also argues that by using cultural tools, children develop psychological qualities and abilities. And the development of these abilities leads to the development of a child’s personality. Shabani (2016, 2) further highlights Vygotsky’s thoughts in regard to learning and development being based on social interaction. Likewise, during this thesis process, the children of the participating families gained some cultural learning in the Kiva Aamu group, as later elaborated in greater detail. Thus cultural tools are essential to the development of children’s (cultural) identity and their personality as well. In his sociocultural theory, Vygotsky argues that “learning has its basis in interacting with others” (Shabani 2016, 2-3). In this study, an intentional space for such social interactions between parents and children was provided.

Cultural heritage is an additional aspect of culture, and it has been described as different ways in which people live that is expressed and passed along generationally. It includes customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expression and values. Cultural heritage is expressed in tangible and intangible forms. That is to say there are tangible representations of value systems, beliefs, traditions and lifestyles. Intangible heritage takes the form of traditions, oral history, popularly through cuisine, clothing, forms of shelter, traditional skills and technologies, religious ceremonies, performing arts, music, dancing, storytelling; hence these tangible and intangible cultural heritage forms are bound together inseparably. (Culture in Development n.d.)

What stands out in different aspects of looking at culture is the concept of generational inheritance, elements of belonging to a community and this facilitating a sense of identity. It can therefore be argued that the multisensory method is suitable for looking at cultural heritage and appropriate for the target group.

Rogoff (2003, 3) argues that the process of human development can essentially be described as a cultural process in the sense that through cultural tools such as language we become indirectly linked to the lives and experiences of past generations. She also highlights that as a result of current circumstances like globalisation and migration for various reasons, cultural heritage changes from generation to generation. Linked to this, the thesis study looked at how parents with an immigrant background living in Finland could use the multisensory method to create a Multisensory Space or experience based on some aspect of their culture. This was done as a means of supporting the development of a child’s cultural identity through the parent having an opportunity to reflect on those aspects of their cultural identity.

Chen (2014) describes cultural identity as “identification with a certain group based on cultural categories”, that is to say a sense of belonging. Cultural identity is a sense of belonging to a group and the extent to which one feels that they are a representative of a given culture behaviourally, communicatively, psychologically and sociologically. It consists of values, meanings, customs and beliefs. Chen (2014) further argues that it is constructed and maintained through a sharing of collective knowledge which in this case is traditions, heritage, language, norms and customs.

In addition, Chen (2014) presents that cultural identity is a complex and multifaceted concept, the idea of which has changed through the years from the view that cultural identity is something stable and obvious. However, in the light of globalization it can now be argued to be something that is in a constant state of negotiation and challenges taking place through different communication practices. That is to say that the negotiation of, co-creation and reinforcement of cultural identity takes place through social interactions. (Chen 2014) In terms of the concept of cultural identity, there is the element of common characteristics and ideas which may be markers of a shared cultural identity but there is also the concept of how that culture defines itself in relation to or opposition to other cultures or groups.

Supporting Parents

As the report of Familia Ry (2016) highlights, a majority of the multicultural families in Finland have children and as such the topic of multicultural children and the development of their multicultural identity is one that is relevant in general but also specifically in terms of early childhood education. As such the early childhood education curriculum of Finland (Ministry of Education 2016) views multiculturalism and different forms of cultural diversity as a resource that is worth investing in. This is because the curriculum recognises the right to one´s own language, religion and culture as a fundamental right for the child but also by extension the parents. (Ministry of Education 2016, 32-33). In line with these views, in this thesis, the aspect of supporting parents was considered and it was ensured that the collaboration with parents was interactive and client-oriented, catering to the diverse needs of the family.

According to Väestöliitto, in multicultural families two distinct cultures are not coexisting side by side but rather these multicultural families form a third culture. One that is made up of the parts of each partner’s culture that they find important and cherish the most. In line with this it is important that parents of multicultural families be supported in exploring the parts of their culture that are important to them and in what ways they would want to pass these onto their children. As such the Graniitti-Klubi as a peer support group was fitting to the aims and objectives of this thesis, as well as those of the ELO project and the process of supporting parents.

Implementation Phase

In this section, the implementation of Multisensory Spaces in the Kiva Aamu group is described by the writer of the Thesis. Below, in Table 1, the overall sessions and times as well as goals are described. The role of the participating mothers varied somewhat over the course of the sessions.

Table 1. Themes for the multisensory sessions.

Sample sessions

In this section, some of the different sessions with their multisensory elements are described in more detail and visualized in the Tables below. For Zimbabwe space, the mobile tent was used. Two mothers attended this session.  Both of them were new to the group. As it was the first time that the multisensory tent was built at Graniitti-Klubi, the staff were interested to see it and participated as well.

For this space, I used my own reflections on the different aspects I feel are important to me from my culture. I used many different cultural elements such as food, stories, celebrations (weddings and funerals), dance, music, religion, life in rural areas in comparison to urban areas, soccer and cricket, markets as well as how people spend their free time. This was done to show the mothers that in the upcoming sessions the aspects studied could be varied and personal to them and their interests. All the participants showed interest in the space and we had long discussions.

Plan for Zimbabwe session: Parts of my culture
  • Taste: Oranges
  • Sounds: – Music (Zimbabwean artist Oliver Mtukudzi)
  • Sight: -Slideshow of pictures depicting different aspects of the culture (community, food, barbeques, cricket and soccer, markets, rural life v urban life, music, instruments, dance, weddings, storytelling, nature, religion.
  • Smell: Aqueous cream, herbal cream, spices
  • Touch: -Dashiki dress, braiding hair, beads, handbags, cooking stick, baskets, materials, woven baskets

For storytelling session, there were five mothers and their children participating. The theme of the space was an in-depth continuation of storytelling that looked at characters in stories like animals and the characters they are usually assigned and how this differs from culture to culture. We also explored travellers’ tales, guardians, the role of the simpleton/ fool, stepmothers, beautiful damsels that need saving. These served as common features in storytelling and were the base of discussions. Discussions focused on how these features differ between cultures but also how they have changed over time as a result of such developments as feminism. The mothers used typical or traditional Russian stories as the basis of the discussion and also the lessons communicated by stories and how the mothers viewed these were studied.

Plan for storytelling session:
  • Taste: Rice porridge, cinnamon sugar
  • Sounds: Music (instrumental soundtrack of children’s movies)
  • Sight: Slideshow of pictures of different aspects of story-telling aspects like animals, travellers and their tales, guardian figures in stories, characters like simpletons, fools, beautiful princesses and princes that save the day, evil step mothers. Storybooks, throws and blankets for a cosy setting.
  • Smell: Rice porridge, cinnamon
  • Touch: Storybooks

For the final session, a Multisensory Space with the theme of the Russian New Year celebrations was created. Some of the aspects that we looked at were food, decorations, the many traditions around the celebrations and how they differ from region to region, also the difference between rural areas and urban areas, as well as the differences in how the mothers in attendance and their families carry on these traditions. There was also a discussion around the history of the celebrations and the religious element.

The mothers were asked about their earliest memories of celebrating the New Year and that holiday period overall. What the celebration looks like for them now, and also how that differs from what it was like in their childhood as well as that of their parents. Also, what traditions were important to them, how did they learn about these, and what were the traditions they hoped to pass on to their children. The mothers took great pride in sharing their personal stories around the celebration as well as explaining and teaching different aspects of their culture in regards the New Year Celebration. The discussion was in depth and seemed interesting to everyone.

The feedback discussion led one of the mothers whose children were now adults in Finland sharing her experiences about some of the challenges she had personally faced teaching her children her culture. This opened up a long discussion between the mothers and the coordinator.

Plan for Russian New Year celebrations session:
  • Taste: Satsumas, chocolate, coffee, traditional Russian treat.
  • Sounds: Music traditionally played at Christmas and New Year (Tchaikovsky), sample of New Year’s speech by Russian president, part of the movie The Irony of Fate or Have a Nice bath (1975)
  • Sight: Pictures, Yolka (Russian Christmas tree)
  • Touch: Yolka, candles

Feedback

As part of the final multisensory session, feedback from the mothers was asked. The mothers appreciated that the spaces were something that they could take part in with their children. They also expressed that they thought it was a good way to explore different aspects of culture as one picture led to a discussion about many things that may not have been obvious or expected. One mother used the example of the picture of the forest from the session on storytelling that was built around the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. This picture of the forest had led to a discussion about Hansel and Gretel and how the story was basically about parents deciding to abandon their children in a forest. This was followed by a discussion on how the mothers felt about such sensitive topics in storytelling. The mothers felt that the discussions during each session had provided an opportunity to think about their culture and what they wanted to share with their children. They would have hoped for more people to join the sessions as they would have been interested in to hear different points of view and how things are done in other cultures.

When asked what they particularly liked about the method they mentioned the screen with pictures. And the portion of the session which had been a “presentation”, that is the pictures, story or songs combined with questions that guided the discussion. One mother said she enjoyed talking and sharing experiences.

Having the discussion based on the different points of view or differences between cultures helped to open up the discussion. It also helped to look at the issues in a different and sometimes new way. Some of the issues included the mothers thinking about how children choose or develop their relationship with and to a culture. Also, what were the things that influenced children to accept or value certain things in one culture as compared to another. The mothers had also considered how parents, day-cares, schools and society affected this process as well as to what extent a child should be guided to appreciate their parent’s culture.

One of the challenges during the sessions was the language barrier as the coordinator had to translate what everyone else was saying and big parts of the conversation was missed. Also knowing when to move the discussion along was difficult whilst outside the tent and also because of the language barrier.

The ideas for the space were interesting to the visitors.  For example, the idea for the final session on the Russian New Year came fully from the mothers. The purpose of this thesis was to create a multisensory experience and hope for discussion to grow naturally from that. This also happened. Participants asked many questions (what life is like in rural areas, religion, my family’s experiences and so on) and they were genuinely interested in the culture and my personal experience of issues of cultural identity. This really served the purpose of introducing both myself and the method to participants.

Having access to online info during the sessions was useful as I could look up additional things that came up during the discussion easily. For instance, during the discussion a question came up about a Blair toilet and about location of a place, so in this case it was easier to show a picture of that and a map, especially when there was a language barrier as well.

During the music session, we managed both to cater to the children fully whilst also focusing on supporting their mothers through the discussion. This was easy to do as the songs and instruments were appealing to the children and there was always a suitable interlude to discuss children’s songs and childhood memories. From a practical perspective, the instruments were of great interest to this age group of children. Also having the lyrics of the music on the screen helped mothers in participating more as they could sing along.

The mothers were able to participate by sharing music, movies and shows that they watch during the holiday period from the internet. This session also saw the most participation from the mothers. The fact that we knew each other better now was evident in the conversation, as questions were set around their memories and what traditions were important to them. Less time for presentation was needed as the discussion flowed naturally. The MS had met its goal by facilitating discussion where the mothers could get peer support. Also, the MS was a beneficial methods in terms of reminiscing. This was highlighted in the discussions – the connection between one’s own childhood and who they are or see themselves as a parent was frequently brought up.

In conclusion, this study and the feedback from the participating parents showed that this method can be adapted and used in similar mother- baby (child) groups. One adaptation possibility would be to have a longer-term multisensory theme or project for a group to work with. This concept could also be used by day-cares with families who have older children, as it supports the child’s identity negotiation. It could also facilitate cooperation between the day-care staff and parents in terms of supporting child’s identity formation. Also, it could be a concrete way for parents to be involved and participate in their child’s life at day-care. The other children in such group would also be simultaneously learning about other cultures. The method also supports the concept of “small group” activities in day-cares. However, this would require time, resources and commitment from day-care staff. Many studies have been carried out on supporting children with an immigrant background in the day-care system, and this beneficial and inexpensive method could easily be adapted for such purposes. The impact of culture on our identities and the importance of generational learning was something that was clearly demonstrated during this thesis project.

References

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