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Dinosaur Dexter helping with childrens’ mental health

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When Lucy Pearce started working on a project for her Fine Art and Illustration degree at Coventry University, she didn’t think that this would lead to becoming a published author a few months later!

As part of the lead in to City of Culture, CUSU worked with the University to identify student projects, each receiving up to £1k, for projects that combined cultural creativity with either cross-generational interaction, wellbeing, or sustainability.

Lucy has designed and created the ‘Youtopia’ brand which is aimed at helping reception year children talk about mental health issues.

When CUSU launched the call for funding applications for the University's City of Culture project fund, Lucy’s tutor suggested that her degree project would be a perfect candidate for the grant and encouraged her to apply. 

Lucy said: “I was extremely flattered that my tutor thought that my idea had potential and so I followed his advice and applied for the money and thankfully, I was successful.”

Youtopia is a land where creatures live and have adventures. The first creature that Lucy worked on and has introduced through her book and activity pack is ‘Dexter the Dinosaur’ – after all, children love Dinosaurs!

“I wanted to create something that children could engage with and help them to express themselves in a way that just wasn’t black or white. Young children find it hard to distinguish between different levels of happiness or sadness; they are either one or the other and can’t explain the bits in between.

“Youtopia gives them the vocabulary to explore their feelings and anxieties in a way they can communicate through drawings and stories and will hopefully go a long way to assist them in telling us how they truly feel about things.”

The mental wellbeing of young children is a cause dear to Lucy’s heart. During the pandemic, she has found herself getting anxious about things and if she was feeling this way, she knew that her little sister would also be finding aspects of the pandemic, and the change it has had on society, hard to come to terms with:

“When you are five, or under, how do you communicate your fears to your parents, teachers or older siblings in a way that they might understand?”

When Lucy thought about using her creation Dexter the Dinosaur, she wanted him to be involved in an activity that children would understand and so she chose swimming in the story ‘Dexter takes a dip’.

“Swimming is an activity that a majority of young children are familiar with and by putting Dexter in a situation that they would understand was the basis of my introducing the mental health aspect to the story in a non-threatening and easy to follow way.”

Before the pandemic, Lucy was planning to go into Coventry schools and work on this with the children directly but it was not possible in the end, so she is hoping to reschedule that work in the New Year.

However, through the connections of a family friend who taught at a local school, she was able to find out what reception age children thought of Dexter through a series of school focus groups and the reaction was a positive one:

“I created an activity pack which accompanied my illustrated book and the children worked their way through that and seemed to enjoy it and the message it was trying to convey.

“Dexter went through a number of dilemmas when it came to his swimming lessons and the message he gave out was not to get stressed if you’re scared of doing something but talk about what it is that is making you scared - there is a way to get through it.

“Children need to learn that failure is nothing to worry about and if at first you don’t succeed, you try again without the added worry about what people will think about you. By following Dexter’s story, the children were able to identify with his issues, which led them onto being able to talk about their own – which is what the activity pack is all about.

“The activity pack is fun, interactive and engaging and Youtopia is a space for children to explore and feel comfortable in. They say that pictures paint a thousand words and in this case, it is very much illustration-led and I had great fun creating and drawing Dexter and his friends. As the brand expands, Dexter’s friends will go off on their own adventures which will all have a mental health message.”

The money that Lucy received from the University in association with City of Culture 2021 enabled her produce fifty activity packs and these will soon be given to local schools free of charge.

She has now gone on to launch her own online shop so she can start selling further activity packs and continue to expand the Youtopia series.  Lucy spends a couple of days a week on Youtopia as she has to fit it in around her other work commitments.

Lucy has recently graduated with an upper second class degree in Fine Art and Illustration and is obviously hoping to get a full time job in her chosen profession but will continue to work on building up the Youtopia brand:

“There are a number of new creatures who will be joining Dexter and the work I have done so far is all available to buy and available to anyone in the UK to buy. As more characters and activity packs are developed, I would like to see them build up a following. I do feel that there is a need for this kind of material for younger children as they have to be able to find their voice and we have to be prepared to listen and help.”

“If Dexter the Dinosaur can get our youngsters talking about mental health instead of bottling up their feelings, then it means they will be growing up more able to cope with what life has to throw at them later on and that has to be a good thing.”

If you would like to find out more about Youtopia and Dexter the Dinosaur then visit: https://www.homeofyoutopia.co.uk/  You will be able to get in touch with Lucy and buy the activity packs online.

There will be a second round of student project funding this year for City of Culture projects. The call will be published here on cusu.org and on CUSU social media, if you have a project idea you could receive up to £1k in funding to realise your vision.

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