Community engagement – learnings from Pip the mascot and beyond

A Better Start

“Without engagement with the people you are trying to reach, you will never truly understand what connections can be made and the benefits from it” – Michelle, A Better Start Southend (ABSS) Parent Champion and Mascot Group member.

Tom Morton

As Southend’s children return to school or head off to nursery after a sunny, summer holiday full of fantastic, family fun, we are taking a moment to reflect on our own community engagement work.

Being an active part of the community, and engaging with families at every possible opportunity, spreading the word of the range of ABSS projects and activities is the best way to welcome families into the work we do and improve the lives of children within the areas we operate in. We have reached out throughout this summer with our lively events calendar, with activities designed to encourage participation as well as learning.

Working with our delivery partners, as well as other Southend-based organisations, we have held over 20 engagement activities across the ABSS wards for families with children under 4 in the ABSS areas over the course of the summer. These included some that were specifically parent-led.

The events covered a range of activities, from scavenger hunts to interactive storytelling, while the parent-led activities included a ‘Baby Beethovens’ session encouraging very young children to explore new sensory sounds, and a ‘Recreate your environment’ event, helping turn recycled items into amazing pieces of art!

But of course, engagement is not just for the summer months. A large part of our engagement work has been our parent-led Engagement Fund events, organised by Southend parents and run through our partners the Southend Association of Voluntary Services (SAVS).

These events, aimed at parents in specific wards, reach out to the local community. A couple of examples are the Easter Eggstravaganza with Southchurch Hall, and Inspirational Parkers at a local green space in Southend, where we were able to meet and introduce a host of new families to the ABSS programme.

Community engagement is also about overcoming different barriers to participation and this is something we are conscious of here at A Better Start Southend. Engagement Fund activities, and all our engagement activities consider accessibility from a language, cultural and social perspective, to help ensure activities are as open to all as possible.

But we couldn’t talk about community engagement without mentioning ‘Pip’, our friendly mascot. Pip was welcomed to the team at the end of last year after a year-long creative process to bring the idea of an ABSS mascot to life.

With the design created from the collective minds of over 70 of Southend’s children, Pip was co-produced with Southend residents at every step of the way.

Initially, we held three separate workshops for young children across our different wards. In these, children were encouraged to experiment with a variety of art materials, such as feathers, sand, glitter, pasta and play-doh. We wanted as little influence from adults during the creation of the work so that we could gain ideas fresh from the minds of the children themselves.

From these workshops, children created over 100 different designs for our mascot. Favourites were then selected by a group made up of all ages, with children, parents and ABSS staff taking part. The most popular ones were then grouped into four different types by our Parent Champions, and from these designs, we then had colours added by children at ABSS crèches. These colour options were drawn from the ABSS brand colours, which gave children a good range of choices to add to the designs.

With the final four options ready and fully coloured, we then asked members of the Southend public to choose their favourite, gathering responses online, at a local art gallery, in a shopping centre and supermarket. These locations were situated across the ABSS areas so all parts of the community could contribute.

We had over 1,000 people voting for the unique, winning design from a final shortlist of four options, and we received hundreds of votes for its name…Pip!

As an organisation, we felt it was very important to have the mascot co-produced with children and the community, to not only ensure Pip is fun, unique and child-friendly for all who meet it, but also to help integrate ABSS further into the local community. A Mascot Group, made up of ABSS Parent Champions, ABSS staff and SAVS staff guided the mascot through the co-production path to become a real life being.

Pip has jigged, cuddled and bounced its way through our summer activities, making appearances at multiple family fun days and wellbeing events. The cuddly creature even entertained pitch-side at the Roots Hall Stadium with the locally renowned Sammy the Shrimp, Southend United Football Club’s mascot!

Pip’s unique and fascinating appearance often piques children’s interest immediately, even when surrounded by other colourful play-time activities, and Pip has begun to get fans that recognise the mascot!

Sometimes, little ones initially feel a little shy but they usually overcome these feelings with the help of Pip’s warm, jovial nature, brought to life by the dedicated assistant that animates Pip at events. The costume is interactive too, with textured pieces of fabric that children can move around, touch and play with: transforming Pip into a sensory experience.

We are a test and learn programme, and we have learned a great deal from the mascot design process which we will use to inform future marketing and community engagement activities.

Pip has underlined the importance of working directly with parents, as engagement activities work far more effectively when the community is an equal partner. Parent involvement from the outset helps to address important aspects that may be overlooked without their input. Before Pip, we knew children were creative, but we were blown away by their designs, and Pip would not have been as successful as a mascot if we hadn’t included Southend’s children in the design process.

Whittling down the designs to the final four was challenging, as we had over 100 designs to choose from. Excellent planning, thought and creativity from everyone involved throughout the process was invaluable, and the need to be ‘off the cuff’ when required was a skill the mascot group practised regularly.

Reflecting on the mascot creation process, ABSS Parent Champions Julia and Michelle said the main lessons learned were: “Letting go of control of the outcome, and knowing that good planning and keeping co-production at the centre of designing a mascot will yield great results. Taking the time to conduct workshops and test mascot designs with the public worked out to be such a valuable process. A Better Start Southend was mentioned countless times in a fun and unthreatening way; this would have planted the seed in many people's minds.”

Above all, Julia and Michelle advised that being ready for the time when the character you create begins to feel like an identity all of its own is important, as you will better appreciate the memories you have made for children who interact with it.

Tom Morton is Communications and Marketing Manager at A Better Start Southend.

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication. The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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