Time Capsule 2020: Taking collective narrative practice online

Rachel Marfleet



Collective narrative practice is both a way to encourage rich description of the skills and knowledges of those who have experienced trauma, and an opportunity to come together to tell personal stories that enable a sense of contribution to the lives of others (Denborough, 2008).  Meyerhoff (2007, p19) wrote “a fundamental healing takes place when a story is told and heard”, and telling stories of traumatic experiences has the possibility to reduce the effects of those traumatic life experiences in the teller and the listener – it demonstrates to the storyteller (and the listener) that “all this has not been for nothing” (Meyerhoff, 1982, p111).


Before the 2020 pandemic

Since 2017, the psychology department at a children’s hospital started a project to run Tree of Life Days for young people affected by a physical health conditions.  The aim of this project was to bring young people together to share stories of their life in ways that were meaningful to them, and that did not prioritise their medical story.

Tree of Life is a practice developed by Ncazelo Ncube (2006, 2017), whereby people can come together to share their story, listen to others, and talk together about the experiences they have faced using the metaphor of a tree to structure the work.

  • Drawing your tree – using the structure of roots, ground, trunk, branches, leaves and flowers to draw out stories of identity based on their history, skills, relationships.
  • Sharing your tree with the group to create a forest
  • Discussing “storms” as a group – reflecting on problems they have experienced, the effects and their responses.
  • Celebrating together with the group and family members

One of the aims of the group is to initially create “a safe place to stand” i.e.  an experience of preferred identity (based on strengths, abilities, hopes, inspirations that are drawn in their trees).  These stories of preferred identities have the potential to change their relationship with the problems experienced, and are thickened through the sharing with others as a forest.  Once a safe place to stand has been established, people are invited to speak about the challenges (or storms) they have experienced in ways that are not retraumatising.  The final part of the group is a celebration of the day, to honour the telling of the stories and to be witnessed by important people (such as staff, parents or siblings).

Other similar examples of collective narrative practice include the Beads of Life (Portnoy, Girling & Fredman, 2015), Theatre of Life (Mills, Romero & Ashman, 2018), and Team of Life (Denborough, 2008).

The tree of life approach seemed to fit well for us as a team as we often found we were working with families where a single medical story dominated descriptions of their child, and not always in ways that were helpful or meaningful for that family.  The medical story would become the known and familiar, and this could leave children and their families disconnected from other preferred identities.

The feedback from the Tree of Life Days we ran were that young people particularly valued the fun and creativity of the day, the coming together with other people who shared similar stories, and the opportunity to share stories of preferred identities.


Adapting practice in response to the pandemic

In March 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic changed the way we, as a psychology service, could practice.  Face to face appointments were moved to online appointments, and opportunities to come together to run Tree of Life Days were not possible due to lockdown, the risk to patients, and the need for social distancing.  The pandemic meant that families were even more isolated, and for many young people school was closed and opportunities to mix with peers moved to phones, video calls, or were non-existent.

As a practitioner who had never worked online with young people or families, and had never had training via this medium it was a time of feeling disconnected and disorientated in my practice.  A source of hope and creativity for me lie in a group of professionals who also shared a passion for Narrative approaches.  As a group, we moved our monthly meetings to online and shared stories and connections about our experience personally and professionally to the pandemic. It is through these conversations that we shared possibilities for practice and the ideas that would become the Time Capsule project.  I want to acknowledge the collective contribution of my peers in this project.

Connecting with colleagues in this way, also had the effect of reminding me of my own skills and knowledges as a practitioner, and helping me to think creatively about how to adapt this to online working.  For example, the use of toys, objects and drawing in face-to-face appointments was something I was very familiar with.  Freeman, Epston and Lobovits (1997) remark “children prefer to express themselves in more ways than just sitting and talking” (p145).  The expression of stories through art can be seen as a practice of externalisation, a way of expressing yourself without having to embody the experience or being asked direct questions.  My hope was to continue to find a way to use objects and drawing to connect young people in an online group.


The Time Capsule 2020 groups

A time capsule is a collection of important objects and information used to communicate with the future.  For our Time Capsule groups we asked young people to collect objects from their homes that told us something important about them.  See Appendix for joining instructions.


The group runs on the premise that young people are joining the group from home, collecting items of meaning to them, and placing them in our virtual “time capsule” whilst sharing stories about the importance and significance of these items.  As facilitators it is our job to ask questions about these items that draw out the history and connections to these items, to facilitate connections across the group and to document these ideas.  The young people were invited to share items across seven possible themes, each representing a potential line of enquiry that we would ask more about, scaffolding our questions to understand more about what the young people gave value to in their life.


  1. A family heirloom
  2. A special teddy or toy
  3. A favourite book
  4. A favourite song
  5. Hobbies and achievements
  6. A photo of special people or a special place
  7. Your Covid connection

These themes were chosen to broadly map on to the structure of the Tree of Life approach, and also drew from our own experiences of working with children and young people about the potential lines of enquiry that could lead to rich stories of identity.  For example, family heirlooms or childhood toys have the possibility of drawing out stories about heritage and culture, hobbies can encourage stories of skills and talents, and photos, books and music can connect to important people and relationships that inspire the young person, and books and songs can generate stories of hopes and dreams.

It felt important that this group acknowledged the current pandemic – (this also maps to the ground of the tree of life), and that young people were invited to share connections about this either through an item that represented something they missed or something that held new meaning.  Given that many young people were isolated from peers at this time, this group provided a platform to share wisdom about how they were adapting and carrying on throughout the pandemic.  The items they chose would tell us something about them now, how they are adjusting and what is important to them right now.

Young people were invited to select at least 2 items to share with the group to place in the time capsule.  We would document these items using the whiteboard function of our online meeting to create a poster as we went along.  Documenting the themes and contributions of the young people was an important part of the process, and this poster was shared with all participants.

It was important that this group still held on to a sense of fun and creativity, and playful approaches such as throwing items between screens to put them in the time capsule, using drawing and noise were encouraged throughout the session (many of these ideas were inspired by attending Sabine Vermeire’s webinar June 2020, Playful inspirations in online therapy and counselling with children, youngsters and families”.



To date we have run 2 Time Capsule groups, each time gathering feedback and adapting our approach as we develop these ideas.

The feedback from the young people is that they have really enjoyed taking part in these groups in similar way to when we ran Tree of Life groups.  They enjoyed the playfulness, the opportunity to share something meaningful to them – and particularly the use of objects to facilitate these conversations, the coming together with young people who shared similar connections and experiences.

As practitioners we also learnt a lot about how to adapt our practice.  Whereas our Tree of Life days took place across a whole day, we ran our Time Capsule groups in a 2 hour session, as prolonged time on a screen is tiring for the young people and the facilitators.  We had to be very intentional about putting in break times, turning cameras and microphones off for 10 minutes, in the middle of the session.  Despite the shorter running time of the group, there were ways in which the time capsule group encouraged young people to do some thinking and reflecting around the structured sessions e.g. all young people were sent joining instructions and encouraged to think about and find meaningful objects before the group began.  Therefore this approach truly acknowledges that the work is happening outside the therapeutic appointment.

Whilst the process of running a group will continue to be finely tuned to meet the needs of the young people invited, on reflection as a piece of collective narrative practice it does have potential to offer a space where young people can share stories of skills, knowledge, hopes and resilience.  It has also been a space where young people have contributed to the lives of others, not just the sharing of stories with other young people, but also with myself as a practitioner.  I want to acknowledge the contribution of the young people who have taken part, in reinvigorating my own practice as it moves to online platforms and giving me hope and creativity for what might be possible.




Denborough, D. (2008).  Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to Individuals, Groups and Communities who have experienced Trauma.  Dulwich Centre Publications.

Freeman, J., Epston, D., & Lobovitz, D. (1997). Playful approaches to serious problems. New York: Norton.

Meyerhoff, B. (1982). Life history among the elderly: Performance, visibility, and re-membering. In J. Ruby (Ed.), A crack in the mirror: Reflective perspectives in anthropology (pp 99-117). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Meyerhoff, B. (2007). Stories as equipment for living.  In M Kaminsky & M Weiss (Eds.), Stories as Equipment for Living: Last Talks and Tales of Barbara Myerhoff.  University of Michigan Press.


Mills, D.D., Romero, M.C., & Ashman, J. (2018).  The theatre of life: Collective narrative practice with young trans people.  Context, 155, 13-15.

Ncube, N. (2006).  The tree of life project. Using narrative ideas in work with vulnerable children in southern Africa.  International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, 2006(1), 3-16.

Ncube, N. (2017). Tree of Life Practitioners Guide.  Johannesburg, Phola.

Portnoy, S., Girling, I. & Fredman, G. (2015).  Supporting young people living with cancer to tell their stories in ways that make them stronger: The Beads of Life approach. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Volume: 21 issue: 2, p. 255-267.

Vermeire, S. Playful inspirations in online therapy and counselling with children, youngsters and families, Intstiture of Narrative Therapy, Webinar 30th June 2020.

Appendix: Instructions for joining: Time capsule 2020

Appendix: Instructions for joining: Time capsule 2020

A time capsule is a collection of important objects and information used to communicate with the future! We want you to collect some objects from around your house that help us to tell the story of you!


Things you will need:

Something that makes a noise

Something red

Coloured pens or crayons



Items we need you to collect for your time capsule (choose at least 2 from the 6 suggestions below):


  1. A family heirloom- something that has been passed down from another generation, something that shares a special meaning for you with someone else in your family
  2. A special teddy,toy or blanket? Something that has shared important moments in your life.
  3. A favourite book
  4. Something that represents a favourite song
  5. Something that tells us about your hobbies, talents, and achievements
  6. A photo of special people or a special place



And finally…

No time capsule is complete without including something from the present history. We would also like to know what lockdown and covid-19 has meant to you.


Please choose an item that represents either:

  • something you have really missed during lockdown.
  • Or something you have realised is really important to you that lockdown has reminded you about (this could be something new or something you had previously forgotten about)

e will meet over zoom to share these items with our time capsule 2020 group. Feel free to share as much or as little as you would like. A zoom code will be sent closer to the time.

You might also need to have someone else (a parent or sibling perhaps) who you can call on if you get stuck with any of our time capsule challenges.  This other person doesn’t need to be part of the call, but they could be around for you to grab if you are not sure about something or need some inspiration!