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River of Life
River of Life
River of life is a visual narrative method that helps people tell stories of the past, present and future. Individuals can use this method to introduce themselves in a fun and descriptive way; a group can use it to understand and reflect on the past and imagine the future of a project; and it can be used to build a shared view compiled of different and perhaps differing perspectives. River of Life focuses on drawing rather than text, making it useful in groups that do not share a language. When used in a group, it is an active method, good for engaging people.
When to use:
Project review and reflection.
Planning for the future.
Reconciling different perceptions of a project, situation or issue.
How to use:
For individual introductions:
Introduce the method if participants are not yet familiar with it. Draw an example river to help people visualize what it might look like.
Form small groups of four to six people.
Ask participants to draw rivers at the two-thirds point of the page. Ask them to use the bigger part of the river to represent where they come from and what led them to attend this event.
Participants share and explain their drawings.
Participants return to their drawings and use the smaller part of the page to represent what they expect to gain out of the event and what they will use from it back in their normal work environment.
The facilitator keeps time during the drawing and explanations, announcing when to start drawing, sharing, drawing again, sharing again and when to stop.
For groups to look at a project, problem or opportunity:
Break into small groups and ask people to think about the past, present and future of the project or issue you are addressing.
Ask them to draw images, or find images in magazines that represent key milestones from the past, present and those they would envision for the future. It can be useful to do this in phases, starting with the past. Then invite the present. Finally invite the future. You may wish to stop and have conversations around the image after each phase.
On a large piece of paper on the wall (several meters long) ask a volunteer to draw the river flowing through the paper.
Ask the groups to come up and place their images (with glue sticks, tape, etc.) on the paper. Encourage discussion while participants are working at the wall.
After the group has finished putting up images, initiate a discussion about what they see; reflect on past lessons, current situations and visions for the future.
For groups to chart progress through an event:
Set up the river on a large wall, whiteboard or pinboard at the start of the meeting. In conversation, ask people to create and bring up images about what brought them to the meeting and what they wanted out of it when they agreed to come. Put those in the "past" part of the river.
During the meeting, invite people to capture key moments, learnings or questions in images and put them in the "present" part of the river.
Towards the end of the meeting, invite people to capture next steps or actions and put them in the 'future" part of the river.
Review the full river before the end of the meeting and use the future section as your follow up tool.
Tips and Lessons Learnt
People may initially be reluctant to draw, but in the end, there is often more appreciation and ownership of the drawings than the cut outs.
Cut outs allow images to be moved if you need to reconcile across different versions or perspectives. Drawings can be done on separate papers to facilitate this movability.
Take digital picture of the images to share afterwards.
Think creatively - this method can be used anytime there is a timeline involved.
Examples & Stories
We used RoL last week in a F2F 3 day workshop on knowledge sharing. We had a very diverse 15 person group, workshop run in English, interpretation in French and Spanish. We started by breaking the group into four subgroups where they started thinking about the history and possible future paths of KS in the organization. As the groups started sketching out ideas on paper, we invited them up to the front of the room for our large river of life, where they then more fully sketched out their contributions. One group offered a complete rethinking of the river structure, showing tributary streams which, before joining the river, were isolated. At then end of about 90 minutes, we had a vivid depiction of where they had been and where they wanted to head, mostly visual and free of a lot of text (useful in the multilingual environment). We were then able to refer back to it as we worked over the three days. I'll see if I can get permission to share the actual final picture. One thing I noticed is there was little self consciousness about how "artful" it was. We used stick figure drawings, magazine cut outs and sticker. Quite simple. - Nancy
I tried to use this approach (very spontaneously) early on in a meeting of the steering group of a networking initiative. I was trying to build up a shared understanding of the history of the initiative amongst that group who had been involved for various lengths of time. This was intended to be a basis for future discussions over the coming days.I'm not sure it was entirely successful. I was trying to create one river of life picture for the initiative with the paper spread on the floor. Some people seemed quite shocked that I was crouching on the floor shouting "come on - what happened next?" then trying to draw a picture of it...I gave people pens and encouraged them to join in but perhaps unsurprisingly few did... I think it may have helped set the tone for the meeting (big bits of paper and pens are good!) but some people would have preferred me to outline the history more conventionally.I think this method may be better for personal journeys rather than collective or organisational ones, or if used in a group it should probably be a smaller one so everyone contributes. But I'd be interested to hear if anyone has used it successfully in this way.
Thanks for the great story. You inspired me to add one which shows a slightly different context!
: At the Share Fair at IFAD, 011, a day 0 was dedcated to explore tools and methods for sharing knowledge, learn and get inspired to try out new ideas for group work in teams, events or any other agricultural research for development processes. I invited to a session on “River of life”, a method that we have used several times now at CIAT. The KS toolkit tells us that River of life “is a visual narrative method that helps people tell stories of the last, present and future. Individuals can use this method to introduce themselves in a fun and descriptive way; a group can use it to understand and reflect on the past and imagine the future of a project; and it can be used to build a shared view compiled of different and perhaps differing perspectives. River of Life focuses on drawing rather than text, making it useful in groups that do not share a language. When used in a group, it is an active method, good for engaging people.” In the today’s workshop I introduced the method asking participants to draw their personal river of life and share their story with the group. Some used only drawings, some used images and words, some immediately interpreted the river with a timeline, others draw a “as-I-see-myself-now-image”. Then, I asked them to set the scene for a bigger exercise. Participants scotched 6 flipchart papers on the wall to create the drawing area and together created a landscape that represented the river, from 2001 to 2011. I asked them to paint birds and fishes as a metaphor for respectively professional highlights and difficult moments. Also, we used the sunshine to write down one keyword that could stand for a motivation for the future. A discussion started on whether to use River of life for future planning. Some do, I haven’t done it (beyond the sunshine part). I feel it being such a great method to help a group finding common ground, remind the past, and evocate shared moments, that I prefer seeing it as a way to learn from the past, improve the present and get ready for planning the future based on the lessons learnt (Simone Staiger, CIAT). See:
Who can tell me more?
Simone Staiger-Rivas (s.staiger [at] cgiar.org)
After Action Review
More Information/References/Related Resources:
River of Life Method story from KM4Dev 2006 Brighton workshop
River of Life in a health care setting
More pictures of examples of
River of Life drawings
report on its use
Save Stories, Photos, and Videos on a Collaborative Timeline
A River of Life How-to session at the Share Fair in Rome, 2011:
River_of_Life, reflection, evaluation, vision, planning
help on how to format text
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