Meet Miranda Duffy, the University of Leeds academic who hosts a podcast about democracy with her children aged nine and 11

It was a result that even the considerable persuasive skills of national treasure Sir David Attenborough would have struggled to achieve.

Miranda Duffy took her three children, then all under the age of nine, to see an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's 'Running Wild' at the theatre.

Illegal logging features prominently in the story about a boy who has to survive in the Indonesian jungle and after leaving the three were so moved by its impact on the environment that they boycotted palm oil - including biscuits and cakes - for months.

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"This was driven entirely by them and lasted a surprisingly long time considering what they had given up," Mrs Duffy tells The Yorkshire Post.

A former marketing specialist who has retrained as a theatre-maker, Miranda Duffy is specifically looking at using theatre for this aim and her PhD study at the University of Leeds looks at introducing basic political concepts in live theatre performance for 9-12 year olds. Pic: Gary Longbottom

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"This transformation occurred because they had been immersed in the story; they had taken an empathetic leap and had felt angry enough to do something about it."

It was this observation that prompted Mrs Duffy's creative work and research into how the arts can support critical thinking and democratic engagement by kick-starting conversations.

And at a time when age is frequently a dividing line in politics, it could help find ways to get young people thinking more about the political decisions that affect their lives and the democratric values that underpin them.

A former marketing specialist who has retrained as a theatre-maker, she's specifically looking at using theatre for this aim and her PhD study at the University of Leeds looks at introducing basic political concepts in live theatre performance for 9-12 year olds.

One notable example of this is her podcast, Den of Enquiry, which she records under her kitchen table at home in Harrogate with her two young children and their dog and is aimed at 9+ year olds and their parents/carers on politics and democracy.

In it she and her two youngest children, named only as Sir Nincompoop and Carrot for the purposes of the broadcast, discuss topics like why governments exist, the importance of symbols like Big Ben and the Capitol building in Washington, and individual liberty during the pandemic.

"Part of it was just having fun", she says. "This is the way that I talked to my kids. We use a poem, we use rhymes. It's a part of our daily life."

She already used live theatre and performance poetry to start conversations with children, so says it was quite natural when theatres closed during the pandemic to try and use poetry to explore democracy. One episode - 'bun fight' - uses the example of children competing for a sweet treat to illustrate the role of government.

"This is something which is very organic," she says. "So we use poetry because it's less threatening, use rhymes because they have musicality and musical sense to them.

"And it breaks down barriers. So when we're talking about democracy, it sounds overwhelming at times. It's quite an intimidating topic. I mean, where do you start?

"This is part of the problem that we have with trying to engage adults with democracy, it's just that point. Where is the access? The words are overwhelming, it feels so cantankerous. So talking to children has to remove some of the heat and make it just more engaging, and simply more fun."

Young people, she says, need to "have not just the knowledge and the skills about what democracy is, what our system does, who our politicians are, but the confidence also in order to use them".

And she adds: "It's starting that conversation and trying to give them a bit of access that the arts is so good at doing, because it can unite, it can signify, it can inspire."

She plans to take Den of Enquiry to the stage later this month at The Oil Shed in Brighton between May 29 and June 4. And while her children are excited at the prospect she says the prospect of her buying them a McDonald's for breakfast each morning has helped sweeten the deal.

And she reflects on her own family as she muses on a major talking point, whether the voting age should be lowered from 18 to 16 in the UK. She's open to the conversation but still not converted to the idea, partly because she believes the education isn't there yet.

"For example, I've got a teenager and preteens and I don't want them to go into a pub at 16 and order a pint of beer or a glass of wine or have that freedom. So why would I then think that I could ask them to make a decision on who controls a nuclear button?

"It feels that we haven't quite worked out the transition between childhood and adulthood. And that's a real sticking point for me.

"Because when I look at my kids, and I trust them, but they're kids, and I don't know yet when I feel that, when do I think that they will be ready? When is society ready to say you are an adult?

"Because you can't marry, you can't join the Army without parental consent, for example, until you're 18. But the right to vote, however imperfect our system might be or however flawed, our politicians may appear at times, the right to vote in a free, fair, frequent election is a privilege.

"And I think that it needs to be treated as that and respected as that. "

The University of Leeds's School of Politics and International Studies already does a significant amount of work engaging citizens with democracy and supporting political literacy.

And she says there are currently gaps in the way citizenship is studied in formal education, with the subject not taught at all schools and often not by specialist teachers.

She says: "For example, British values have to be taught at primary school or promoted actively in primary schools, this is democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance.

"But in our primary school, for example, classes sizes go up to 36. And I don't know how many primary school teachers really could look at a classroom of 36 and say, 'right, kids today, listen up, we're gonna have a lesson on the rule of law'.

"I mean, how do you do it? How do you inspire people to connect in a way that is exciting, and is aspirational and motivational? When actually we get very confused between the politics and perhaps the system or the ideas?

"So really, I think the gaps are, I do believe we need better political literacy education, certainly in high school. But I think the arts, for example, could be used at primary school level as a foundation, as a way of starting as a bed of goodwill to open up a conversation that could lead on to something more formal."