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The river image in PATCHATT

Updated: May 29, 2023

The image of a river is central to the PATCHATT approach. Life is often described as a journey, depicted visually by a path, wandering through trees, with light and sunshine ahead.

Although helpful in some ways, many people's experience of life is that it is not so linear. The alternative image of a river allows us to reflect on the complexities of life, its different stages, its twists and turns, the times of turbulence and of calm.

It prompts us to consider life's turning points, what has brought these about, what we now think of our past decisions and actions. It allows us to consider the twists and turns ahead. The infinite variety in rivers can remind us of humanity. As human beings we too follow complex paths which take us in different, and often unexpected, directions. We too come in very different shapes and sizes and can have immense beauty and power. We can also nourish those around us or diminish them. In most lives we do a bit of both. We too have a start, a middle and an end. Using the image of a river to help us to reflect on life's journey can therefore be both useful and enjoyable.

Within PATCHATT sessions, participants are asked to annotate an image of a river with some of the most significant happenings in their life. They then share these with fellow group members. They consider what they would like to see happening in the next stage of their life river and what action they need to take themselves to bring this change about.

This river of experience approach to eliciting participants’ stories was developed by Percy-Smith and Walsh (2006, in Percy-Smith and Dalrymple, 2018). It has since been used in various research studies and programmes to support participants in creating and reflecting on a visual narrative around a particular aspect of their life. The river metaphor imposes some structure whilst allowing space for participants to respond to it as they wish, to choose which elements of their story to tell, emphasizes participant control and agency. Re-assuring participants that anything they decide to focus on is useful and interesting helps to reduce self-consciousness (Taylor, 2011) and allows participants and researchers or other professionals to connect as equals (Percy-Smith and Dalrymple, 2018).

We hope to learn more about its value as we continue to work with PATCHATT support groups.


Percy-Smith, B. and Dalyrymple, J. (2018) Stories from journeys to the edge of care: challenges for children and family services. Children and Youth Services Review, 94, 216-224.

Sutcliffe, J., Burr, V. and King, N. (2016) Using rivers of experience to explore people’s relationship with nature. In P. Denicolo, T.Long and K. Bradley-Cole (Eds). Constructivist approaches and research methods. A practical guide to exploring personal meanings. London: Sage,182-184.

Taylor, A. (2011). Continuity, change and mature musical identity construction: Using ‘Rivers of Musical Experience’ to trace the musical lives of six mature-age keyboard players. British Journal of Music Education, 28(2),195–212.

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