Friday, 26 August 2016

Teaching art to the early years?

When I visited Swedish kindergartens this year I was struck by the quality and depth of the children’s artistic expressions. This led me to ask questions about the work of the Atelierista in the school. An Atelierista is a teacher with a visual arts background who works with the other teachers and the children to develop arts-based projects to summarise children’s learning experiences. Each kindergarten had an atelier (workshop or studio area) with its tools and art materials and the children spend one day a week in the studio. Art is a vehicle for enquiry in the kindergartens and the learning taking place is very different to what I usually see in the UK. The children are taught to use art tools and are given the space to express themselves not for art’s sake but as a source of development. The adults help the children to express their ideas because they respect them as capable of artistic expression and they have respect for the young child. This got me wondering. Why in the UK we don’t hesitate to engage in direct instruction in the basic tools of literacy and numeracy, but not in using art tools? Part of this can be explained by the problematic relationship we have between the creative arts and education in the UK that starts in the nursery and this made me think about an experience I had recently when I visited a morning playgroup.

I joined the other adults accompanying the range of 1-4 year olds for the morning story. After the story the young woman running the group pointed us to the refreshments and the carousel of art and craft activities on offer. The theme of the morning was transport.

“Do you want to make a bus?” an enthusiastic young helper asked as she led children to a craft table and proceeded to guide them through the process. Each child was given a red paper plate and watched while she demonstrated how to find the pre-cut-out black circles she had placed on the table and attach them to represent wheels. Other pre-cut shapes were squares and rectangles for windows and the door. The children were encouraged to look for the “circles, squares and rectangles” (shape recognition is deemed to be an important learning outcome for 3-4 year olds and a recognized school-readiness skill). She demonstrated how to use a prit-stick (glue) to attach the shapes to the plate and – hey presto – a bus! The children were clearly used to this kind of craft activity and proceeded to pick up shapes and attach them randomly on the plate. The young woman came up to ‘help’ children get the right shapes in the right place, adjusting those they had already attached to the ‘correct’ position. Before it was finished many of the children were up and away.

The next port of call was a table where children were told they could make “traffic lights”. Here the children were shown how to attach one black rectangle to another longer and thinner rectangle and were given three coloured circles – you’ve guessed it – a red, orange and green circle to stick on the larger rectangle to represent traffic lights (knowing your colours is another important school-readiness skill). The model for the traffic lights had already been made and the children were encouraged to copy it. Some children were told gently they had the red and green in the wrong place, clearly the helper expected them to know that these shapes weren’t really coloured circles but traffic lights, and everyone knows that red comes first etc., etc. Some didn’t stay long enough to stick anything on to anything.

I watched as a child seeing a friend at an easel and went over and began to paint alongside him. There was no direction from helpers and paint, brushes and water were freely available. This held his attention for about 15 minutes and his painting was accompanied by descriptions of what he was doing to his friend. The mass of swirling colours certainly meant something to him and he wanted to take his painting home (there was no such enthusiasm for his bus). He then moved towards the blocks’ area to do some building and played happily for about 10 minutes, again without direction apart from some altercations with other children over who could use which blocks that was mediated by one of the helpers.

I reflected that my experience in this drafty church hall with around 30 children and their carers could probably be found in playgroup settings and nursery placements in many places in the UK.  But what is going on here? What does it tell us about adult ideas about children’s creativity?

Firstly, the activities reflected an adult-imposed agenda and a notion of what the age group is capable of doing. The product was clearly important to the organisers. The adults cared where the children stuck the ‘wheels, windows and door’ of the bus; they wanted to make sure the children got the traffic lights ‘in the right order’.  The process of creating definitely came second place to the product to be made. To be fair this was a drop-in playgroup, I know that in most nurseries the process is valued as well as the product, but that doesn’t stop them focusing on the product dictated by a calendar event: Easter, Christmas, Mothers’ Day, or time of year, Spring, Autumn etc. Or maybe inspired by a book; imagine what egg boxes and pipe cleaners have done for the sale of Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. And whilst the regular nursery teachers might be less concerned about getting the pipe-cleaner antennae attached in the right place, these craft activities are definitely products aimed at parents.

At a time when choice for children is highly valued no one was going to force a child to ‘make a bus’ and no one objected when children opted not to make a traffic light. No one came and interrupted the play at the blocks to come and complete a craft activity. Unfortunately, in my experience of nurseries this is often not the case, craft activities are carefully planned, with all the paraphernalia involved for the nursery assistant.  The assembling of materials, the cutting of shapes, the availability of glue etc. takes on a, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” urgency as every child has to complete the task in an allotted timespan – “have you made your Easter chick yet?” ­– and it is not unusual for a child to be taken away from their play to “come and make a card for mummy” or “a pot for daddy”.

Reasons why staff are so keen to carry out these craft-orientated tasks are carefully explained by posting a set of learning outcomes on the door to the child’s room in the nursery so parents know what the child will be doing and why.  Staff monitor the targeted learning outcomes whilst the task is carried out, often by filling in pre-prepared tick-boxes. The tasks are time-driven – a whole term’s worth of tasks will have been planned and each one has to be finished in time for the next one to start. Getting all the children in the setting through the task is a triumph of time management. After all, who wants to complete a Christmas card in January?

The time factor also comes into play as children are doing the tasks and praise comes for children who can execute tasks quickly and produce something that resembles the model they are working towards. All the finished cards, pots, caterpillars etc. will be put on display with the child’s name so anxious parents can compare their child’s work with everyone else’s; if one of the children hasn’t completed the task parents will likely complain. It’s an elaborate fiction of course – parents know their child didn’t complete the beautiful snowman calendar by themselves, but that doesn’t stop them showing off their child’s work to admiring friends and family.  Nursery and preschool workers, especially in private day care, work hard to please parents and they expect to be judged by what the child produces to take home.

I have often thought the production of products by 2-4 year olds is an early version of an assembly line in a factory (although its unlikely any human will be carrying out repetitive line assembly tasks in the robotic age – so not work preparation then!) And to be fair in recent times quality control has lightened up and children have been given permission to deviate from the model presented to them, but the focus on making things in the name of art and craft is still strongly present in many nursery schools as attested by what is displayed on walls and surfaces. If there are 20 of anything that looks vaguely the same then alarm bells ring for me.

But in an era of tick box developmental outcomes how can we monitor the skills children must develop if such tasks are not planned against the required learning outcomes?

No-one but me was observing the child when he was painting, and as I watched I could see he was finding out about colour and shape as well as gaining fine motor control from holding the paintbrush. He learnt that too much water or too heavy pressure from the brush tore the paper (that caused tears); that too many colours on top of each other produced a sludgy grey (that produced puzzlement). But this task was just for ‘fun’, it hadn’t been designed as an assessment task so no one was ticking any learning outcome boxes. Instead I asked him to tell me about his painting and this invitation to be reflective gave me a chance to learn from him and have a conversation. And I thought at the time how important this kind of open-ended observation is and how much richer than a pencil hovered over a list of boxes to tick.

As I said my visit to Swedish kindergartens prompted this reflection. Here, rather than planned tasks with specific learning outcomes, the Swedish teachers observe and document the children’s interests and outcomes of their learning, or what they prefer to call ‘meaning making’. Portfolios containing photos, captions, transcriptions of children’s words, paintings and drawings are collected over the six years the child is in kindergarten as a record of what they are interested in, what they think about what they do and over time the portfolios provide an insight into a child’s progress. The portfolios are always available for children, parents and teachers to look at and talk about and so the portfolio is also a way of building relationships between the teachers, the children and the parents as they generate conversations together.

This brings me back to the bus activity. Had anything meaningful gone on in the execution of this activity? What did the person who had probably sat up for a couple of evenings cutting out the shapes and planning the task think it was for? What does it tell us about attitudes towards the children? Did it help the adults get to know the children better?

I have to conclude that these kinds of craft activities, which are on offer in many nursery and preschools, reflect a deficit model of the child, one that needs direct instruction to meet the learning outcomes of the early years curriculum. In contrast, teachers in the Swedish kindergarten see the child as intellectually capable and therefore deserving of a carefully prepared, enriching environment, where the art materials on offer invite open-ended responses, rather than the closed response of the bus and traffic lights activities.

In a previous blog on “Childhood and Play” I quoted psychologist Peter Gray who suggests our schools reflect the view that “children can only learn and progress if they are doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time”. I still largely agree with this, but my visit to Sweden has shown me the value of teaching children how to use art tools. Such instruction shows respect for their capability and enhances their creativity. And whilst I know that there are pioneering settings working towards this in the UK, the legacy of product-focused practice is alive and well in many places. In some settings the pendulum has swung to a focus on process giving complete freedom for the child. This isn’t sufficient either. Having observed the outcome of instruction in how to use art tools in Sweden I am re-thinking how we plan for art and craft in our early years’ settings.

In previous blogs I have written about children’s creativity, particularly around storytelling and creative play. What I have gained from my visit to Sweden is the importance of taking children’s artistic expression seriously as well. I have seen what young children are capable of when they are offered a wide range of creative materials and experiences to help them express their learning. However, I have to acknowledge that this doesn’t just happen, children need access to an adult who can teach art skills and they need time to explore materials and pursue their own ideas, time to think, to plan, to design, construct and experiment. And all this needs to be supported by conversations with interested adults, ideally someone who has a visual arts background.

We have all sorts of specialists come into our schools; I think the time has come to acknowledge and appreciate the contribution someone with an arts background could make to our 2-4 year olds.  If our young people are to discover, engage with and participate in the arts we need to start by getting our youngest citizens actively involved. The arts have been sidelined in state schools as a disposable extra rather than taking its proper role as part of a well-balanced education. If we take this seriously we could create jobs for artists in education in the early years and ensure that all who work with our youngest children have training in art skills. If we do who knows what creativity could be unleashed.

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