IN THE past few years, there has been a noticeable push to promote engagement in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) among children, with the introduction of coding lessons in primary school being mooted by Minister for Education Richard Bruton.
However, many people argue that in this rush to embrace technology, the importance of the arts in children’s overall development is being forgotten, and that art and design need to be added to the equation — to transform STEM into STEAM.
Numerous research studies have shown that creative and artistic activities benefit children’s learning and development as a whole, have significant positive impacts on parent-child relationships, and can lead to better mental health in later life.
Quality arts experiences in early childhood can also impact the brain’s development in other areas; for example, learning how to read music can help children in other areas such as maths and languages.
And it’s never too early to start — neuroscientists are starting to discover links between high-quality experiences in the early years and the developing brain. Research shows that babies are born with around 100 billion neurons but only about a quarter of the connections — synapses — already made between them.
It is thought that the majority of synaptic connections a person will use in their lives are made by the age of around five.
In this context, news that arts company Baboró has secured funding for a major international early years festival in 2018 will be welcomed. The Arts Council has announced that Baboró, which stages a week-long children’s arts festival in Galway every October, is one of the successful recipients of its Making Great Art Work — Open Call Project Awards. There will be 130 artists from 17 European countries taking part in the 2018 event, specifically for children aged 0 to 6 years.
Aislinn Ó hEocha, executive artistic director of Baboró, says the decision is an important one for the promotion of artistic activities for the very young.
“It’s important that we are all involved in giving children opportunities to explore their world through creative learning, from when they are babies. Even in the very early years, art gives them a way to express themselves.”
The funding for the 2018 event is particularly welcome given the nature of producing art and performances for children, says Ó hEocha.
“Making work for children, particularly small children, is never going to be sustainable. You can’t charge €20 for a child’s ticket, the economics would never work. The nature of it is they’re often low-c apacity performances and engagements. Last year, we had a show with a Belgian partner, a beautiful show for 0 to 12 months, but the capacity was 12, so it had to be hugely subsidised. The reality is that while there is interest in making art for children, funding is project by project, which is challenging.”
In 2013, Baboró launched its “relaxed” programme, which features performances for parents or teachers who may have concerns about bringing their child/children to a public event. The aim is to provide a comfortable and relaxed space for children to enjoy the show, and in turn provide a stress-free environment for parents. Light and sound is adjusted to reduce any discomfort or anxiety children or parents may have surrounding the theatre experience.
“The feedback has been very positive and encouraging, not only regarding attending the performances, it’s the whole adventure of getting on a bus and going to the theatre for the first time. Children who teachers and parents say might find it hard to concentrate are transported by the performance. We have also had engagement workshops with artists, with everything from visual art to robotics.”
Last year, Baboró completed a three-year long project called BEAST (Baboró: Environment, Arts, Science and Technology) to encourage primary teachers to explore cross-curricular teaching through the use of creativity.
“It’s about making art more of an integral part of how we teach and engage with students, because it is challenging and outside the comfort zone for teachers. Teachers should see it as a tool to help them rather than thinking ‘Oh God, I have to do some drama this week’; they can use drama to teach maths, for instance.”
However, Ó hEocha cautions that artistic activity shouldn’t just be seen as a educational conduit.
“I’m always careful in terms of arts education that theatre isn’t used as ‘edutainment’. Children should have the opportunity to experience art for art’s sake.”
Ó hEocha also believes the arts is of value in teaching life and coping skills from an early age. “We often underestimate children, and there’s a danger that as society changes, we try to make everything safe and create bubbles for children; we tell them ‘oh you can’t see that or read that’. It’s really important we expose children to both beauty and difficult topics, to approach them through art in a safe environment.”
Emelie Fitzgibbon of Graffiti Theatre Company in Cork has been championing arts for the very young for many years. Its programme Graffiti BEAG explores the possibilities of play, imagination, creativity and expression with and for children.
“We train different artists specifically in art for the very young and how to approach them, with gentle engagement all the time but our performance pieces are full-scale — there’s no compromising. We differentiate between the two, one is the full production and the other is arts intervention — coming into the childcare setting.”
Fitzgibbon also highlights the work being done in primary schools under the Aistear programme, the early childhood curriculum framework for all children from birth to six years, which puts more of an emphasis on play and creativity.
“Anyone involved in Aistear is passionate about it. I think there may not be enough training in it as yet and it may not be reaching its full potential but it’s brilliant that it is now moving up through the early years in school.”
While access is a key concern for Graffiti and it does a lot of outreach work in this regard, Fitzgibbon is keen not to differentiate between social groups. “We have a commitment to make art available to everybody, but we’re not focusing on that — you don’t want to pigeonhole babies. We could be working at a direct provision centre one day and the Crawford [art gallery] the next.”
Fitzgibbon says it is hugely rewarding to watch children and adults engaging in creative activity.
“You see the joy on their faces, which is beautiful — that openness to play. Generally, when we have an activity it’s handed over to the children at the end, with that engagement, you can see them opening up to ideas.The adults also pick up ideas on what to do with their children.”
She adds that it is important that there is flexibility and understanding when it comes to events for children.
“At our performances, people don’t have to feel their child has to be there — they can take them out and we’ll refund them. It’s about taking that ‘oh, you have to behave’ out of it, but they’re usually enraptured anyway.”