At Ireland’s first academy of creative play children are given the freedom to explore their subject of choice, says Margaret Jennings.

MOST Irish children aged eight to 12 no doubt skipped their way out of the school gates when the summer holidays began, so the idea of spending a week learning more ‘stuff’ shortly afterwards, should be a total turnoff.

This is not the case however, for the 150 children who have vied for a place on the five-day Idea Camp, described as Ireland’s first academy of creative play, which runs for two separate weeks at Dublin Institute of Technology from July 4 and which encourages learning through creativity.

Some of those children attended the inaugural summer camp last year and are now back for more — an imprimatur, of the highest order.

The fact that ‘play’ is included in its description may lure children in, since this is a four-lettered word normally associated with an allotted time only, in their ordinary school schedule.

However, one of the key things about creativity is that it is associated with play, says John O’Connor, director and dean of the College of Arts and Tourism at DIT. 

“The common notion of free-form play allows new ideas and new approaches to emerge, so that’s why the emphasis is on play as opposed to learning; that play helps to unlock creativity — a new way of looking at things.

“The inspiration behind setting up the camp came from the belief that creativity is a skill that can be learnt rather than a talent. 

"There’s a belief out there that it’s a god-given talent, associated with some, and not others. 

"But we believe creativity can be developed like any other skill,” he says.

Academics from the various schools within the third level institution, together with student volunteers, help the children to learn how to unlock their creativity in five distinct areas — music, food, design, digital and media.

The framework of the programme is based on the Reggio Emilia approach, an educational philosophy adapted by lecturer in creative arts Kerry Meaken, and Jan Petterson, a lecturer in the school of languages, law and science.

The approach is underpinned by the idea that children are capable of constructing their own learning; that they are driven by their interests to understand and know more, with the autonomy to take the learning in unexpected directions. 

This allows for innovative and unexpected outcomes, as creativity expresses itself differently in everyone and the educational outcomes depend entirely on the experience of each child.

It’s obviously far removed as a learning approach, from the traditional results-orientated, planned curriculum, but the camp — which has 75 children participating each week — offers a diversity which they would not normally experience in school. 

“We deliberately mix people up in groups of 15 from diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences and diverse ages so there’s a wider experience of learning because in any good learning environment we learn as much from our peers as from the teachers,” says O’Connor.

Introducing the power of creativity to children at age eight to 12, is at a period when they are beginning to become self consciously aware of themselves, but it’s also offers a complementary approach to them before they enter a second-level system which “supports those who learn by rote, to memorise things,” says O’Connor, because of the nature of the Leaving Cert system.

Creativity develops from the children’s experiences of the process, rather than concern for the finished product. However, within the playfulness there are serious considerations at its core.

“Any reports you read now indicate that employers are putting creativity higher up in the attributes they want in employees, so what we are doing is trying to help children be creative in whatever discipline they end up working in, whether in science, engineering, the arts or in business — to have that ability to be creative.

“It’s interesting for us to bring the different schools of our college together with a variety of skills and talent so that we can look at how we might begin to interrogate this system and perhaps look at children from this camp, down the line, to see if the creative training gives them any advantage as adults,” says O’Connor.

His own nine-year-old son Shane, who attended the camp last year is coming back for more.

“He’s fairly creative anyway but what he loved in particular was the freedom. 

"Each group of 15 has a DIT lecturer and up to three student volunteers, so they get a lot of support from the discipline area, but also to keep them on track, which is very important when trying to encourage children to develop their own approach.”

Another parent, Dublin-based Tracey Dalton, told Feelgood her 11-year- old daughter Daisy who is also returning this year, and loves art, media, cooking and reading, enjoyed working in groups with children who were like-minded to herself, which she doesn’t get in mainstream school.

“Creative play seems to get children thinking for themselves. It gets them problem solving and working in groups and seems to free up their minds to think and to explore different solutions,” she said.

Get creative

The Idea summer camp encourages children to follow their interests through play

According to Kerry Meakin, who is a lecturer in creative arts, creativity benefits children:

* By allowing them to search out knowledge through their own investigation.

* By providing a positive learning environment — with no evaluation criteria — which offers an emotional safety that encourages their creativity.

* By encouraging the use of multi- intelligences to enable different ways of discovery and learning.

* By offering a strong focus on social collaboration, as they use brainstorming as part of the creative process.

* By encouraging them to experience the state of creative ‘flow’ through the empathetic understanding that is given to each participant.

* By offering hands-on discovery learning allowing them to use all their senses, so they experience that learning and play are not separated.

* By encouraging them to delight in the process of communication and to make their thoughts known in many different ways, including through the use of photographs, drawings and playacting.

Kerry Meakin co-authored the An Croí Learning Approach programme for The Idea Camp, academy of creative play, at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) with Jan Pettersen, lecturer in social sciences in the School of Languages, Law and Sciences at DIT.


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