Young at art
A FEW WEEKS before I had my first child, a friend who had already taken the plunge told me, bleakly, that I would never read a book again. She advised me to spend the final weeks of my pregnancy cramming as much culture as I could into my life. Motherhood, she warned, spelled the end of all intellectual activity. For someone whose profession and chief pleasure is the arts, this was chilling.
As fate would have it, my baby arrived three weeks early and I never got the chance to tick off all the items on the list I had duly written. But as I lay in the antenatal ward, waiting for labour to begin, I found myself reading the last pages of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Winterson grew up as the adopted daughter of evangelical Christians who believed the Bible was the only book worth reading. When her mother discovered the library the young Winterson had accumulated beneath her mattress she built a bonfire of the books and took special pleasure in watching them burn.
My friend was being wildly dramatic in her proclamation, of course, but as Winterson narrated the consequences of her emotionally and intellectually deprived childhood I was reminded of why cultural experiences were so important to my life. I promised to make them central to my newborn son’s life, too.
The arts are one of the fundamental tools through which young children learn about the world. Early-childhood educators acknowledge this by using role play, art and music to help form social skills as well as to impart knowledge. Exposure at a young age is crucial to later appreciation of the arts, and in Ireland most major arts organisations have taken this on board, providing outreach and educational activity programmes for children at weekends and during school holidays.
Catering for babies is entirely different. Babies don’t really do “participation” or “process”, the buzz words in arts experiences for children, yet they are hugely stimulated by exposure to myriad media. A variety of cultural institutions have begun tapping into this, providing cultural opportunities for babies and their parents.
Perhaps the most popular and best-known cultural amenity for new parents and their charges is the baby-friendly cinema programme at multiplexes and art-house cinemas around the country. Originally, the screenings were limited to PG films, but films for adults are now regularly included: newborns are not too fussy about narrative content. Most of the cinemas restrict the screenings to babies of pre-crawling age; the younger the babies the better the experience, as their heavy sleeping schedules ensure they don’t get bored or overstimulated by the environment.
The cinemas turn the sound down, for tiny ears, brighten the lighting a little, to facilitate feeding – IMC Dún Laoghaire even has a bottle warmer just inside the screening room’s door – and the babies often find the experience soothing. A newborn’s eyes are stimulated more by sharp contrasts of colour, so the black-and-white visual landscape of The Artist was particularly attractive to my son; the ambient soundtrack and dusky images of Shame were also pleasantly soporific.