Early years for creative workshops

A day-long event organised by artist Helen Barry brings together the different people who have an investment in Early Years arts…

A day-long event organised by artist Helen Barry brings together the different people who have an investment in Early Years arts and education, writes SARA KEATING

Early on a Saturday morning at the Axis Arts Centre in Ballymun, a group of toddlers and their parents are gathered for a series of Early Years art workshops. Some of the families are local; others have come from as far as Celbridge and Bray.

“There is nothing like this for children so young,” says one parent of two-year-old twins, who feels uncomfortable bringing her daughters to traditional gallery spaces where “the art is hung too high for them and you are afraid that they’ll make noise”. This morning, however, the Axis is a public arts space dedicated to their enrichment.

I See You, I Hear You was a day-long event organised by artist Helen Barry, who has been working in the field of Early Arts for 20 years. Now a mother herself, she feels acutely the lack of joined-up thinking around Early Years arts.



For Barry, it was an opportunity to “bring together all the different people who have an investment in Early Years arts and education, parents and their children: to allow them to participate. But also educators and childcare workers, to allow them to see Early Years arts in practice. There is a lot of work happening on the ground, but there isn’t an established network of communication for artists and educators to share knowledge, research and skills.”

Barry’s first encounter with Early Years arts practice began when she worked as education officer at the Triskel Arts Centre, establishing a long-term arts-based parent and child group that ran over several years. She has since worked at the Ark, A Cultural Centre for Children, is currently a youth arts officer in Ballymun, and regularly runs workshops at schools and creches throughout the Dublin area.

Ideal relationship

For Barry, however, it is the parent and child unit that offers the ideal relationship for exploring Early Arts practice.

“It is fascinating to watch the relationship between parent and child change and grow through arts practice,” she says. “At the beginning [of a workshop], a child will look to the parent for approval: the usual dynamic being that the parent ‘knows more’ or the ‘right’ way to do something. And a parent often thinks the child won’t be able to ‘do it’ either. But when it comes to art there is much more equality. The children need very little guidance. You can show them a starting point and they will follow, so parents and children are there to experiment together.

“It’s not about what you make,” she says, “but what you learn through making, and this applies to the parents too, who often feel that they have lost touch with their creative side or forgotten how to play. What you really notice is that parent and child are learning together, and that can have a lifetime effect on how they relate to each other.”

It is important, Barry says, that the needs of the parent are met too. “Part of the deal,” she says, “is that you don’t have to clean up afterwards.

“But on a more fundamental level, it offers the parent an opportunity to meet other parents. Often as a parent, especially when you are at home with your child full-time, you can feel invisible. It can be very lonely, and parents should be encouraged to express themselves too.”

Unfortunately, the parent-child unit is the most difficult group to target for Early Years Arts practice, Barry explains, which is why it was important to have childcare workers involved in the conversation. Creches and childcare facilities are a vital access point for research into how Early Arts affects the developing child’s brain, and there were several representatives from childcare at the event on the day, eager to see how Early Arts practice can be integrated into the Aistear and Highscope curriculums currently being delivered in creches nationwide.

Performance and participation

The Early Arts workshops were a blend of performance and participation, spanning arts forms and age groups from 18 months to five years old.

Barry delivered a construction workshop which encouraged problem solving, spatial awareness and self-expression, using a variety of familiar and non-traditional materials.

Cork-based children’s theatre Grafitti delivered a shadow puppet theatre performance, which gave toddlers the opportunity to verbalise and create their own stories. Musician Thomas Johnson from the Dublin 8 community arts group Common Ground offered a music workshop that used simple original songs to introduce children to the language and physicality of music.

In the feedback sessions that followed, parents expressed their pleasure at the quality of the artistic standard, and how surprised they were by the focus that their children have.

And where does the artist fit into this? Barry is keen to explain that when she first began working in Early Arts, she struggled to find a connection between her own work and the creative workshops, but eventually she came to see the parallels.

“You learn from children all the time as the dynamic of your work changes and you respond to each child’s needs. But it’s a two-way process. Sometimes the child’s approach can be exactly what I need to solve a problem that I am having in the studio.” For Early Arts to really succeed, she concludes, “it needs to be worthwhile for all”.

Culture for young children

Baboro: The annual children's arts festival regularly hosts national and international performances and workshops targeting all age groups from toddlers to tweens. It takes place in Galway every October. baboro.ie

The Ark: Although the Ark's demographic is the over-twos, it welcomes infants at family performances. Forthcoming family events include Theatre Workshops for two to four year olds. ark.ie

Toddler Tuesdays in Temple Bar:Culture Box in Temple Bar is running a series of art workshops run by Orla Kelly, for infants from 18 months to four every Tuesday until the end of March. Booking is essential.

For a useful guide to events and research in the area: see actinguparts.com; kidsown.ie practice.ie; helenbarry.com

' It was unlike any I had attended before

As a full-time teacher, Gillian Foley rarely gets the opportunity to experience structured activities with her 22-month-old son Rory, and she welcomed the opportunity to participate in the Early Arts workshops.

"I find that there is very little art or creative activity geared towards one and two year olds," she says. She and her son participated in Barry's construction workshop, Build It, which exercised mobility and motor skills, hand-eye co-ordination, and encouraged imaginative play.

"It was unlike anything I had attended with my toddler before," she said. "And I particularly liked the fact that the activities were well- structured but left enough freedom for the children to choose how they played. It was interesting to see my child learning through play, and the varied age-group allowed younger children to observe and learn from older children. It also gave me some great ideas about how to replicate the creative activities at home."