Taking a child's eye view of the arts


ARTS: Can very young children get something out of live performance? Child development experts think so, and the Natural Born Artists conference next week explores the benefits of art for little ones

UNTIL NOW, there has been a tacit acceptance that once children have reached the age of reason (which is seven, according to Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who defined the stages of childhood development), they can take on the arts. Until then, they might just be unruly, spilling their popcorn, jumping up and down in their seats, speaking out of turn and basically not paying attention.

This assumption has been challenged of late with the appearance of more and more theatre, music and dance shows for children under seven. So strong is the international interest in this young age group that Baboró International Arts Festival for Children in Galway city has decided to explore it. And Natural Born Artists, the festival’s first ever conference, is entirely dedicated to the world of the arts for young children.

“For years, we saw how parents brought younger children to performances that were aimed at older children and we noticed how these children were sometimes very engaged by the shows. That started the process of looking for and creating shows specifically for babies and young children,” explains Lali Morris, festival director of Baboró.

At Baboró, this year, there are three shows aimed at the very young. Italian theatre company, La Baracca present their show about things that fall ( E poi… cadono!/And then… they fall!) for one- to four-year olds. Irish company, PigNut Productions present Ahhhh!!which promises to engage those aged 18 months to three years and their parents equally. And, Teater Refleksion and Teater My from Denmark create a meditation for two- to four-year-olds and their parents with Himmelsange/Songs From Above.

“If you consider children’s development – and parents know this – they are doing the most learning in the first two years. They are constantly watching and moving. They are enchanted and absorbed by everything, and if they encounter the performing arts at this age, they will learn and remember something from it,” says Morris.

Morris, who directs the PigNut Productions show at Baboró this year, says that the process of engagement with young children is different to that of older children. “Not all artists can work with this age group,” she says. “What I notice is that those who take the time to engage with the children and connect with them before the performance, then have the children with them, moving in and out of performance and play whether it’s through music, movement or words.”

Morris suggests that performances for young children do not have to be “loud, fast and furious”.

“We find that it’s often the opposite, and that live performances for young children can be gentle, soothing and slow. They can be funny and fast in parts too, but young children often enjoy the slower pace more,” she says.

David Coleman, clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author will speak at Natural Born Artists conference. He says that the shared experience of being at a live performance is the key for the child and the parent. “The relationship with the parent is brought to a new place when a parent is with them at a performance and actively taking part,” says Coleman.

“Often the parents will see another side of their child at a show; for example, how the child is engaged by the music or the visual aspects of the show. This gives the parent insight into his/her child and also builds up memories that they can talk about later,” he says, adding that live shows also give parents opportunities to pick up on the moods and feelings of their children, which they can then respond to afterwards.

Coleman also argues that the tangible nature of the performing arts is far more engaging for young children than anything they might see on television. “They are watching real people interact and real things happening, whereas when they are watching television, children are very disconnected from what is happening.

“There is also something very playful about early-years performances that gives parents and children a chance to have a bit of fun together,” he adds.

Baboró has recently become part of an EU network of performing artists and festivals from 12 countries which engage with young children. Funded by the European Commission, this Small Size – Big Citizens project aims to encourage the sharing of knowledge, experience and research between participants.

Starcatchers Theatre Company in Scotland is a member of the Small Size – Big Citizens collective, and Rhona Matherson will speak about that company’s work at the Natural Born Artists conference. “It’s multi-sensory work with very little language and narrative, and we’ve found that our shows have had huge appeal to young children and parents,” she explains. Starcatchers works mainly with nurseries and community creches that support vulnerable parents.

Martin Drury, arts director with the Arts Council, will also speak at the conference.

He says that young children’s engagement with the performing arts helps develop their creative thinking. “I’m not saying that the arts have a monopoly on creativity but the arts are a primary way in which children can understand the world. The arts feed and breed creative thinkers with a flexibility of response that will be necessary for an unpredictable society that lies ahead of them,” he says.

And while Drury’s comments may sound like an intellectual validation for developing more and more performances for young audiences in Ireland, Lali Morris argues that it’s really an experiential process. “You can’t really describe a strawberry fully, you just have to experience it by smelling, touching and tasting it to know what it’s like. Well, the performing arts for young children are a bit like a strawberry – you just have to experience it for yourself to really know its value.” Baboró International Arts Festival for Children runs from October 12th to 18th.

Natural Born Artists, the conference exploring arts for the early years, takes place on Friday and Saturday, October 16th and 17th. The programme, which is aimed at crèche teachers, researchers, parents and artists, includes performances, workshops, keynote speakers, presentations from artists working with young children and discussion. 091-562667, www.baboro.ie