Early education: You’re never too young to get a start in the arts

Before children become literate, music, painting, crafts and drama can give them powerful tools for communication and development

Thomas Johnston is a traditional musician and educational specialist. By day he works at St Patrick's College, researching diversity in music education by documenting primary-school children's experience of music in the classroom. In his spare time he works directly with an even younger demographic: infants and toddlers aged up to four.

“As a musician,” says Johnston, “working with such a young age group is exciting because there is a completely natural reaction to music: they embody it through movement. But as an educator the challenge is also an exciting one. How do you enable them to engage with music in the best possible way?”

Interest in early-years arts – targeting children before formal education – is growing in Ireland. As research reveals the enormous benefits to the development of children’s brains from cultural activity, and psychologists stress the importance of the first three years of life, the arts have become an integral part of early childcare.

The flexibility of the Aistear early childhood curriculum encourages the arts, with four development areas for the child: wellbeing; identity and belonging; exploring and thinking; and communication.


Aistear stresses the importance of play for these goals. The creative approach offered by arts practice is a brilliant match for enabling identity building or, as Johnston puts it, “the possible self”. Before a child can read and write, the arts offer a powerful communication tool.

Sally Hartnett runs Broadford preschool and Montessori in Ballinteer, and she puts the arts at the heart of her approach. "The Aistear curriculum encourages self-esteem and self-expression, and the arts are an important tool for exploring that aspect of ourselves," she says.

She offers children music, drama and the visual arts as a structured activity, but it is also integral to the children’s self- guided free play. “There is paper, glitter, glue available all the time, so whenever they feel like making something, they can,” she says. “We work on group projects too, but the focus isn’t so much on the end product; it is about the children expressing themselves rather than control.”

A sensory start

Rosheen Kemple is quality care supervisor at Wee-Care Day Nursery in RTÉ Donnybrook, where children's exposure to art begins at the sensory level – from paddling pools filled with jelly to finger-painting, foot-painting and full-body painting. Kemple says it is "difficult to get across just how important the arts are for early-years learning and self-expression; the arts aren't even mandatory for childcare training at Fetac level 5/6, and a lot of staff wouldn't have the confidence to use the arts as an activity or learning tool".

For Kemple, this is where professional artists come in. For two years WeeCare has had a visual artist on a long-term project. She says the experience was great for the children. “It was also great for staff. It leaves us with ideas for how to engage the kids in different, often really simple, ways.”

For artists such as Johnston, “you have to try and make sure you are meeting the needs of all invested parties, because children’s needs will differ from the parents, the teachers, the home-school liaison”.

Visual artist Helen Barry has more than a decade of experience in early-years arts. She stresses the importance of a child-led approach in her construction and architecture workshops. "I look at every series of workshops as a collaboration. I come in with some ideas and concepts I am exploring in my own work. I might start with one structured workshop I lead myself, but the children will open up other options I may never have thought of."

Barry is artist-in-residence at the DLR Lexicon Library in Dún Laoghaire, where she works weekly with children from eight months to three years. She begins by offering materials and a strong idea for how to engage with them. In the first session, for example, children were encouraged to put foam pipes into plastic milk cartons and cardboard boxes, creating bridge-like structures. While younger children could explore these structures physically by crawling through them, others were encouraged to decorate them by hanging fabric to create forts and dens, or tying pipe-cleaners to personalise them.

In a later workshop Barry noticed how children were drawn to the periphery of the studio and a glass wall of windows. She integrated this space into the activity, using a clear sheet of strong plastic to create a window, with children on one side, caregivers on the other, gluing and glittering the wall between them.

“Basically, the outcome of my work with the children will dictate what happens in the next workshop,” says Barry. “You have to be ready to listen to what they are saying, and it is up to me to figure out how I can make their ideas relevant to the context of what I might want to explore in my own practice.”

Johnston stresses the importance of flexibility to working with early years. “It is important that I keep the music close to my own process and interests, but it is also important that I make it engaging and creative for the children. When you are working over 16 weeks, you have a chance to lead children through an educative process by increasing the musical challenge and helping them to meet that challenge.”

Johnston is developing a participatory performance for two-six-year-olds, The Quiet Tree and the Creatures of Whistleberry Forest, using narrative and animal sounds to draw children into call-and- response routines and eventually creating the rhythm of an entire musical sequence. Johnston stresses the process of creating with children is never about instruction.

“It isn’t a top-down approach. It is more like pushing a boat out, leading a child through an experience. What they learn from it is something that they determine themselves. If you go in with too much structure, you will struggle. You have to allow for what may seem chaotic, and to remember that children understand as much as anyone does what good music is.”

Building an Ark

Maria Fleming is theatre programmer at The Ark cultural centre for children in Temple Bar, Dublin. When The Ark was founded in 1996 it was to cater for four- to 14-year-olds. Fleming says there has been an enormous demand for work for early-years audiences since then. The Ark's remit has expanded to include infants and toddlers in workshops.

One highly successful such workshop is run by Joanna Parkes, who uses music, movement and a dramatic narrative to engage toddlers and caregivers in a series of visual arts-related tasks.

Fleming stresses the importance of artistic standards in both the participatory and performance models. Exposure to the arts should be “an overwhelmingly positive experience”, she says. “You are trying to harness an interest for life.”

It is important to remember the diversity of audience experience, even within the young demographic. “The idea of early-years arts suggests there is something uniform to the experience of zero to three audience, but what is developmentally appropriate for two-three-year-olds and three-four-year-olds, for example, is entirely different, and it is vital performances and workshops take that into account,” says Fleming.

Actor Paul Curley recently developed a new play for four-year-olds, Bake!, which is now touring. He stresses "being memorable and arousing curiosity" and "tying in with the children's physical and emotional development but also challenging them".

Although Bake! was not designed for an educational setting or with Aistear in mind, it encourages problem-solving and invites children to the stage: they help to move the story forward through shape- and size-sorting activities, building a cake by layering coloured discs.

I saw the show with my almost three- year-old son, and, six months later, he still regularly plays this game. “If they are enjoying themselves,” says Curley, “they are engaged in what is called the psychology of optimal experience. The arts offer opportunities for meaning-making experiences, and good art for early-years audiences should provide them with a challenge and help them to meet it.” As Johnston says, “it is about helping children to become their best possible selves”. There is no better way of expressing such a holistic approach to educative ambitions.


For artists involved in early-years arts there is an intensive creative consultation with infants and caregivers, and the natural environment is the childcare setting. Replay Theatre Company is lucky to be able to pilot its theatre performance for children aged up to three in a childcare facility downstairs from its Belfast office.

Replay artistic director Anna Newell says it "would have been impossible to develop our work for young audiences without that. We got to work with the babies every day, sometimes with their parents, more often with the nursery workers, and got a lot of observational feedback about what was working and what wasn't."

The company's first early-years show, Babble, was so successful a production is planned on Broadway this year.

TiNY is the second theatrical piece Replay Theatre has created for young audiences. The 20-minute work is directed at children up to 18 months and is inspired by the early stages of infant development. Performance is guided by the human voice and is a multisensory experience involving light, bells, tactility and a close-up encounter with a human face. Performance is in a dimly lit dome within the theatre, and this "safe, distraction-free space" is crucial to its success. Newell says it creates "an optimal site for communication and engagement" with the young audience.

Although the performers assure care- givers they can step outside, feed or soothe a fractious baby, the atmosphere for the performance I attended was entirely calm. The babies seem soothed as well as stimulated. They reach out to touch finger puppets, follow glowing rolling spheres across the floor and mimic the the musical babble of performers.

TiNY may be all about the babies, but there is nothing more joyful for a parent than watching their little one respond to such focused attention.


Specific strategies to enhance creativity:

  • INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIP: learning is a reciprocal and collaborative process between the adult and child. Children in secure relationships with adults are more likely to explore their environment – thereby enhancing their learning and development.
  • ACTIVE LISTENING: educators and artists need to show sensitivity to the children's current state, a desire to interpret their meaning and for them to participate in the interaction. Rich early-arts experiences, children's stories and their home lives can be a rich source for active listening.
  • DISCUSSING/QUESTIONING: more than a succession of questions from adult to child, discussion allows for an exchange of ideas with a view to reaching understanding, solving problems or sharing information.
  • SCAFFOLDING: educators and artists decide when children are ready to move from one level of development to another and reduce their input as the child progresses.

From Early Childhood Arts – Three Perspectives, Young People, Children and Education , an Arts Council report (2013)