“The arts are essential to a child’s development. They are as important as the air we breathe,” says Gráinne Powell, the chief executive of Sticky Fingers, a children’s arts organisation, who has spent more than 15 years specialising in the development and promotion of the arts for children both North and South.
The importance of the arts in children’s lives has come sharply into focus in recent weeks.
An ESRI-Arts Council study found that children who are exposed to activities such as painting, singing, dancing or playing can cope better with schoolwork and have a more positive attitude towards education.
They are also happier, have reduced anxiety and fewer socio-emotional difficulties.
How to promote arts activities, in pre-school and after school-settings in particular, was the focus of the first ever All-Ireland arts conference for the childhood sector held last month.
Organised by the National Childhood Network (NCN) along with Northern Ireland's Early Years and Playboard organisations, it promoted the importance of the arts for practitioners in pre-school and after-school settings and considered how more arts activities could be introduced into the lives of children aged three months to 12 years.
“There’s loads of evidence, including the recent ESRI report, to show that children who engage in the arts regularly, or engage in creative play are more logical thinkers,” says Powell.
“They will concentrate better and are better at making connections, problem solving and language development. They also have the confidence to speak out and ask questions.”
While there is an early childhood curriculum framework available for pre-schools through the Aistear programme, there is still work to be done to ensure those who work with children are maximising their time with them, says Denise McCormilla, chief executive of the National Childhood Network.
“The opportunity to experience the arts within the pre-school setting is not as standardised as we would like it to be,” says McCormilla.
“Some practitioners are really tuned into the arts. The children get music, song, dance and drama every day, but in some services they hardly get it at all.
“It’s about standardising that access across the country and making practitioners aware of how important the arts are to children’s development.”
In partnership with the HSE’s Healthy Ireland Smart Start, the NCN have developed a training programme for practitioners, along with resources for parents, which is being made available to pre-school workers around the country.
There is particular focus in the programme on children’s emotional wellbeing and their understanding of different feelings such as happy, sad, lonely, etc which is explored through a series of specially developed books and music.
“Very often within the pre-school movement you have a focus on children’s cognitive development, but you cannot have children’s cognitive development unless they are emotionally secure beforehand,” says McCormilla.
“Building the capacity of the pre-school sector in particular,where you have 96 per cent uptake, provides a wonderful opportunity and the staff need to know how invaluable they are in promoting the arts to these children.”
Back to basics
Introducing more art activities to children of all ages can be done simply and cheaply by those working with children, and their parents, says Powell, considering funding for the arts has taken a serious slashing in recent years.
“What we need to be doing as as society and as a community is coming back to basics . . . it’s a case of returning to the old cardboard box and the million things it can become,” she says.
“Or playing ‘let’s pretend’ games, when it was possible to make tea for your teddy bear, or go into the jungle and choose an animal to be. All those ways in which we played as children are essential for children to develop today.”
Babies’ arts experience should be all about experimenting and exploring. Something visual that will stimulate them, along with music and movement. As the child starts to crawl; crayons and scribbling become more important.
Older children need a bit more structure and direction, says Powell, and this can be where technology comes in, with something like animation or game-making.
Letting the child take the lead in investigating, exploring and discovering is key to a quality arts experience.
“Rather than instructing and telling them what to do, provide the encouragement and equipment and let the child lead themselves – that is what is important,” says Powell.
More recently there has also been discussion around changing the focus in schools from Stem (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) to Steam, which incorporates the arts.
The area was touched on by Arlene Forster, deputy chief executive of the National Curriculum Council during her keynote address at the conference.
“Ensuring that children do have lots of opportunities to be creative, imaginative and the opportunity to think outside the box is really important, not just for children’s education into the future, but as a key part of how they enjoy their childhood right now,” says Forster.
“It’s not about making a child into an artist in terms of the definition of the word as we know it, but ensuring they have access to lots of rich opportunities to be creative, to be imaginative and to express themselves.”
“You want children to think: ‘This is my idea, I’ve created this.’”
One school is encouraging creativity in everything from cookery to cushion-making. A child-led approach is central to the approach of teachers Eimear Kelly and Leah Doherty at Holy Trinity National School in Leopardstown, Dublin.
They run one of the school’s eight arts-based afterschool programmes which include drama, choir, ballet, Irish dancing and Artz and Cards and run on various evenings throughout the week.
Most classes cost about €5 with some, such as choir, provided free of charge.
Kelly and Doherty run the cookery and craft club for both junior and senior classes. One of the projects that proved a big hit with the children was cushion- making.
“The design element and the actual creative part of it is completely in their hands,” says Kellly.
“There’s a lot of choice in terms of colours, stitches they want to do, and what skills they want to practice. You want them to think ‘this is my idea, I’ve created this’.”
The teachers can also see the benefit of the class to students’ motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination, along with the benefit to their communication skills of learning the names for the different parts to the needle and various stitches involved.