A unique child inclusion: Creative thinking

Louise Jackson
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An early years project aiming to promote inclusion through the creative arts challenged everyone's thinking. Louise Jackson explains how.

In the UK and internationally, there is an ongoing debate between health practitioners and educators about how we identify and support children with additional needs. Do we use the medical model or the social model of disability? Do we label children according to a set of symptoms? What language is helpful? How do we decide who qualifies for additional support, and what form it will take?

Traditionally, funding to support children with additional needs has focused on the need for extra members of staff. This can often be misinterpreted as a 1:1, with the adult working exclusively with the child, sometimes outside the main activity area, away from other children.

The Reggio Emilia approach to early years education challenged us to think of new ways of working, where the needs of individual children are recognised and accepted, but where the children take the lead rather than the adults, and discover their own ways to overcome barriers and collaborate.

Through the Atelier Project, we wanted:

- to create spaces, identify resources and 'make the learning visible' for all children, including those with speech and language difficulties, with challenging behaviour and with physical disabilities

- to equip young children with the skills and experiences to help them recognise strengths in themselves and in each other, to collaborate and support one another and so lay the foundations for a more inclusive community.

The project stemmed from an initial meeting between our early years inclusion team and a group of artists to look at ways of supporting children with additional needs in early years settings.

Five settings were then invited to take part in the project. All the settings successfully include children with additional needs, but the adults wanted to gain a deeper understanding of individual children's learning. Setting-based training was incorporated into each project, with artists, educators, children and parents learning alongside each other.

Different perceptions of the roles of 'artist' and 'educator' were explored early on in the project. Who would lead the sessions? Who were the 'experts?' How do you define and negotiate roles and responsibilities? It was an important part of any collaborative project involving people from different professions.

ARTISTS AND EDUCATORS

During the initial visit there was time to build relationships and to find out about the spaces available, the resources and organisation. Artists and educators spent time observing the children playing. There were opportunities for children to share ideas and for everyone involved to discuss and plan the project together.

The manager from Hopscotch nursery said, 'The two artists who came into our setting really took the time to talk to the staff members and find out how they could help provide quality experiences for the children, focused on their individual learning needs and interests.'

Each setting embarked on their own unique and special project because the adults listened to the children and allowed their ideas to lead activities in the session.

Throughout the project, adults documented what children were doing. They recorded what children said and how they related to each other and watched the many different ways children worked with the materials provided. At times, there was so much information that it was important to reflect on what information was useful and how the observations could be used, presented and shared with others.

The format for documentation was different for each setting. Some of the observations focused on the 'learning journey' of individual children, while others focused on the whole group working together.

Reframing priorities

The artists found it was important to plan time to talk through observations with educators, to show examples and, in one case, to provide a format for recording.

The manager of Merry Go Round nursery said, 'It wasn't that the process was new, but the experience of having time to express views, which would be listened to and acted upon, is new for many children and adults.'

Once given a 'voice', many took the opportunity to enter into dialogue and make choices about their work, understandings and values. It was clear that as everyone involved gained in confidence, the frequency and depth of their contributions increased.

Artists and educators were compelled to reflect, rethink and sometimes reframe their priorities when the children responded in a different way, or took the project off in a new direction. Anna Falcini, one of the artists involved, commented on 'the need for flexibility, to allow some children longer to engage with activities while others may want to move on'.

Adult expectations of children were sometimes challenged. A practitioner from Merry Go Round nursery commented of one child, 'He wouldn't normally mix with the other children, so it was great to see him enjoying himself in a group. He just watched at first, then moved nearer and nearer and then he joined the group. He wanted to know what was going on!'

This was an important observation for a child with social interaction and communication difficulties, who needs to be given time to watch an activity first before participating. Gradually, the conversations became more about what the children can do instead of what they can't, signalling a change in attitudes and approach.

ADULT DIRECTION

The artists challenged people to think about creativity. What does it mean to be creative? Too much adult direction and we can inhibit creativity. This is evident when we see identical pictures being mass-produced so that children have something to take home at the end of the session.

Many practitioners recognised this was poor practice, but felt pressured by parents' expectations. By opening up the conversation, through this project, artists and educators agreed that all the children involved were learning about creativity, but the evidence for this was in the documentation rather than a finished product. Once the learning process was made visible, a 'finished product' was unnecessary.

At the end of the project, there was a lot of discussion about how we could 'make the learning visible' to a wider audience. Some of the settings had invited parents to the final session, where everyone worked together to make a book to 'tell the story' of their project. Others made slideshows of the photographs for their interactive whiteboards, and some documented the learning journey on wall displays.

It was important that children, artists and educators involved in each project had an opportunity to share what they had learned. An interactive exhibition at the Courtyard Theatre for the Arts in Hereford provided a central location for everyone involved in the project to come together and engage in this dialogue. Families, educators, artists, students and members of the public came to see what was possible, shared their experiences and went away with new ideas, and a deeper understanding of the learning process.

The project made people reflect on opportunities for creativity for all children. One practitioner from Play and Learn Nursery valued the 'hands-on experience and time to observe, document and reflect'.

For some, it was an interesting and valuable project that changed their view of an individual child. For others, it led to much bigger changes, in their environment and resources as well as their communication and interactions with children in the group.

For the wider community, the travelling exhibition continues to challenge existing views on early years education, special educational needs and creativity. We know that the 'discussion' is important, but the impact cannot easily be measured.

Early years education in the UK is undergoing significant change. This is not due to any one specific project, initiative or training event, but to the commitment of all those people who are currently involved in early years education and who are constantly striving to increase their understanding of pedagogy, improve their practice and raise standards for all children.

Louise Jackson is a member of the early years inclusion team in Herefordshire. The project involved five artists: Liz Buckler, Anna Falcini, Caroline Potter, Sean Rice and Nicky Plant. With thanks to the children, parents and staff from Merry Go Round Nursery, Hopscotch Nursery, Play and Learn Nursery, Trinity Treetops and Daisy Chains Nursery. The project was funded using Herefordshire council's Early Years Transformation Fund

LINKS TO EYFS GUIDANCE
- UC 1.2 Inclusive Practice
- PR 2.3 Supporting Learning
- EE 3.1 Observation, Assessment and Planning
- EE 3.2 Supporting Every Child
- L&D 4.3 Creativity and Critical Thinking

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