Learning and Development: Creativity - Little Big Bang
Friday, July 20, 2012
In a bid to improve creative opportunities for the under-fives and their families in Somerset, four artists were placed in nine children's centres. Louise Monks reports on the project's progress.
Take Art's two-year Little Big Bang (LBB) project was set up because we believe that children and families need, and have a right to, creative and cultural activities and that these activities can help a child's development and improve their quality of life.
When it was conceived in 2009, Little Big Bang was determined to increase creative opportunities for the under-fives and their families in Somerset. To achieve this, four artists, or Lead Creative Practitioners (LCP), were placed in permanent positions within nine children's centres and arts venues across the county, with each artist covering a 'constellation' loosely centred around one of Somerset's main market towns:
- Southern - Hannah Lefeuvre (dance and movement and dance)
- Central - Richard Tomlinson (digital and visual art)
- Northern - Year 1, Francesca Dunford (theatre); Year 2, Rod Harris (clay and mark-making).
By the end of the project the four LCPs had worked in 32 early years settings and arts venues across Somerset, offering over 600 workshops. In addition, Little Big Bang offered training sessions for 263 artists, 116 early years teachers and 571 early years practitioners.
Hannah Lefeuvre worked within children's centres and nurseries to create environments in which to explore dance, story and drama.
Richard Tomlinson's visual arts activities included: creating dynamic spinning paintings, making photo stories, investigating light and shadow using lightboxes and projectors, exploring the creative potential of natural resources, mark-making using a wide range of media.
Francesca Dunford, a theatre-based LCP, worked with children both indoors and out, playing games that encouraged explorations of physicality and space, group interaction and role play. She worked with the children to create storylines that she would animate during walks and outdoor performances.
Rod Harris, a clay and mark-making artist, encouraged the children to set aside any preconceived ideas of sculpture and free their imaginations by getting messy when using clay and making marks on paper.
The children would work together to create nobbly, intricate, collapsible cities, sausages and wild animals. Colour, patterns and texture were all explored as the children used their senses of touch and smell to create their imaginative worlds.
Rod Harris also built outdoor workstations for the children's centres so that they could accommodate messy materials and allow children to explore different sensory worlds. These structures included pizza ovens, clay pits and storage sheds.
Along with workshops and training, a central part of the LCPs' role was to help build connections between children's centres and the arts community, linking children, families and early years staff with artists, venues and arts organisations. For example, Richard Tomlinson based a lot of his workshops at local Somerset theatres, such as the Brewhouse in Taunton. This enabled parents to become familiar and confident with community arts venues and, therefore, more likely to access them in the future.
Dr Susan Young, of the University of Exeter, has now completed her evaluation of the project and looked at the extent to which it achieved its aim to 'increase the quantity and quality of creative experience for young children in children's centres in Somerset by developing a model of the creative practitioner in children's centres'.
The rationale driving the LBB programme was simple, notes Dr Young: 'If children's centres were to be new, innovative centres that aimed to cater for all the needs of families with young children, then creativity, arts and cultural activity should be part of that offer. To restrict the provision to health, social and early skills-based education such as language and numbers is to hold a narrow and impoverished view of what constitutes a rich and healthy upbringing. Artistic and creative activity is a fundamental part of daily life, the essence of what makes a community whole, healthy and vibrant. Families and young children need creative activity as much as they need dental care, speech therapy or employment advice.
'No programme,' she concludes, 'is plain sailing', and among the challenges highlighted in the report is the independent nature of children's centres, which all operated slightly differently and had different expectations and needs. As a result, the LCPs had to build a relationship of trust with each centre and staff team. Maintaining these relationships also became increasingly frustrating due to staff turnover. As for the venues, the LCPs found many reluctant to programme performances with a new target audience, namely under-fives and their families.
Added to that were the Government cutbacks and changes in policy that started to take effect in the second year of the programme. As a result, says Dr Young, the project started 'at a time of optimistic expansion' and finished 'at a time of uncertain austerity'.
Nevertheless, Dr Young concludes, 'By working long-term in the centres, the LCPs developed practice that had a range of positive features associated with continuity and integration. In short, they successfully increased the quantity and quality of creative experience for young children and families in the centres where they worked; a key aim of the project.'
She also identifies five features within the LBB model 'that have wider strategic implications and serve the current policy directions and economic situations of the arts and early years sectors'. The model, she concludes:
- fosters creative activity that fits the needs and priorities of the centre, its children and families
- fosters creativity in young children and families as a foundation for learning and well-being
- is consistent and effective
- bridges the children's centre to its locality, its artists and arts providers, and
- represents good value for money.
The future of this early years work is looking positive for Somerset and beyond. We continue to offer a programme of professional development, participation and advocacy around early years creativity, which enables us to further develop our LBB work and build upon our relationships with Somerset's under-fives, their families and childcare settings. We are investigating ways of sharing the learning and practice from the LBB project at a regional level, in particular, with Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset.
We will also be supporting the KinderGardens International Theatre Festival 2012, which will run in November and bring Spanish, Flemish and British early years theatre companies to Somerset. In all, 16 shows will take place in theatres, children's centres and school halls.
Hannah Lefeuvre, LCP and dance and movement artist for the south Somerset constellation, describes her experience of the project and the role.
'We begin with a clear room, gathering and resting on a central square of mats and cushions. We wriggle, exploring "sleepy shapes". Rolling onto our backs, stretching our arms and legs, we reach and take hold of our toes, hug the knees and rock gently. Rolling to sit up, the sun is waking up. Breathing in to stretch up and out to bring the arms down. We curl up as tiny as can be, then start to explore our own stretches and shapes. Inverted postures, on the hands and feet, expansive, a new landscape is created.
"Where are we going? How shall we get there?
"On a boat! In a tractor ... aeroplane ... helicopter ... walking ... running ... jumping ... car ... bus ... on a horse ... on a bike ... a hot air balloon ... on a banana ... a magic carpet ... swimming!"
'Tumbling into the sea, ducking, diving, swimming, crawling, exploring. We find a big old rope that's gone stretchy! We play with the rope (elastic) pushing and pulling, twisting, turning and jumping.
'And so on ... we're swept away, as we have been so many times during the two years. To the beach, play park, outer space, camping, through forests, on pirate ships, to the lands of circles, shape, colours, music and many more, all exploring using our complete senses and taking ideas from the children.
'With just a few visual aids or props, we create a variety of scenarios. For example, the elastic in a circle could become a giant cooking pot, the moon, a giant puddle, a lake, a big balloon. Yoga mats in a line could become a road, runway, footpath, bus, railway track. Spread apart, individual boats, cars, magic carpets, stepping stones, islands. Mats define the working arena and provide a modest, clean cushioning for a variety of floors and spaces.
'Over two years of working in this way, I have seen a cultural shift in staff and families at centres. Through subtle interactions and sensory work, regular designated movement sessions and noticeboard displays and scrap-books, creativity has set up a permanent base in the children's centres and has permeated the consciousness of all the staff, adults and children.'
The Little Big Bang project was funded jointly by Somerset County Council, The Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council, England as part of the Somerset RFO Thrive project with Somerset Arts Promoters.
To see the Little Big Bang film and final report and find out more about Take Art's early years work, visit: www.takeart.org.
Louise Monks, Take Art