Working with Artists in Early Childhood Settings

“She’s a real artist, you’re just a pretend one.” 

Learning to see through the eyes of an artist has enabled the educators and children at our service to deepen our own pedagogy of observing.  We have learned to slow down, form relationships, value process, to really understand what it is to play with materials to understand their properties, to dream, vision, experiment, research and to embrace the concept of uncertainty.

Rainbow Valley is situated in the Regional city of Gladstone, Queensland. Throughout our 19 years of operation we have developed a long history of inviting artists into our program to do long term projects.  These visits have been for many different time periods, sometimes weeks and at other s lengthy stays of months. The projects have been varied and have had many outcomes. We have learnt that the most important aspect is not what we create, it is the relationships that are formed between the child, the artist and the materials that are being used.

We would like to share one project, completed in 2014 as part of renovations to our service.  The making of our Leaf mosaics with Artist Helen Broadhurst began with the sharing of ideas and dreaming as we examined with children, a visual tool on the computer provided to us by the architect of the new space being created.

“It looks like train pistons.”

“It is a forrest of poles.”

“They are trees, but where are the leaves?”

This discussion created our direction, with a desire to make leaves for our poles in the new space.   Discussions between educators and the artist are an important starting point. The dialogue  forms a way of working; a sharing of ideas and visions.  We ask what sort of questions will we offer as provocations to the children?  What materials should we offer?  This planning has at its heart the beginnings of a relationship between all the stakeholders, educator, artist and the children.  We are extremely mindful at this stage to set the scene, to propose questions and to wonder where the children will take us on this journey.

Artists have a way of working that involves Process. It has been explained to us, that Process is  as a way of research exploration. An experimenting, a  researching and refining  to synthesise an idea until you get a point of reference that you find interesting.  These principles are similar to those we have in Early childhood environments, where our goal is to encourage an active thinking and study about the world.

kids working with an artist at Rainvow Valley Centre

So began our study into trees, leaves and what else could be discovered in our garden. We took our folders outside and examined trees, gathered and examined the details and patterns in the leaves. Helen encouraged us to draw and to notice. It is not enough just to draw the outline she showed us how to look at detail. As educators we took notes, recorded conversations and collected samples of drawings. As an artist Helen, started her relationship with children, ‘to see what the children see’, was a value that led the rest of the project.

During this period of drawing where the artist came and went for periods of time the Educators kept up this study by bringing leaves, bark  into the rooms for continual drawing.

artist and children collaboration at Rainbow Valley Learning Centre

Our next step was a collaboration with children and defining our design.  Helen and the children gathered their work.  They used a photocopier to blow up parts of drawings and to reduce others. The children were fascinated by this exploration of patterns that they had created. Together  the children and Helen dissected, played, arranged and made new patterns from their original drawings. Helen guided the children in a new way of seeing. A collaboration to make patterns they had observed in nature.

Children understand authenticity. The understanding that here is a master  a guide who can show us things.  A child commented in a previous project about our artist, “ she is a real artist, your the pretend one”- referring to an educator.  This understanding is pivotal as it  explains children’s attraction to realness – to the cook to the gardener to the fix it man – they  understand this apprenticeship, the being alongside,  the learning in the relationship that occurs in these situations.   In this context they understand the realness of the artist and what she is offering them.

“Cutting tiles is hard work.”  Seeing our pattens come to life before us is exciting. The children would visit, sit alongside Helen on a daily basis, they would “play ‘ with materials and make decisions together on the placement of the tiles.  Helen shared her special techniques and expertise. They had rich authentic discussions that were based in mutual respect. As the artist values time for exploration, she has no desire to hurry children through this process. The taking of time to play is crucial.  It is how we understand what to do.

So continued our project with the gradual revelation of our mosaics before our eyes. The daily uncovering of our designs.  New drawings were offered by the children as they found spaces for creatures that lived in the garden.  It was a pleasure as an educator to see the child run off to do  a drawing of a caterpillar that they had discovered was needed to fit a space into the design.

So what place does the educator hold in this authentic relationship between artists and children? They are the nexus that ensures the child is central to project, that their voice understandings and point of view is heard respected and valued.  Educators are in the rare position of learning to see differently, through the eyes of the artist and the child.  Helen taught us to slow down,  to ‘Listen’ and to enjoy the process of creation.

by Marion Hayes

Rainbow Valley Children and Teaching Team