During the academic year 2002 - 2003 I was privileged to be involved in a new project, the brainchild of the City of Nottingham's Early Years team entitled 'Art in the Foundation Stage'. It was an exciting and rewarding time for me and I would like to take this opportunity of sharing something of the feel of it with fellow professionals.
In the summer of 2002 early years providers, from both maintained and non-maintained settings, were invited to join a project investigating the role and importance of Art in the Foundation Stage. Finally a total of 25 settings were selected, largely from the maintained sector, and invited to an inaugural meeting to discuss the nature of the project and the way forward.
At this stage, I was not personally involved, my then Manager being very keen on the idea herself. However, after the meeting she decided she would need to delegate as it required rather more in terms of time commitment than she was able to give, so I was invited to become involved. Lucky me!
Practitioners were asked to select a minimum of five and a maximum of ten pieces of artwork from children within the Foundation Stage for each of the meetings. These works should be representative of aspects they considered relevant or demonstrating some vital part of the role of art or creativity. We were asked to bring our selections along to each one of three termly meetings throughout the duration of the project. Each piece had to be accompanied by a specified commentary, including background and significant information. All works were retained for final inclusion. We were at liberty to add anything else we wanted, many of us did!
The first meeting had focused on groundwork. The ideas and boundaries of the project were discussed and set, with discussion of current practice and general views on art and aspirations for the project.
The expectations were summarised by the Early Years team and included opportunities to:
- Explore personal and professional development in terms of obtaining a better understanding of creativity
- Share ideas with other practitioners within the group
- Evaluate their own provision regarding techniques and skills offered, resource management and organisational strategies
- Analyse learning and progression within art
- Raise the profile and understanding of art with other colleagues and parents
- Explore cross-curricular opportunities and develop a cohesive strand of art across the foundation Stage
- See children's artwork professionally presented (*)
At the same time, considerations regarded as important included an understanding of child development; child-initiated activities, with a balance between those and adult-initiated; differentiation; independence and opportunities to revisit experiences being made available.
Later meetings revolved around opportunities to view each other's examples very informally, with lots of time for discussion, comparison and note taking. During this time, we also viewed photographs of processes; exchanged associated ideas or information, such as 'recipes' for unusual media (my own, for 3-D paint, was very well received, I'm gratified to say!); ideas for simple, child-friendly planning sheets or just simply practical tips! We also had some very pleasant lunches! After this initial part of each meeting we gathered to discuss what we had seen today, with practitioners having the opportunity to select one of their pieces for some more in-depth group discussion.
This part of the process I personally found initially extremely daunting, but once started, it was easy to put over one's feelings and comments, the atmosphere fast proving one of relaxed and positive sharing. To finish, we were asked at each session-end to write a few points regarding how we felt at each stage. These included lessons learnt and possible next steps. At this time, also, suggestions began to develop as to how the project might finalise itself.
Guidance developed from these meetings was helpful in focussing our forward steps both during the rest of the project and onwards through our enhanced later practice. It included a range of teaching and learning issues including:
- the balance between child-initiated and teacher initiated activities;
- planning for progress;
- meeting different needs including; cultural, gender and special needs;
- developing questioning techniques;
- using peer coaching;
- developing independence;
- cross-curricular issues;
- the outdoor curriculum and art ' (*)
An aspect I have long been interested in was that of focussing on developing questioning techniques. In my experience, new or inexperienced practitioners can often struggle with this technique, and it has been something I have concentrated on as both an NVQ Assessor and Tutor for the Pre-school Learning Alliance.
For instance, questions asked before, during and after an activity will necessarily differ. Initially you will be establishing children's basic understanding of what they are about to do, how they will do it and what they will have, hopefully, achieved when they have finished. During the activity questioning will be more aimed at their understanding of what is happening, why they are doing something and, maybe, why it is going in an unanticipated direction! After the activity it will be directed towards reflecting on what they have been doing and may have learnt as well as what they found most interesting and/or enjoyable (or not!), developing valuable reasoning and evaluating skills.
A common misconception amongst less experienced practitioners is that adult intervention is always a good thing. Too often a child who is happily absorbed in play with perfectly acceptable aims and agendas can be brought up short by inappropriate questioning, maybe with the subsequent loss of impetus towards an independent 'Eureka moment'. So it's always a good idea to observe play carefully before intervening, to ensure this is appropriate. (This can be a valuable tool in cases of disputes, to give the protagonists the opportunity to find their own solutions.)
Knowing WHY we are asking questions is important. If we wish to test recall, simple questions such as 'How many cakes were there?' are sufficient. If we want to help the children think about what is going on, possible alternatives, scenarios and feelings, we might say 'But what if Joe doesn't like carrot cake?' and other such questions to encourage independent, further thinking. We need to consider whether what we are asking will help that child to develop their knowledge, will it expand on the value of the experience and help the child to experience deeper thinking opportunities. Do we actually know why we are asking questions, here and now?
We were referred to an article 'Asking better questions' in Practical Pre-school by Margaret Sutherland, a lecturer in support for learning at Glasgow University.
Supporting information was also made available, for both practitioner's personal use and for sharing with parents to back up the importance of art and creativity which was by now becoming so important to each of us. This material included the transcript of a talk given by Marion Dowling, entitled 'How Young Children Learn' and copies of a Nursery World Article, 'A Parent's Guide to Creative Development'.
Our last meeting focussed on Creativity itself and a stimulating discussion on the nature and importance of creativity remains one of my most heady memories of the project!
Involvement in this project, and this discussion of creativity in particular, helped me most, I think, in terms of giving me time away from the hurly-burly of everyday concerns, in a supportive and rich atmosphere. This time apart, with like-thinking practitioners, their ideas, comments and examples of sometimes inspirational work gave me the opportunity to review my own deeply held commitment to Art, imagination and creativity as a vitally important aspect of young children's learning. I was able to reconsider how I approached every area of the children's learning, and to begin to formulate new ways of approaching this, hopefully in more interesting, entertaining and child-relevant ways. I still feel I am at a fairly early stage with this, but find it stimulating and challenging and would welcome the comments and reflections of those members and visitors of the Foundation Stage Forum that choose to read this article.
One of the most exciting aspects for me was the cross-curricular nature of Art in the outdoors environment. Simple activities such as making streamers or mobiles for the trees naturally encompassed problem solving of various kinds, such as the most appropriate methods of fixing and fastening component parts. Consideration of the effects of wind and weather; the possible effects on birds and wildlife; sharing out equipment and resources; working together harmoniously to achieve a common aim, all fostered the children's development across many areas of learning. Whilst planning for a more stimulating and exciting environment (indoors and out), with the children as active participants, made this very much the children's own setting, in the widest way.
The project came to a satisfying end with the professional-style exhibiting of selected pieces of art arising from the project. Any pieces which were not selected for display in the actual exhibition were mounted in portfolios (or photographs were used, if too large or 3-D) and also photographed for a continuously running slideshow display which was also part of the exhibition.
The exhibition was housed in the Nottingham City Council House, running from 1 st July 2003 to 4 th July 2003, following a civic opening (with press!) on the evening of 30 th June. I was a guide for the first day of the exhibition, which was an exciting and very interesting experience.
The exhibition was mainly aimed at schools and early years settings, with parents and the general public were also invited.
A local artist was brought on board for advice as to the mounting and presentation of the art works, an inspired move, as children (both those involved and visitors) were visibly impressed by the effect such treatment wrought on the pieces. As were we practitioners!
The exhibition consisted of:
- a display explaining the project process;
- a slideshow of all the works resulting from the project;
- four sections of artworks - Landscape, Still Life, Abstract, Models;
- an area where visitors could make their own pictures for temporary display nearby;
- a storytelling area where children could have a break from the pictures if they felt the need. I spent some of my time here as 'storyteller', a really enjoyable experience, as the children were all extremely receptive.
A reflection on the project
The project yielded some very interesting results. The importance of cross-curricular learning became very clear from an early stage, with comment after practitioner comment touching upon this aspect. Examples such as a lack of space on the paper leading to the expedient of attaching another piece, or the independent recognition of an 'unfinished' appearance leading to re-evaluation, until the answer could be found. My own example, below, of the child making his own version of 'Starry Night', led to this sort of moment. There was a significant increase in the use of the art works to record and document events in children's experiences. As the project continued children were observed to revisit skills acquired at other times in different contexts to improve and inform the way they later chose to execute work e.g. measuring and cutting to size to make frames. A lovely picture from the exhibition shows how one child explored colour by selecting runny paint and allowing the colours to drip and run together, observing how they all 'went down', painting a block of thicker colour at the bottom, to form a sort of 'barrier'.
Elements of peer coaching were strong, with children initially being referred by practitioners to other children, who had some knowledge of techniques, leading to the children identifying independently other children they had seen doing what they wanted to try, leading to an approach for assistance.
The role of the practitioner was also re-defined through this project, consisting of an understanding of the process of young children's learning; the necessity for a sound subject knowledge and the provision of planning and organisation to reflect these previous points.
Personally, this has been a truly worthwhile experience. It afforded we practitioners an opportunity to step back from our everyday duties and focus, for a short time, on different aspects. Many interesting points arose, not least of which was the reiteration of the interconnected nature of childrens' learning and development! The value of art and creativity in encouraging learning, independence and confidence building has been brought home to us time and time again, with many examples of peer coaching and 'eureka - moments'.
My own particular favourite memory is that of a child who had his fair share of challenging behaviour, becoming totally engrossed in his study of Van Gogh's 'Starry Night', then reproducing it with loving care and attention to detail. He had to be persuaded to leave it for a while to have his lunch, and would not budge until he had completed the work to his own satisfaction. He sat for some time with a thoughtful expression, comparing his picture to the original print, before picking up his brush to add the 'halo' around his moon. I could have wept for joy for this child when his beautiful piece was selected for display in the exhibition! Somehow it seemed so fitting, given the difficulties he had experienced during preceding months and his surprise and joy when he was told the news was wonderful to behold.
The aims of the project with regard to equal and open sharing were also an inspiration. Something so easy to lay claim to could easily have fallen at the first post, but it says a lot for those involved and the organisation, that this noble aim was more than achieved. Many of the practitioners have kept in touch, some have visited each other's settings (which varied quite considerably) and all have benefited from the open sharing and discussion, which happened throughout. If I might quote from a fellow participant on the project, who has summed it up to perfection, 'What I have found so uplifting is, all this has taken place, right from the start, in an atmosphere of mutual support with a complete lack of competitive edge.' *
The project and the exhibition are over. However, the resources remain with the Nottingham City Early Years Team. They have been used as the basis for a conference 'Let them be Creative' at the East Midlands Conference Centre, at a conference at Stockton on Tees in October and another at Nottingham Trent University. They have been available for use in local schools and for any interested parties from further afield.
The participants themselves continue to meet on a termly basis, but now it is in a desire to foster the spirit of openness and support still further and to continue the rich exchange of ideas and information so well started during that memorable year.
There is a very interesting book produced by the Early Years Team, from which I have quoted, which I heartily recommend! If anyone is interested in obtaining a copy of Art in the Foundation Stage or accessing the exhibition materials, the telephone number to use is 0115 9150754. This will get you through to Ruth, secretary to Caroline Field, one of the Early Years consultants heading the project. All enquiries will be warmly received.
As yet there is no dedicated online area, however I have raised the possibility of remedying this with the organisers, as I think there would be a lot of interest and feel that it deserves a wider audience.
* All quotations from 'Art in the Foundation Stage', produced by the City of Nottingham Education Department, price £10.00.