Artists are working in libraries and children’s centres with mentoring from national and international artists to develop their creative practice for babies and their families. They empower staff and families with confidence and enthusiasm for sustained creative engagement with their babies.
Rhona Matheson, Starcatchers
Playground is an example of genuine community engagement practice for our youngest children and the adults who care for them… it is clear that a new model of creative engagement for the very young is emerging in Kent and there is much we can learn from the work…
Kent County Council is committed to the United Nations Rights of the Child Article 31 that all children have the right to access high-quality cultural activity.
It is widely recognised that the first three years of life are the most critical having a lasting impact on a child's ability to learn and succeed in school and life. It is therefore hard to understand how the zero to twos are so undervalued and why the emphasis in terms of early years learning is most often on age three plus.
The Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP in forward to ‘The Best start for life – a vision for the first 1001 days’ government report
Two is too late! We spend billions on challenges in society from lack of school readiness to bullying to poor mental health to addictions and criminality; and further billions on conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and congenital heart disease. Yet, the building blocks for lifelong emotional and physical health are laid down in the period from conception to the age of two and we don’t give this critical period the focus it deserves.
Our aspiration to develop and expand Playground grew following the delivery of a successful Arts Council England (ACE) funded pilot in 2019. It was an introduction to the arts for many local families taking place in four areas of higher deprivation where communities may not have perceived that creativity is relevant to them.
Since then, families with babies born during lockdown have been significantly affected by the pandemic with no or limited social contact other than with their immediate families. This identified a particular need to focus on those lockdown babies for the next phase of Playground.
Investment through KCC’s pandemic recovery Reconnect programme and Arts Council England bridge organisation, Artswork, enabled a ten-month programme of Playground across the whole county of Kent delivered in Libraries and Children’s Centres.
Playground seeks to inspire disadvantaged young children and their families by immersing them and those who care for them in creative activity that is deeply engaging, transformative and of the highest quality.
Artists have the opportunity to develop their practice and achieve further gains in confidence. Collaboration with other artists is key, and the artists are excited by the possibility of co-creating inspirational work, as well as developing their own creative practice with babies in the current phase, and older children and those with complex needs in subsequent phases. By working collaboratively and with interdisciplinarity, it is the aspiration of the Playground artists that creative work with early years can not only become commonplace but also beautiful and of the highest quality.
Library staff are also crucial to the success of the Playground project and work alongside the artists and mentors developing their own creative practice as appropriate, as well as growing confidence and greater understanding of effective engagement with children and their families.
The impact (including cost savings and income generated if applicable)
The impacts are significant and evaluation is ongoing. Reflection time is built into every session to ensure best practice is captured and the artists have developed a set of principles to guide each session which include guidance around:
- Learn to adapt: there are different ways to be responsive, they can let the babies ‘take the lead’ according to ages and abilities.
- Learn to slow down: trust the babies, respond to them and their ‘play’, a realisation that the more space the babies are given the better the experience.
- Develop confidence in spontaneity: the experimental nature of the sessions will help artists to become more confident in the spontaneous elements of their practice.
- Co-creating rather than teaching/performing: the artists will discover that offering artistic suggestions rather than ‘teaching’ will enable parents and carers to create their own ‘play’ with their child rather than just copying the artists.
- Playfulness: artists understand the value of being more ‘playful’ in their practice.
Nicola Flower, Playground Lead Artist
As an artist, it is the most meaningful and extraordinary work which takes my practice back to the very beginning of its purest form.
Family feedback is powerful:
I just get lost in play with her, which is what’s really nice. Enjoy special time engaging with her. I just lose myself with her, there’re no distractions.
This is very different and is the only one I feel comfortable coming to as a dad
The session is very different and unexpected, I have to say. My baby and I just loved it. It was just to be in a different world really- a world where mother and baby could find each other.
Our research partner, the University of Kent have observed that in a relatively short space of time the artists have developed confidence in working with 0–24-month-old babies, recognising first-hand the importance and impact of working creatively with this age group, have learnt to trust the babies as co-creators of creativity, and learnt to trust themselves as artistic practitioners.
And, our international feedback to date excites us for the future:
Siri Dybwik and Nils Christian Fossdal (Dybiwk Dans, Norway)
Playground is for us a project that through artistic interaction helps to highlight the importance of an empathic togetherness and where both parents and children are given an opportunity to develop good qualities. Early intervention is crucial to how the rest of one's life will be, art can play a significant role in such thinking. We hope this project will continue, it could be an important and new way of understanding art in relation to children and families.
How is the new approach being sustained?
Our focus to date has been on babies aged 0-24 months from a wide and diverse range of backgrounds, immersing them and those who care for them in creative activity that is deeply engaging, transformative and of the highest quality. The current phase runs until June 2022.
We wish to sustain the current activity but also develop the project to engage two to five-year-olds and children with complex needs. We have applied for further investment from ACE for activity until March 2023. Longer-term, we plan to submit an application to be recognized as an ACE National Portfolio Organisation.
We have learned that Playground is an organic process led by babies and the development is iterative, we need to be flexible and adaptable to ensure the highest quality experience for all those involved.
Jeremy Harrison, Playground Lead Artist
The babies seem to take you deeper into your practice - as if they are the real artists and we just need to follow their lead.
Beatrice Prosser-Snelling, Artswork
The overall effect was that of an organic, evolving creative session where babies responded to and made sound, played with everyday objects, and interacted with artists and their parents/carers. It was very impactful to see communication other than speech being centred and promoted, and the range of non-verbal communication engaged in by everyone in the session was remarkable