by Catherine Schwarz (Educational Leader / Teacher – One World for Children, Geelong, Victoria) and Dr. Gai Lindsay (University of Wollongong).
Do you think you’re artistic? Do you feel confident to support children’s visual arts learning in early childhood settings? When it comes to planning visual arts learning experiences do you draw upon your own visual arts knowledge and skills? Maybe you rely on colleagues that you believe are more ‘arty’ than you? Or perhaps you trawl the internet and seek guidance in social media groups to come up with ideas to engage children in visual arts learning experiences?
This blog introduces you to a fabulous project undertaken by a team of early childhood educators at One World for Children in Geelong, Victoria. This project was not only designed to more deeply immerse children in high quality visual arts learning, but effectively supported the educators in the service to build their own visual arts skills and confidence. I first met Catherine Schwarz when we both attended the 7th International Arts in Early Childhood conference in the Kingdom of Bhutan in 2017, having earlier connected with Kitty and Melissa in the social media world. Catherine and I will connect again at the 8th conference to be held in Wellington, New Zealand in just a few days time. (For those interested in joining us for the 9th international gathering in 2021, subscribe to this blog and have a look at the International Art in Early Childhood website which also includes links to great articles by conference delegates.) We have all stayed in touch ever since and I continue to follow the exiting journey being undertaken at this fabulous early childhood service.
I am so encouraged by the story that Catherine Schwarz shares below because it directly exemplifies some of the key findings from my PhD research. Before Catherine shares her story, I describe some of my research findings to encourage you all to consider the ways you might also build the visual arts confidence and skills of yourself and your early childhood educational teams.
The confidence to make and teach art with children
Many early childhood educators lack confidence and content knowledge in the visual arts (Lindsay, 2015) . This lack of confidence and knowledge often drives practice where the experiences offered to children are more focused on entertainment and ‘keep-them-busy-and-happy’ activities rather than on meaningful, educational and intentional visual arts learning experiences. I wrote about some of these research findings in a 2016 article Do visual art experiences in early childhood settings foster educative growth or stagnation?
My research found that this lack of self-confidence is often the result of negative experiences in their own childhoods; either through lack of exposure to quality visual arts experience or sadly, through the well-meaning, but critical commentary by teachers and adults. Added to that, few of the participants in my study had clear or memorable recollection of their pre-service training. Most recalled coursework that tended to be a vague collection of art and craft activity ideas. Most participants noted that their training had not supported them to feel more personally confident with visual arts methods and techniques. Some even commented that their online degree had no visual arts coursework requirement or no practical, hands-on experiences with the visual arts.
Visual arts self-efficacy, whether high or low, is a theoretical term for the confidence you have to translate visual arts knowledge and skills into quality visual arts curricula for children. It relates to the mindset you hold toward the visual arts. It determines whether you see yourself as someone who can participate in, plan for and make art with children.
However, several participants in my study were able to overcome their own lack of efficacy and visual arts knowledge and skill to effectively plan for, engage in and support children’s learning in rich projects of inquiry where visual arts processes and techniques were central. The positive influences on educator confidence noted in one of my case study settings were based on intentional leadership, where the centre director prioritised the visual arts as a language and tool for meaning-making with children. This leader utilised the following strategies to build the confidence and the capacity of her team:
- Regular in-house and external professional development was planned for and undertaken to support the team to reflect on constructivist pedagogical approaches such as the exemplary Reggio Emilia educational project. Children are positioned as citizens with rights and capabilities. Both children and educators are positioned as co-learners and co-researchers rather than as teacher and student (this approach frees up the adult in the relationship to learn with and explore alongside children, rather than feel they have to be masters of an art technique or process). Additionally, a folder of useful articles and resources were available for staff orientation and also to share their approach with families.
- The visual arts, positioned as a connecting visual language within projects of inquiry, were embedded within a range of policy documents. This overtly positioned the arts as a curriculum priority and supported the team to regularly review their practice and discuss strategies for embedding arts methods within the curriculum.
- This leader modeled the use of visual arts materials and processes to her team. Through observing the ways she supported children’s agency and scaffolded learning through intentionally guiding and demonstrating skills and techniques, this team of educators embraced the notion that children build knowledge, confidence, skills and understanding when educators support children by observing and commenting on children’s processes, making art alongside children and modelling, equipping, scaffolding and problem solving with children.
- Quality materials and visual arts methods were offered regularly. Rather than offering a smorgasbord of ever-changing entertainment activities, visual arts methods were considered a language that required time and experience to master. As such there was no false assumption that children would become bored by repeated experience with materials. Instead children were respected and therefore provided with opportunities to build and extend their dialogue with materials in order to develop a relationship with the materials and to build their knowledge and skill regarding the affordances of the materials to make meaning, explore potential and communicate their ideas.
A New Mindset: Building confidence to make and teach art through the ‘Artist Apprentice’ project
by Catherine Schwarz
“I fear that I will struggle to express what it is I am trying to convey through my artwork.”
“I have never considered myself an ‘arty’ type of person”
“I’m happy to set up art for the children but I’m just not an artist.”
Many educators lack self-efficacy when it comes to art and their image of themselves as artists. This was the mindset of some educators as they began their journey as an ‘Artist Apprentice.’
One World for Children is a childcare centre, kindergarten and school-age service that is located in North Geelong, Victoria. I have worked at the centre for the past eleven years as the Kindergarten Teacher and Educational Leader.
The centre has used a novel, reality television inspired approach to inspire staff to challenge their mindset in regard to the visual arts curriculum within the centre. This journey began in 2016 when the first ‘Artist Apprentice’ project commenced. At the time I was a mentor for the program and accompanied some of the participants to a conference on ‘Art in Early Childhood’ in Bhutan. The Apprentice program and conference so inspired me that I decided I wanted to totally immerse myself in the next ‘Artist Apprentice’ program because I realised that I also had a similar mindset to other educators – I did not see myself as an artist.
Over the past year we have been working towards developing, supporting and embedding a collaborative and sustainable visual arts program within One World for Children. Kitty – part owner and artist – had an inspirational idea. She launched an “Artist Apprentice’ game (based on the reality TV show Celebrity Apprentice) in 2016 and again in 2018 put a call out for educators to play a part in realising this vision, along with art consultants and mentors. These ‘apprentices’ have explored a range of visual arts methods, working on challenges that involved themselves and the children.
Melissa Underwood is an Art consultant who runs art therapy programs at One World for Children. She also wrote the Art Guides that the educators used to develop their knowledge and skills. (Those interested in further reading may like to access the fabulous book, ‘Becoming with Art in Early Childhood’ edited by Dr. Red Ruby Scarlett which includes a chapter written by Melissa.)
We focused on four areas :
If we are to help children develop confidence with the use of a variety of art mediums then we need to become confident ourselves with art mediums, tools, techniques and processes related to drawing.
As educators we are there to support, appreciate and understand the developmental stages and at times challenge their thinking. We researched pedagogy relating to drawing such as the meaning of scribbles, the language you should use to scaffold and guide children in their work.
I made use of pastels, grey-leads, charcoal and other mediums to explore different elements of drawing and then presented these to the children. I found I was more aware of the resources the children were given; Are the greyleads sharpened? Are there enough pastels? What can the children do if they don’t like how charcoal gets on their hands? I also found that I was joining in more with the art making process and having more of a dialogue with the children as we worked. A highlight was the use of “Sgraffito’ where the children used layers of pastels and then scratched off the superficial layer with a toothpick.
It is important for us to understand the benefits and meaning the children create through their artworks – it allows children to communicate what they see and allows them to speak without words. We used selected imagery and introduced terms and techniques such as line, shape, shade and dimension.
Mixed Media is such a fun and messy way to explore art materials and processes. It all began with a Gelli-Plate workshop that showed the educators how to make images with stencils, layering with positive and negative and mark-making. This was a new experience for us and one we happily shared with the children, making fantastic patterns and pictures. The excess Gelli-print paper did not go to waste with much of it being re-used as collage paper. For information about Gelli-printing materials and processes link to Gelli Arts information here.
Collage was a major component of our mixed media exploration with the children eagerly collecting and collating images/colour blocks/textured paper for the art shelves. Collage became a ‘go to’ art medium for the children and many stories were told through these art pieces. This was supported by a trip to the Geelong Art Gallery to see an exhibition called ‘Reimagine’ which looked at the world of children’s books through art. We also worked on fluid art paintings and sculptures.
What is fun about mixed media is that there is no right or wrong so our art shelves became rich with items brought in from our children’s homes, collected from around the centre and found objects. Sequins found in a drawer were picked up with glee! This allowed the children to create at their own pace. We encouraged this creativity by role modelling different techniques and designs.
Indigenous Art and Culture
A goal was to deepen knowledge about Indigenous Australian culture and art for ourselves and for the children. We completed a range of readings and online workshops to extend the educators’ knowledge and to support them to share meaningfully with the children. This knowledge helped us to lead discussions and plan experiences to promote children’s understandings about what ‘Indigenous’ means to them.
The children were exposed to Indigenous Australian symbols, imagery and stories via puzzles, books, card games, conversations, music and visual arts. The children in the Kindergarten group explored Aboriginal storytelling culture when a drama group visited the centre and dramatized the story of ‘Tiddalick the Frog.’ We also visited the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre. During this excursion the children recognised imagery and symbols, animal track marks and similarities in the artworks that were around the grounds of the centre. We also identified many Indigenous Australian pieces located around our early childhood centre, including the Rainbow Serpent sculpture on our playground fence.
The educators were involved in a Professional Development day with Raymond Walters; an indigenous Aboriginal artist. This was a great hands-on way to explore Indigenous Australian Art through our own lens.
The children explored Aboriginal Art through sand work, clay work, gelli-plate printing and storytelling with imagery and paint. We also created an ‘Acknowledgement to Country’ that was developed in collaboration with the children and families in the centre and the local indigenous community. This Acknowledgement is now referred to on a daily basis.
All of the work we had done in 2018 culminated in an art exhibition – ‘Seeing Scribbles.’ The exhibition showcased the amazing work the educators and children had wondered, imagined, inquired, explored and communicated using visual arts languages. Every ‘Artist Apprentice’ felt that they had a better understanding and appreciation of children’s art in its many forms. We also felt that our mindset was more about enriching and inspiring the creative minds of our children to express themselves artistically in ways meaningful to them.
And the growth continues!
Selected educators have now been sponsored by One World for Children to attend the biennial International Art in Early Childhood conference that is taking place in New Zealand in January 2019. The aim is for these participants (of which I am luckily one) to engage in a wide variety of workshops, presentations and hands-on art play that will help support, develop and enrich their arts practice with children.
Thanks again to Catherine for sharing the story of the learning journey undertaken at One World for Children in Geelong. Like the participants in my research (and the educators at One World for Children) who were able to build upon their own lack of confidence and extend their knowledge in the visual arts domain, I encourage you to do the thing you fear! As Vincent Van Gogh urged, once you start and do you will silence the voice that assumes you cannot. I therefore urge you to explore, play, draw, paint, learn and you will soon believe that you CAN!
- To start your own journey of team reflection, you can access a professional development module I developed for Early Childhood Australia called “Visual arts and creativity in your curriculum”
- The booklet, “Joy and Mess” written by my friend and colleague Jill Talbot is also a great resource to start thinking about the exciting possibilities of quality visual arts practice with young children.
Dr. Gai Lindsay