Art inside, outside and all around: Children as visible and engaged citizens

Ruth Harper – East West Childcare and Kindergarten, Melbourne, Australia

Introduction by Dr Gai Lindsay

Children are citizens in their communities and have the same rights as all citizens to visit, experience and be seen (and heard) in public spaces, including public transport, libraries, museums and exhibitions. The convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to experience cultural and artistic life in their communities (Article 31, UNCRC).  

As a scholar of the Reggio Emilia approach, I value the notion of making children’s learning visible in the community. While this belief may lead to the display of children’s work in documentation and even public exhibitions of children’s artworks, the potential to make children’s learning visible through excursions into public spaces is less common. Some might wrongly assume children are too young to appreciate the work and objects displayed in galleries and museum spaces. Others may think that children don’t know how to “behave” in such spaces or that they might make too much noise or disrupt the experience of other (usually adult) visitors. However, those who exercise an image of the child as capable and agentic learners embrace the opportunity, not only to afford children the SAME opportunity and RIGHT to visit their own publics spaces (they are citizens after all!), but to afford the broader community the opportunity to delight in observing children as active citizens – the opportunity to show the community the wonder, delight and rich learning of children in the community.

This blog tells a story about art making and art appreciation experienced by the children and staff at East West Childcare and Kindergarten.

Thanks to Ruth Harper for sharing this story of the visible and engaged citizens who experience rich arts engagement both inside and outside of their early education service.

About East West

East West is a cooperative of children, staff, and parents, working together in supportive partnership to share knowledge, skills, and ideas, learning from, and teaching each other. As a community of equals we have a strong focus on social and environmental justice, equity, and inclusion. We understand that a sense of place is vital to a sense of belonging and acknowledge the Aboriginal People of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the unceded land on which we work and play. We believe we have a responsibility to walk together with Aboriginal people to redress the ongoing impact of the wrongs of the past. We understand that children have an inherent connection with nature and strive to foster their sense of belonging, care, respect, and responsibility for the environment.  

Thoughtful, sustained conversation between all members of our community is a cornerstone of our practice as it fosters a sense of security and mutual respect and supports creative thinking and self-directed learning, in the form of play. Play is the ‘business of childhood’, and we strive to allow children the space and freedom to explore and learn at their own pace, enabling them to become self-motivated, resilient, independent life-long learners. A shared sense of fun and mutual love of learning enables children and staff to play, work and learn alongside each other, regardless of age, background, or ability.  Read more about East West on their website.

An Early Childhood teacher, I’ve been learning from and with young children and their families for 30-something years. Twenty of those years have been here at East West. I’m always asking “why” and wondering if things can be done differently or done better. Trusting children and being unafraid to take risks has led to some extraordinary adventures. As a coordinator and educational leader, I relish the opportunities to advocate for children and families and to support children to become active members of their community.

Ruth Harper


In our daily practice, we make art both inside and outside using all sorts of materials. 

We have a large table that we regularly paint and draw directly on. We also love to paint underneath the other tables, just like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. 

We’ve have had some of our artworks (including a painted table!) displayed in an exhibition.

We listen to all kinds of different music. We love dancing and sometimes we delight in dancing and painting at the same time. See a video made about our art and our dance painting on our website.

Going out into the community to see and experience art is not a new experience for our early childhood education and care community. We notice street art when we are out and about. In fact, several years ago we participated in our very own street art project. Everyone, including the youngest children and their teachers contributed a piece of art for a collaborative street art project just around the corner from our service.

We have KinderArt every week which is a very special, even sacred, time. During KinderArt we sit together, listen to music without words and paint or draw without any talking. It is a space to just be with the art, to create, to experiment, to discover.

During Covid, when people couldn’t come inside, we painted the front of East West and hung up our art works to share with our parents and all the people walking by, and we thought that seeing art would make people feel “so happy that they would always smile” M, 4 years old. We especially loved it when people would stop and talk to us about our paintings and drawings and collages.

Visiting galleries – we are citizens!

Over the years we have regularly visited both the NGV and Ian Potter galleries. These are usually relaxed low-key visits where we wander around and just see what we can discover….Sometimes our discoveries have been huge vividly coloured Aboriginal art. On another occasion the children were fascinated with looped videos of balloons popping, and bricks toppling-domino style- through an unnamed town, until the final brick tipped over the edge of the boardwalk and splashed into the sea [I think we watched that one about six times!]

We’ve even caught the train to Geelong to see an exhibition and eat fish and chips on a boat (because….why not?!). 

And we caught multiple buses to visit the Heide Museum to see the Mirka Moira exhibition and marvel at the pieces in the sculpture garden. One time someone stood right in front of us when we were looking at an art piece – but we solved that problem too!

The RONE exhibition

The upper level of Melbourne’s Flinders Street station is a space of almost mythic proportions. Generally closed to the public, the opportunity to see – and to inhabit – this space was one not to be missed. Upon hearing that the artist Rone was transforming a series of rooms on the third floor, we jumped at the opportunity to take the kinder children on an excursion of appreciation and wonder..

Link here to see more images of the RONE exhibition

We understand that art is “special and important” and that sometimes the artist, whether child artist or professional artists doesn’t  want other people to touch their work.  We know that in galleries you can’t touch the art either. In fact, you’re not even allowed to touch the glass cases that the art is in. This can be so difficult when the art is so amazing and you really want to know what it feels like.

At the Rone exhibition this was even harder because the artwork is not hanging on a wall or in a glass box. At Rone’s exhibition, Time, the artwork was literally everything in the space. It surrounded us as we walked through the exhibition.  As one five year old, A, said “it’s like we’re part of it – we’re inside the painting.”Another described it as being “like a movie.”

There was so much to see, so much to discover, beautiful music to hear, so much to wonder about and so many questions:

  • Who left that train there under the desk?
  • Why didn’t they want it anymore?
  • Are lamps making the music work or is the music making the lamps turn on and off?
  • Who reads all of these books? (in the library)
  • Why is that Lady painted everywhere?
  • Why does she look sad?
  • Is she sad?
  • How can all those wires and plugs be a telephone?
  • Who ate that cake?
  • Why didn’t they wash the dishes?

The children were so deeply engaged. Yet, unlike the adults in the room, the children didn’t stop to question the logistical details of the exhibition. While fascinating for  the adults, it didn’t seem to occur to the children to wonder what a huge, vine covered greenhouse was doing inside an old ballroom above the station, or how it came to be there.  It just was. It was part of the magic, part of the “movie.” But despite being fully immersed in the experience, the children managed to respect the installation, resisting the urge to touch even though everything was so accessible and inviting. The items which comprised the installations were so ordinary, it was sometimes hard to remember that this was art and not just magical spaces containing real life objects.

The visit to the Rhone exhibition was our last excursion in 2022. Unfortunately, there wasn’t the opportunity for us to see how the children might have incorporated this experience into their artwork at kinder -although there was certainly a lot of discussion about it!

We’re planning to take the 2023 kinder children to see the exhibition in March 2023 so it will be really interesting to see what influence this might have on their practice.

A final note from Gai:

I love the way Ruth asks “why not?”

ALL children (and all educators) have the right to get out into the community, not only to be inspired by the work of artists, but to appreciate and make art in their own communities.

Children’s voices matter…their opinions matter….and their ART matters!

ALL children and educators have the right to respond to the work of artist and to make and exhibit their work.

Making children visible in their community is an act of ADVOCACY and ACTIVISM – it tells the community that children are equal citizens with the same right to attend an exhibition as any other member of the community. It says – “we matter.”

Thanks to the staff children and families at East West Childcare and Kindergarten for sharing the images in this blog.

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