My involvement as a visual artist working with Cre8us/Creative Partnerships started in 2005 with their early years pilot project ‘Second Skin’ which explored and developed innovative ways in which creative learning environments can stimulate learning. At the outset, I was unaware of the significant impact it would have on my future creative practice, just relishing the chance to work collaboratively with eleven other artists from a range of art forms, alongside teachers and early years practitioners and children from five schools and a Children’s Centre in Coventry. We were offered two old classroom spaces (called ‘The Lab’) and our shared creative enquiry involved experimenting with ideas to create multi-sensory creative learning environments which could be adapted and transferred into early years settings. Groups of children played and tested out the environments and showed us their interests and ideas and what worked and what didn’t engage them. It was a big move away from more product-led conventional ways of working as a visual artist which generally involved me in workshop sessions in schools where children explored materials and made a piece of work which was often valued above the learning process.
It also opened up a whole new world of resourcing for creative environments and children’s play using more recycled, everyday, found and natural materials and objects which added meaning to my own, ongoing, enquiry into multi-sensory communication. Instead of acquiring workshop materials from art and craft suppliers, I was inspired by visits to recycling centres like WEAVE (www.weaverecycle.co.uk), charity shops and general scavenging!
A vital part of the shared ‘Second Skin’ approach involved observing and ‘listening’ to children, letting them lead, capturing the process through photos, film and written observations and reflecting using this documentation, which had always been integral in my work but which found new meaning in it’s power to show and share learning. The work was influenced by the internationally renowned Reggio Emilia Children’s Centres in Italy and the project enabled me and fellow artists and teachers to share a study visit to Reggio, an experience that has had a huge impact on my thinking and practice, particularly informing reflection and environment work.
The project work evolved into early years settings where I still had chance to work closely with other artists, including Tracie Farren (Theatre practitioner), Anna Ryder, (Musician and sound artist), Matt Shaw, (Structural Visual artist) and Louise Bardgett, (Movement and Dance practitioner). With the early years practitioners we took risks, shared skills and developed confidences together to try new things, learning most from things that didn’t work, but the process of reflection and documentation captured these learning moments and gave us evidence and confidence to share and learn.
Through the project I learnt much, especially about the value of time and commitment to building relationships with practitioners and a shared understanding of creative approaches to learning. There were times when things were tricky and highly challenging – when the work seemed to be going backwards, not forwards. These were often when new people joined the project or lacked the mutual understanding of what we were trying to do, such as times when staff would just look for tangible adult-led, art products as evidence of creativity, not seeing how the process had developed children’s confidence, creativity and learning across many areas of the curriculum. The Cre8us way of reflecting, documenting and evaluating offered vital evidence as well as informing us how to move on in our own learning journey. The journals and project documentation I have built up has provided a powerful tool to show and share my work.
The innovative nature of the ‘Second Skin’ project created wider interest and I was involved in showcasing the work across the Midlands, London and Manchester, providing opportunities to deliver cpd for practitioners as well as spreading the creative approaches to learning. It opened doors to many more years of collaborative early years work and gave me a supporting network of artists and practitioners who share the vision and have helped create opportunities to develop my early years specialism. This has led to work in many schools and children’s centres in Coventry, Leicester and across the Midlands, where collaboration with families has been an exciting development and new learning experience. It has involved working with families in ‘Stay and Play’ type groups as well as an especially memorable opportunity to work with Valley House Children’s Centre and artists Anna and Matt in creating a multi-sensory creative learning environment for children and families, called ‘The Cabin’. The chance to offer creative learning ideas which parents can take home and try out to extend children’s play and learning has been highly rewarding. Parent reflection – Looking back, I believe I have gained more ideas for more natural play and that pretty much anything is a learning activity.
The value and impact of the work persuaded Children’s Centres and Schools to find own funds to work with me (and other artists) as a creative partner. I have worked extensively with Radford and St Augustine’s Children’s Centres, Coventry, who now see me as part of their team. The chance to continue developing mutual practice has had many rewards – especially the collaborative nature, (compared to past, more isolated visual arts work). Also of great value is the ongoing relationship with a setting where you see practitioners’ (and parents’) confidence and creativity grow through what they do and say. Here, my role has evolved into one which is more like a critical friend.
At some point, part way through my involvement with Ce8us, I came to better see that this creative educational work is my practice and the collaborative making and ideas invested in the projects with other artists, practitioners, children and families is what I find most meaningful and rewarding as an artist and a person. This shared vision has driven me and fellow artists Anna Ryder, Matt Shaw and Louise Bardgett to set up ‘The Very Idea’, our artist collective to try and continue developing our practice by setting ourselves new challenges, experimenting and playing collaboratively with ideas and stuff, supporting each other and creating new work opportunities.
‘I know I’ve grown in my development about being in the garden, so I’m likely to be more creative in setting-up.’
An early years practitioner, Radford Children’s Centre, about developing outdoor environments.
‘It helped parents and children work together to act out the story in a fun way.’
A young parent, St Augustine’s Children’s Centre, about creative ways to bring children’s story books to life
Phone number: 01455 220081/ 07712 015232