“But if you’re making ice, you’re going to need water!”
So says a switched-on five year old at a recent Creative Fun for 2-5s workshop here at House of Illustration. Our facilitator Neysela da Silva-Reed has just informed a gaggle of toddlers that they’re going to be making iceberg islands out of paper and other materials, but this little one points out that that’s not going to cut it. Ney concedes – he’s quite right, but since this is a pretend iceberg, we’ll be ok with the collage version.
It’s one of a number of delightful moments in a monthly two-hour session designed specifically to introduce very young children to the gallery. Research indicates that getting under-fives through the doors of museums and galleries makes them much more likely to become lifelong visitors to cultural institutions. But we all understand how difficult this can be for parents. Little kids make noise, toddle around, want to touch things and can’t read the captions. Exhibitions are rarely designed for them.
Our education department is deeply committed to minimising barriers to accessing illustration and the arts, including those that make families with young kids feel unwelcome. Our Children and Families Producer, Grace Attlee, describes tackling the problem: “We were aware that gallery spaces can often feel formal and intimidating to parents with toddlers learning to walk, talk and explore. So we started to carve out a programme that would introduce families to illustration in the gallery and learning studio via observation activities, storytelling and making.”
Through research, feedback and collaboration with the brilliant and experienced gallery educator Neysela da Silva-Reed, Grace put together a pilot 2-5s programme early last year. “We were blown away by the initial response,” she says. “Sessions booked up quickly and got excellent feedback.” There was clearly an appetite for such an approach.
But why does this matter so much? “The years between the ages of two and five are crucial in a child’s development,” explains Grace. “This is the stage when they are learning how to communicate in a more sophisticated way and empathise with their peers, and being visually literate is essential to being a good communicator. By playing games, following illustrated narratives and making their own illustrations with their parents, the toddlers are developing confidence in both image-making and communicating with others around them.”
Creative Fun for 2-5s is a very visible success. All the tell-tale signs of engagement in very young children are present: the brows furrowed in concentration, the faces enraptured with Ney’s story-telling, the wide-eyed excitement and curiosity at being in this stimulating new environment. And the parents are catered for, too. Feedback from pilot sessions revealed the importance of clear communication, structured sessions balancing freedom to experiment with clear instructions and practical considerations like changing and feeding facilities. All were incorporated into the programme.
Ultimately, though, this is about the children. Ney is unequivocal. “Attention adults!” she announces. “My sessions are for the little ones, so if they want to scribble all over the paper then they are scribbling all over the paper!” And scribble they happily do. But Ney’s skill as a facilitator is in helping the kids make work they can be proud of. With her guidance, scribbles and crumples translate into artworks to take home: mixed-media works just like those on the gallery wall.