Supporting your youngest children’s creativity needn’t be a stressful experience, says Ann Clare…
We all talk about creativity, but perhaps we do not all have the same understanding of what we mean by the term. Is it painting? Is it writing? Is it singing a song or is it designing a building? Because of this abstractedness, many adults feel vulnerable when ‘doing’ creativity with babies and young children. When considering this area, adults working with the very youngest children need to consider how they are creating environments that give opportunities to explore, experiment, use imagination and develop curiosity about the world around them. Often, adults prefer to rely on methods that have a structure and generate an end product.
In the EYFS, creativity is one of the specific areas of learning; it is labelled ‘Expressive Arts and Design’ and has aspects entitled ‘Exploring and using media and materials’ and ‘Being imaginative’. This needs looking at in detail before thinking about what experiences are going to be offered to enable children to express their individuality through a range of forms. The document recognises that babies and toddlers need to be given experiences where they can explore in safety with their bodies and all of their senses and where the adults will “Accept wholeheartedly young children’s creations and help them to see them as something unique and valuable” (Development Matters, Birth to 26 months).
Despite this guidance, practitioners are often keen to ensure that the product of children’s creativity is perfect and recognisable; I am frequently frustrated when I visit nurseries and find that while the display in the baby room purports to be the work of the babies, it is sometimes worthy of a member of the Royal Academy. Such displays need to show the experiences that the baby has had and not a ‘piece of work’.
Things are changing, however, and I do see displays where parents can appreciate the learning of their babies as they see photographs of them exploring and investigating. Referring back to Development Matters the adult needs to “Provide a wide range of materials, resources and sensory experiences to enable children to explore colour, texture and space”. This exploration needs to be with all of the senses. When I go into rooms and the babies are stripped down to their nappies covered in paint, I know that they are exploring with their senses as they make marks on the paper, and laugh and squeal with delight. It means offering experiences that are relevant; why get babies to paint blocks of orange, red and brown, cut them into leaf shapes and stick them on an adult-made tree when you want them to explore autumn? Why not fill large trays with leaves that rustle and crackle, are shiny, dull and matt and smell of the fresh outdoors? This will give these children a first-hand experience of the season and one that they will relate to when they go outside to kick or crawl among the piles of leaves that an adult has gathered together.
Often, when we as adults think back to our childhoods we can remember someone singing to us, and perhaps that is what we expect to find when we go into day nurseries. The more time I spend in the very youngest rooms, however, the more I am surprised that I do not actually hear a lot of spontaneous singing. This could be that practitioners are nervous and shy about singing in front of me, but I think it is more than that. This space for singing has now been replaced by visiting professionals who come to perform rhyme and action singing with the children, a lot of the time using recorded music as an accompaniment. But this is no substitute for the live voice, and does not help babies and toddlers to see and hear themselves that singing doesn’t always have to be perfect.
Practitioners also need to have confidence in giving babies and toddlers instruments to explore and experiment with sound and not be too worried about the noise levels; these are all about the support that the adult gives to model how to experiment with sound in a meaningful and constructive manner. The resources for many of the musical activities shared with babies and toddlers are close at hand – their bodies, or as Letters and Sounds refer to it, Body Percussion. We have all seen a baby being amazed at the sound of his clapping hands, the sound that his first shoes make when he toddles across the room or the first time he puts on a pair of Wellingtons and goes puddle jumping.
I recently went with an 18-month-old into a tent where a group of four musicians were playing jazz. In his privileged view of the world, high on his father’s back, this baby spontaneously started to move his head in time to the beat of the music, then hold his arms up and begin to sway before clapping. The look on his face was of awe and wonder, as the surroundings not only appealed to his aural senses; the smell of the barbecuing fish and the warmth and darkness of the tent all went to make this a complete sensory experience, one which this child will recall in his creative play sometime in the future.
Music for children does not have to be complicated, but it does need to be experienced if children are going to have a feeling of the sense of rhythm and rhyme which will help them develop critical skills for reading.
When babies are sitting up, the experiences offered by a treasure basket provide them with the opportunity to not only take control of what is going to happen but also to explore open-ended resources that do not have a specific function. One of the fundamental rules of the treasure basket is for the adult to sit alongside and to support but not to intervene or interfere: something which we as adults find very difficult. So, when the baby picks up the wooden spoon and the metal plate we do not need to model banging the spoon on the plate to make a sound; if the baby wants to do this he will, but then again he may decide that he will look at his reflection and bang the spoon on the floor. It is his decision and his opportunity to take control and be innovative in his play. This open-ended play encourages imagination and thinking skills, something which the plastic toy – which only has one function and purpose – will not do. Babies who engage with treasure baskets will become involved and will persevere in their play for long periods of time – the perfect opportunity for the adult to do some observations. As babies reach their second year, it is appropriate to extend this play by offering heuristic play sessions. (See Goldschmied and Jackson, 2004).
Perhaps it is because they do not have to produce something from imaginative or representational play that adults are much happier offering this kind of play to children. Still, many adults in baby and toddler rooms persist in offering what I refer to as a ‘dumbed down’ version of what is on offer in the preschool room. For very small babies, practitioners need to go back to their knowledge of what babies like to do: they like to look at faces, so mirrors are an important resource and are doubly useful because as the baby becomes a toddler, the mirror can be used to look at what they have dressed up in.
For the baby and toddler, offering open-ended real utensils such as pans with whisks and wooden spoons, so that they can copy what they have seen their parents do in the kitchen, is enough for the child to begin representing real life within his play. When it comes to dressing up, think of the effort, time and, frequently, tears that go into putting costumes on young children who haven’t mastered the skill of dressing yet. We need to stop providing sophisticated clothes and instead offer a variety of hats, bags, purses, wallets, scarves and lengths of fabric that can be anything the child wants them to be.
Ann Clare is an early years consultant and the author of Creating a Learning Environment for Babies and Toddlers.