Working it Out at the Workshop

I am a big fan of the workshop model of cultural experience, particularly when it comes to visual arts. This is mostly to do with the fact that, despite my interest, I am uniquely incompetent with a crayon and, worse, more impatient than my two-year old. Over the last two weeks I have been to two different workshops with my boys, both in public institutions, one free and one paid. Both were centered on the same theme, but the difference between the two was so marked that I feel compelled to blog about it.

Tiny Tots at the National Gallery

Over the last 18 months, The National Gallery on Merrion Square have been running themed art workshops for toddlers. I have been to three of the Tiny Tots workshops at intervals of 6 months, and it has been interesting to see both the workshops and my two-year old’s capacity to engage evolve. On the first occasion, the workshop was designed to introduce the children to the idea of a gallery. We used finger paints, stamps and watercolour crayons to make pictures to stick into a folding card lined with frames, which we could take home. The activities were centered around several tables, which were taller than the children, who needed to be supported to climb onto stools and access material. My son, then 18 months, spent most of the time stacking cushions. The workshop took place in one of the exhibition rooms in the old part of the gallery, which was closed off to the public. The room was almost circular, large and high ceilinged. Crucially, there was art on the wall and you also had to pass sculptures and paintings to get to the space.

The most recent workshop was themed Under the Sea, and this time took place in the New Wing, in the space where the upstairs cafe used to be. The children were seated on cushions on the floor. Before the workshop began there was ample opportunity for rolling and stacking the cushions (again the two-year-old took full advantage). The facilitators began by gathering the children together underneath a large sheet (the sea), playing the theme tune to the Disney film The Little Mermaid and encouraging them to dance. The children were then showed how to make octopus creatures from handprints and they stuck their creatures on to a piece of coloured paper that they also decorated with torn strips of crepe paper (seaweed). The second activity reinforced the concept of shapes with the children. Using a circle and a triangle, we drew fish, cut them out and stuck them to the same background. The workshop ended with another listen and dance to Under the Sea, and we got to take our art work home. There was no visual stimulation at all, and it was possible to attend the workshop without engaging with a single piece of art.


The King of the Sea’s Party

A week later, we participated in a  workshop called King of the Sea at the Ark: A Cultural Centre for Children in Temple Bar, for a fee of 8 euro. It took place on the building’s second floor, and emerging from the lift, you were immediately immersed in a creative workshop environment. The workshop space was decked out dramatically: sea shells lined the wall, sea creatures were suspended from the ceiling, the floor was covered in textured rugs in blue and green, and big throne sat in the corner. Our facilitator, Joanna Parkes, began by asking the children to introduce themselves, which encouraged them to express themselves throughout the workshop.

Then she started telling them a story. The King of the Sea was having a party and his party planner was looking for some children to help her with some last minute decoration. Joanna then pulled on a costume and took out a clipboard, and enlisted the children as ‘star helpers.’ They hung seaweed from the walls with clothes pegs, made pictures for the walls using stickers and crayons, fake-baked a million cupcakes, practiced playing music for his parade, and then showed the mermaids how to dance (a challenge when they have no legs). When the King made his appearance he invited the children to try out his throne and take their picture home with them.

Because of the structured nature of the workshop, there was a real sense of momentum that kept the children engaged throughout,. The festive theme gave it a high energy feel, but Joanna never let the children’s focus wander. I was  really impressed by the way in which she integrated a variety of elements from different art forms. It was essentially an arts and crafts workshop, but it was highly theatrical too, and had the children miming, dancing and storytelling, as well as using their fine motor skills in their art work.

Working it out at the Workshop

As the descriptions probably attest, the second workshop was by far the more successful.

At the National Gallery, the long narrow room and the positioning of the facilitators, lent an instructive feel to events, which I don’t think is particularly useful for this age group. The children were told what the theme was but were not encouraged to engage with it in any meaningful or personal way. They weren’t really invited to put themselves into the workshop (to create pictures of their own experiences with sea creatures), nor were they shown any visual aids (different ways of representing sea creatures.) My experience, and that of several friends in attendance, was that we did the work for the children, which is useful in itself for me but doesn’t really take full advantage of the National Gallery’s resources.

By creating an immersive environment for the children at the Ark, however, the facilitator kept their attention, despite the varying age groups. Although the workshop was 8 euro per child, and the National Gallery’s workshop was free, the same level of imagination could easily be applied to a more formal visual arts brief for very little outlay. Indeed, most of the room was decorated with homemade/crafty props.

However, I wonder to what extent the success of the workshop at the Ark has to do with story. It gave the children a context from which to engage with both the arts activities and, by encouraging theatrical participation, in investing themselves in the experience too.

Of course, it could be my own preference, and my own child’s nature, but I genuinely don’t think you can underestimate the power of story to engage and/or teach young children.


A Cultured Childhood: A (Sort-Of) Manifesto

There is a photograph hanging in the bathroom of my parent’s home, in which my younger sister and I are waving pencils at each other in disagreement. We are so absorbed in our argument that we failed to notice a linger noing photographer, who took his snap and approached my parents for permission to print it in The Irish Times (my parents like to think that opportunistic bit of publicity secured my future destiny.) The photograph was taken at the National Gallery of Ireland, during one of the children’s painting workshops, at which my siblings and I were regular attendees. Not because we were especially interested in art or showed any great talent, but because there were six children in our house and the workshops were free. My parents were art-lovers, sure, but more than that, they were human and the workshops allowed them to sneak off for an hour and indulge their own interests while we were entertained.

That is me scowling on the left.

That is me scowling on the left.

And this was the general tenor of my childhood. There were Sunday recitals and sketching at the Hugh Lane. Open days at the National Concert Hall, where I also got to sing on stage with my school choir. Balloon racing and blackberry picking at IMMA, whose fields and rambling lanes have now given way to a ubiquitous housing development. There were twice-weekly visits to the library after school and Sunday excursions to Waterstones, which we treated like a library, settling down into bean bags to read books that we had no intention of buying.

If it all sounds terrifically rarefied, it was not just a matter of preference for my parents but one of necessity. Then, as now, Ireland’s national cultural institutions are free to visit, and with their public funding comes a responsibility to engage with all kinds of potential audiences: from tiny children to the disabled.

There were, however, art forms I remained entirely ignorant of: those you paid for. I went to the cinema for the first time when I was 10, (Fantasia at the Screen for a friend’s birthday), and I remember only one trip to the theatre before I turned 16 (Wind in the Willows at the Gaiety with Alan Stanford as Toad of Toad Hall). Needless to say, there was more than a little resentment from me and my siblings. More paintings! Another edition of Edward Lear! Could we not just stay at home and watch Star Wars or read Babysitter’s Club instead?

As a parent now, I see why my own parents were so keen on these family cultural outings. We were being constantly exposed to new experiences and ways of looking at the world, and we were being constantly encouraged to express our own version of it.

Inadvertently, we were absorbing lessons in individuality, imagination, cultural diversity, play. If our teachers at school gave us information about the world, these informal experiences gave us the tools to interpret the facts and make our own sense of them. A lot of the time we were also having fun.

It is for this reason that I find myself following the patterns my parents set in my own childhood, dragging my boys along to events, workshops, recitals, readings, where they can partake in the multiplicity of entertainment and edification that cultural experiences offer. And where, yes, I can indulge my own interests.

I started this blog to bring together details of the rich cultural offerings for children in Ireland, which often happen under the radar. It will be an informal record of our outings, offering a variety of musings about culture and childhood, as well as theatre and book reviews, and interviews with vested parties. It will also endeavour to provide listings for forthcoming events. Knowledge after all is power (to participate!). Your child’s future depends on it.