Arts and Early Childhood: Early childhood artistic awakening through questions around power, race and its intersections

15 March 2023

Dr Kristina Konstantoni, Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies, co-lead of the Children and Young People Hub, Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh, reflects on her recent visit to Sabadell, Spain as part of the Erasmus Creative Europe Project: Arts and Early Childhood, and explores the drive towards an early childhood artistic awakening through questions around power, race and its intersections.

I am writing these lines as I am flying out of Barcelona, where I have had the pleasure and privilege of being part of the Erasmus + Cultural Exchange project as a partner of the Starcatchers team. I enjoyed the experience and discussions immensely and learnt a lot. I carry with me many beautiful memories; memories of a beautiful experience where families with young children under two were invited to come along to a shared artistic space. Memories of communities coming together through music, play and food; memories of children engaging or not with the flow of provocations and resources that were shared with them and how different children experienced this; other children actively engaged and others enjoying the space in their own way, moving in and out of the specific provocations offered.

As I am writing these lines, I am also full of thoughts and questions about how the arts and early childhood really came together; about how art was – and is – defined in these early childhood art spaces; about who is defined as an artist and what makes an artist; about the kinds of children and adults that are part of these spaces; about those who facilitate those spaces; about those who are present, and those who are not.

As an international multidisciplinary team, we made up a rich and diverse group of bodies that occupied shared spaces for three days. Bodies with stories, both shared and different, bodies with baggage, bodies which have experienced privileges and disadvantages. Activities gave us the opportunity to share objects and experiences and to reflect on and represent our origins. A great experience to enact discussions about what is shared, what is common and what is different.

However, despite us coming from four different countries, there was a notable prevalence of whiteness.

Where were the Black and Brown bodies? This reflects a larger challenge for the early childhood arts sector regarding the dominance of whiteness and its privilege, its hegemony.  A key focus of the meeting was on multiculturalism, the celebration and inclusion of minority ethnic communities and communities that live in disadvantage. An integral question remains about how the early childhood art sector can move from inclusion to anti-discrimination and anti-racism and what this would entail, including a critical interrogation of the white hegemonic body and its dismantling.

The importance of practices of inclusion was discussed and how diverse families can be included through peer practices. Inclusion however has its own restricted baggage…who is including who in the first place? And is inclusion what we should be striving towards, or radical transformation towards equitable and just experiences, processes and outcomes which would also include the dismantling of power between adults and children?

Mediation was also identified and analysed as a way to work with different people; an analysis of power and its intersecting effects of privilege and disadvantage in all processes needed to be an integral part of such discussions.

The early childhood artistic awakening was at the focus of the discussion. Some discussions emerged about the importance of facilitating art spaces and experiences, processes and experiences of empowering children and families or how artists and arts organisations can facilitate the awakening of art in young children and their communities, particularly for and with communities that live in disadvantage.

During the final session, we worked together towards a European manifesto for early childhood artistic awakening. But a question remains to me that was discussed with my colleague Debbie: who needs to be awakened? Children or the adults that are working with children? The early childhood arts sector needs to move beyond the appreciation of cultural diversity to more radical ideas which would start with questions like whose art is privileged? Are lived and everyday experiences of children’s art seen, acknowledged?What is needed is an awakening of how our own positionalities have an impact on how these spaces are organised, facilitated, processed, experienced etc. Critical discussions about whiteness and privilege, about race and its intersections should also be part of this discussion – especially as questions emerged about whether art opportunities are facilitated in the most deprived of spaces, where the intersections of poverty, race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability and others exist.

Are we inspired and open to an appreciation of what art means for children in its rawness, in its slowness or in its speed?

In general, there was a drive for adults (in most cases white adults) to ensure that artistic opportunities are facilitated. These are definitely good intentions; however, such positions made me wonder – are we starting from children and their families? I was not the only one to pose this question – other colleagues did too.

Adult artists have a significant role to play. Adult artists who work and live alongside children and their families to share and co- create joint spaces that are truly meaningful, nurturing, loving and awakening for each other. Spaces that are just. During discussions about how artists facilitate such artistic experiences for children, and the resources and role they employ, some thoughts were expressed about the importance of facilitating free spaces for children – yet ultimately, it was the adult artist that held the space.

Should this always be the case? Is shared ownership of artistic spaces a possibility we are willing to consider? What is the role of the adult in such spaces? How would power in such spaces be practiced, occupied, experienced, shared? Αre adult artistic provocations meaningful in these spaces? Who is holding the space through the artistic experience and process? Is this shared? Who defines the time of this experience, its agenda and movement, its process, its start and its closure? How does closure happen? Bex also posed important questions about how are boundaries and expectations shared and defined, and how are emotions and experiences shared, trusted and what happens when it (artistic experience) closes?

Is the adult always at the centre? Is it often the white adult?

There are no easy answers to the above, yet we need these critical discussions if we are to reflect and act on issues related to power in spaces of artistic collaboration.