Arts and Early Childhood: Young children’s right to cultural and artistic life

5 July 2022

Early years pedagogue and researcher, Dr Caralyn Blaisdell, reflects on her experience of the Erasmus Creative Europe Project: Arts and Early Childhood, a transnational collaborative effort to explore and share best practice in early years arts and creativity across local European communities. Read about her Erasmus experience: 

In May, I joined the latest visit for the ERASMUS+ Creative Europe Project. This time Starcatchers welcomed the European partners to Edinburgh. This is my third exchange visit, the first being to Sabadell, Catalonia in November 2021 and the second being to Villiers-le-Bel, France in March 2022. The Edinburgh visit included an evening workshop with our European colleagues, attending performances in the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival and a schema workshop hosted by Starcatchers. The final day was in Wester Hailes where we visited early learning and childcare settings, joined in a Starcatchers schema play session for children, and learned about the Expecting Something project run by Starcatchers at Whale Arts. It was fun to see Edinburgh through fresh eyes as our European guests discussed Arthur’s Seat, whisky, and the sometimes ‘intense’ Scottish food.

As a researcher of children, childhood, and children’s rights, most of my work has focused on young children’s experiences in early learning and childcare. It is wonderful to be contemplating children and childhood in a different context, one which focuses on young children’s right to a cultural life. During our Edinburgh exchange, I was particularly thinking about boundaries within performance for young children. For example, during our schema workshop, we talked about the ‘enclosure’ schema, where a child might create boundaries, barriers or frames around their play. One of the French delegates pointed out that adults also use this schema. For example, we might create personal boundaries around ourselves. If someone is standing close to you, you might lean back or move away. Other people might love to be close to others and move even closer.

The enclosure schema got me thinking about boundaries in the performances we have seen during all three exchanges, and the interactions between performers and children. For example, in Bajau, children were seated in the audience and did not directly interact with the performers. In that way the stage/seating delineation created a sort of boundary around the performance. Sounds and sights transcended that boundary, but there was not direct contact between the performers and the children. In contrast, in Früh Stück, the performance space was enclosed by a train track, but children were seated around the performance area and were invited to eat, drink and help create sounds that were recorded and looped together, jointly creating a sensory experience with the performers. Finally, in Whirligig during our Edinburgh visit, the (school age) children were seated in the audience in a similar stage/seating separation to Bajau. However, the performers interacted with them sometimes, and some children started calling back, pantomime-style, to the performers. For example, when a performer showed the audience a glass bottle, someone shouted, ‘It’s vodka!’. Later, a performer lay on the ground. ‘He’s dead!’ a child called out. The boundary was more permeable, but there was still a clear delineation between performer and audience.

All the performances we have seen also involved adults who were accompanying the children and who seemed to take on a variety of unspoken and unofficial roles in enforcing boundaries and enclosures during the performance. For example, in Univers, babies were invited to be in the performance space and could interact with the materials and performers. It was a very flexible space for babies, but there was one child who seemed to want to leave the stage area and explore other parts of the theater. Their adult kept bringing them back into the performance space. So even in quite a flexible performance, the adult perceived a boundary that delineated where the performance was taking place and where it was not—and where their baby should be and where they should not.

All these examples have left me reflecting on boundaries in two ways. First, I have been thinking about the boundary or enclosure placed around the performance spaces—what kind of relationships does it create? Is it permeable? What kind of child/childhoods and what kind of adult/adulthoods does the boundary create? Who decides and how? Second, and relatedly, the exchanges have made me think about the metaphorical (but real and material) boundaries around the performing arts for young children, including who is even in these spaces in the first place. Who is excluded by boundaries around these spaces, and why?