Creative Skills goes to South Korea

20 December 2016

At the start of December Starcatchers’ CEO Rhona Matheson and Creative Skills Manager Heather Armstrong spent a week in Korea running training for teaching artists and spreading the word about Starcatchers are our approach to the arts and creativity for very young children. Here, Heather reflects on their experience.


Korea Arts and Culture Education Services (KACES) invited Starcatchers to spend a week in Seoul and Gwangju delivering training for teaching artists, focusing on child-led approaches to the arts for very young children. Thanks to Starcatchers’ productions touring internationally and our chief executive’s presentations at children’s arts festivals around the world, we’re a small company with an international reputation for excellence and innovation. This is the first time we’ve been invited to share our Creative Skills ethos internationally in such a practical way, and we were delighted to take that opportunity.

KACES employ 5000-6000 teaching artists to deliver arts activities within education settings, mostly with primary aged children although some artists are beginning to work with children age 3-5s, too. The current provision is adult led, with arts education programmes being designed by agencies then delivered by artists who follow set lesson plans. Our challenge was twofold – to share the skills and knowledge artists need to work with younger children, while also exploring arts practice that develops by putting the needs and interests of individual children at the heart of the creative process.

In Seoul, we ran a two day training course for 36 teaching artists plus members of the KACES team. We covered the history and ethos of Starcatchers, our current work, a basic introduction into child development, the research and evidence of the positive impact of taking a child-led playful approach to the arts, and lots of practical examples of creative arts experiences that give children meaningful opportunities to take control of the creative process. At the end of the two days the teaching artists designed and shared their own ideas for child-led arts activities, and it was a great opportunity to see how much they and taken onboard, and discuss steps they could take to make their practice even more child led in future.

In Gwangju we ran two days of training with broadly the content, but with a twist: at the end of the two days, instead of sharing their ideas with each other, 30 local children age 3-5 and their parents were invited to take part in hour long workshops run by the teaching artists who had taken part in the training. This time we worked with a smaller group of ten teaching artists, within the Asia Culture Center, a breathtaking arts hub with a venue designed specifically for children. During our time in Korea we had heard a lot about the importance Koreans place on academic attainment and the pressure children can be under to achieve and get everything “right”, so we were interested to see how Korean families reacted to this new, child-led approach.

Our hosts and translators did a fantastic job explaining to Rhona and I what was happening as we popped in and out of each workshop, but the smiles, laughter and whoops of delight of the children and their adults were the best feedback we could hope for. As one of the parents said after the session:

“It was so special to be a part of something where each child was really listened to and respected”

Afterwards, the teaching artists were keen to reflect on how they could make their practice even more child led, and the challenge I left them with was to keep pushing their practice and expanding their own boundaries as they put what they had learned into practice. A child-led approach to the arts replies so much on adults understanding what young children are capable of, an understanding that grows every time you experiment and explore ideas together.

On our final day Rhona was keynote speaker at a KACES Arts and Early Years conference, sharing the Scottish context, some of the groundbreaking Starcatchers projects and productions and the impact our work has on children, families and communities. Perhaps the most radical idea we shared, through the training and at the conference, was a creative process shaped and driven by young children, educators and artists together, instead of educational or health outcomes. Offer playful, child-led arts experiences and those positive social, emotional and cognitive outcomes will come. It’s an approach that’s backed up with a wealth of research and evaluation, but it sits in contrast to a top down Korean education system focused on attainment and putting a great deal of pressure on children.

In Scotland we have the advantage of a strong policy context that extolls the virtues of creativity, but I was left wondering if the concept of artists, educators and young children being trusted to organically develop their own creative experiences feels any less radical within our own education system. In the drive for attainment, data and results, we need to ensure arts experiences are, first and foremost, driven by the interests and inspiration of children and not the boxes we need to tick.