Interview: Dr Red Ruby Scarlet discusses the importance of art in the early childhood curriculum
Activist, artist, early childhood teacher-researcher, consultant and academic Dr Red Ruby Scarlet sat down with The Sector Assistant Editor Freya Lucas to talk about her latest book, and ending the myth that education is disciplinary – art is not a segment of the curriculum, arts practice is the centre of all curriculum, with every skill development coming from having a rich arts curriculum as the central focus.
Dr Red Ruby Scarlet is an activist, artist, early childhood teacher-researcher, consultant and academic. Red has been working in early childhood for over 25 years and is devoted to creative, imaginative, inclusive practices that promote dignity and integrity in early childhood. Red has developed curriculum and learning frameworks nationally and internationally, and has been published widely foregrounding the stories of the numerous ‘teacher-research’ and ‘research with children’ projects Red has lead and contributed to across the world.
Red is currently the Creative Director of MultiVerse – an organisation devoted to creating professional development and resourcing for early childhood that is committed to arts, anti-bias approaches, inclusive pedagogies, and curriculum. She is currently a part-time teacher at Clovelly Children’s Centre in Sydney, New South Wales. Red plays a leadership role in the Social Justice In Early Childhood group and is the founder of the Social Justice In Early Childhood Foundation.
Red spoke with Assistant Editor Freya Lucas about her latest book Becoming with art in early childhood, and about the importance of visual and performing arts in the early childhood curriculum.
Interviewee: Dr Red Ruby Scarlet, Creative Director, MultiVerse
Organisation: MultiVerse Educational Consultancy and Resourcing
Date: 22 October 2018
Topic: Visual and performing arts in early childhood, creating spaces for art, supporting teams to engage with a creative art curriculum
Freya: Thanks for speaking with me today Red. You’ve recently curated Becoming with Art in Early Childhood – what was your motivation for this work? What are you hoping this work will achieve?
Red: That particular book is one of the many that I have produced and am in the process of producing, through Multiverse Publishing, because we’ve had a real paucity of Australian literature that’s made by educators and teachers for educators and teachers that reaches the diversity of who is working in the profession. So Certificate 3, Diploma credentialed, University qualified people, people doing their Masters and Masters of teaching, and anyone doing research. I’m trying to produce really delicious, relevant, yummy literature that bounces off those who have led the way.
With the art book in particular, people like Bronwyn Bancroft and Ursula Kolbe – those people who have worked in that practice-based space, bringing the big ideas together with the practice, and showing examples of what arts practice looks like in various places across the country. There are contributors who have a Certificate 3, a diploma, a degree, master, PhD qualified, and children – the book brings together the profession and enables lots of ways ‘in’ to arts practice.
There’s always bits of literature published here and there, but since Ursula Kolbe’s beautiful books – that quality of literature – we haven’t really seen that produced in Australia. People won’t bat an eyelid to buy books from Italy or the USA – partly because it’s beautiful, but partly because the authors of those books have done a good job of reaching people and showing what ideas look like in practice. So my pursuit is to work with Australian educators and teachers to produce beautiful literature around a range of different things – in this case, arts practice – to speak to educators and teachers, and to show the world the amazing work that’s still going on in early childhood education around arts based practice in Australia.
“I’m trying to produce really delicious, relevant, yummy literature that bounces off those who have led the way.”
Freya: I suppose you could summarise it by saying it’s about making practice visible, and bringing some equality into the space, so it’s not just people who are considered to have a higher level of qualification who are heard in the space. It’s just as relevant and valuable to have input and discussion with people holding a Certificate 3 as it is to hear from anyone else.
Red; That’s absolutely right. The other thing to add to that is that when you’re talking and writing academically, you’re talking about things. When you’re creating this type of space – which is not research literature, but professional literature – we actually have examples of what people are doing and we’re bringing the big ideas to life through examples. It’s not writing about, it’s providing experiences and expressions of.
Freya: Wonderful, thanks Red. The next question touches on how service leaders can best support their teams in engaging more meaningfully with visual and performing arts ?
Red: I think one of the other things I’ve been doing in my professional development work, but also something the book does – and Maddie Powell’s chapter is a perfect example of this is that art is one of those things [that is easy to shy away from], and I quote Associate Professor Felicity McArdle here, she says “I’m not arty, therefore I won’t do art…but you’d never say ‘I’m not mathsy so I won’t do maths’ or ‘I’m not literacy so I won’t read books’”. So through our mentoring relationship over the years, part of that is trying to think through how you make art for educators accessible so that they recognise it’s not just children slapping paint on a bit of paper (although that is sometimes what they do) but not to be frightened to teach children skills in order to explode and expand and explore their creativity through particular kinds of arts practice.
It’s that whole thing – in order to learn to read and write, you need to find ways to communicate: . To use those signs and symbols that we call letters and words to tell your story or to express who you are, and it’s exactly the same with arts practice.
You learn some of those skills, like the architecture of working with clay, or you learn a skill base in drawing or painting, and you’re then able to express yourself and your ideas and your thinking in a new way. It’s kind of giving people the courage to have those art adventures through resourcing art for educators, rather than just giving them examples, saying “Here’s some beautiful things we’ve done with children” and leaving them wondering “Well how did they get to that? What was the method? How did they start?”
My approach is to say “Hey, here’s how you can do this. You don’t have to be an artist, but here’s a little bit of skill.” Whether you’re good at it is up to you, and that’s a bit of a judgement on what we count as good art anyway, but I guess that’s the relationship between the professional development that I’ve developed called Art for Educators and the book, which is how people who haven’t seen themselves as arty in the past have come to put amazing arts practice into place with children, because they are combining learning areas, play-based approaches, and scaffolding a little bit of skill so that children can then express their ideas and themselves through art.
Freya: Excellent! If you had the ear of a service driver – someone who had the power to introduce a sweeping art reform across five hundred services – what would you want them to know about visual and performing arts, and their importance for children?
Red: There’s a myth that education is disciplinary. We talk about numeracy, we talk about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), we talk about literacy. If you did art all day every day – and given that art isn’t just children flinging tomato sauce on the carpet like Pro Hart – then within every single arts practice, there are skills that enable you to literacy…art is the way to everything. That thinking isn’t new. You look back to Life in the Nursery School which Lillian De Lissa wrote in 1939; arts practice is the way to all learning.
There’s maths in arts practice, there’s science in arts practice, there’s literacy and geography – every discipline you can think of is actually part of what makes arts practice. We also know the more creativity children are engaging with – hands on, intellectually, with their bodies, in the moment – the more ways they are developing confidence and self expression, becoming confident learners; all those things that the EYLF outcomes espouse – arts practice is the key way to doing that.
Often times people are struggling with those things in their curriculum, and I believe it’s because there’s very little arts practice going on. When you have arts practice at the centre of what you’re doing, every other skill will develop from having a really rich arts curriculum as the central focus.
Freya: Who are some of your art inspirations?
Red: Nicole Monks – she’s a contemporary Aboriginal artist and designer. She’s in the book. The way in which she cleverly works with simple concepts of design to challenge people to think about design and the relationship between design and culture. Once again, if you look into her work you can see scientific concepts, mathematical concepts – a whole range of things which emerge from the arts practice. There’s an absolutely beautiful opportunity to recognise that thinking, be challenged by it, and do something with it. I use her artwork in my practice with children to generate these conversations.
Another person would be Bronwyn Bancroft who’s also an Aboriginal artist, who’s written over 40 children’s books and is a prolific artist who has been working in the education space for a long, long time. Bronwyn has this really clever capacity to produce children’s literature, using her painting and her design work as a way to talk about…her beautiful books, like Shapes of Australia and Colours of Australia, showing once again how through arts practice all of those other skills that we need to get by in the world – like literacy and numeracy – are revealed that have art as their starting place.
So I think that those two would be two of my greatest influences – I’m also a very big fan of Madonna!
Freya: What are some of the biggest challenges facing art as a segment of the early childhood education and care (ECEC) curriculum?
Red: Well, the first one would be thinking that it’s a segment, because it’s not. It should be central.
The second thing is I don’t think people are skilled up enough to know how to do art or how to teach art. We have all this stuff, but we have limited knowledge about what to do with it.
The other big problem is that we call everything art, and there are some ‘activities’ that are gleaned from what people are calling the ‘pinterest curriculum’ that reduce ‘art to gluing some patty pans onto a paper plate – I’m happy for other perspectives but in my world this isn’t art.
Also, the value or cost of really beautiful arts materials – there’s always that class question around the arts, but there’s some pretty amazing working class artists, and sustainability artists – there’s a whole range of ways that you can have some pretty high-end materials and use them well. It’s not about having a lot of stuff, it’s about having some really good ideas about what to put into practice, and how you connect that through things that children are curious about.
It’s also about being willing to introduce things to children. I struggle a bit with this idea of children’s interests because it’s become so literal. I prefer to think about what children are curious about, and sometimes they’re curious about being challenged, or resisting something, or learning something new. So it’s figuring out how arts practice is central to generating those curiosities in children, not just following them, and thinking “Well if I don’t know how to do this, what about if I as the teacher went to a drawing class, or went to a clay workshop or a painting workshop. I learn a bit of skill, I get a bit more confident to do that work with children because I’ve got a starting place.”
There’s a creative art subject in all of our TAFE and university courses, but art is still quite marginalised, which is a bit of a funny thing to say, as it’s often viewed as high end. Associate Professor Felicity McArdle and Al Olsen wrote about that in The Anti Bias Approach in Early Childhood – we had art as an anti bias issue. To say “Well, if you’ve got art, you’ve got everything else” then why is it we have so little art?
There’s an equation to put together around why children are struggling to learn, why literacy and numeracy levels are dropping – it’s because there’s not enough art.
There’s an equation to put together around why children are struggling to learn, why literacy and numeracy levels are dropping – it’s because there’s not enough art.
Freya: We’re always curious at The Sector about innovation – in the sense of visual and performing arts, what are some innovative practices that you’ve seen in your travels, that perhaps could be adopted elsewhere?
Red: The first thing is, when I work closely with people, they learn to have the courage to take a risk, to learn something themselves, and this is the concurrent theme. To be able to put all kinds of creative and expressive arts into practice, you need to know something about them. You don’t have to be good at it, you don’t have to know exactly how to do it, you don’t have to be an artist, but you have to know a little bit about how it works. So scaffolding people to have a little bit of knowledge about something can then turn into all kinds of innovation, once those things are put into practice.These experiences are equally important for educators and teachers as they are for children.
Seeing more high-quality arts practice would be innovation at this point in time, because I do think that as the sector has changed over the past ten to fifteen years, we’ve seen less and less arts practice, and I think, as I said before, that there’s a link there to children’s cognitive development and what they’re learning.
The opportunity to explore, to engage in art expression, whether it be visual, sonorous, dramatic arts…we don’t create the spaces as explicitly for that expression of ideas and the expression of self, and therefore we end up filling children full of information, rather than drawing it from them, playing with thinking and scaffolding them with skills to be able to do that themselves.
So what’s innovative? Innovative is when people are really planning carefully to be able to have a little skill base themselves to share with each other. Having that professional input from people that can help them, and deliberately creating spaces for children to be creative and expressive and learning how to elicit that from children – some really sophisticated learning can come from that.
Freya: Thanks Red – it’s interesting to hear your thoughts. For me, there’s this juxtaposition where on one hand society is becoming increasingly more tolerant of diversity, and fluidity and being open to difference, but by the same token, in ECEC, it seems we’re heading more in a direction of silos of subjects – literacy and numeracy and STEM.
Red: You know, children will succeed in NAPLAN and all these subject areas if they have really good arts practice. The problem is… well, I’m not sure it is a juxtaposition. I think it’s a misperception of what we think education and learning is. If you have really, really, really good arts practice, you’ll have amazing literacy, amazing numeracy, amazing science – just to mention the three top ticket items.
To work with clay you need to be an architect and an engineer. To work with paint, you need to be able to mathematically deduce things like hue and colour and tone and line – all those elements of design which are mathematically informed.
It’s this segregation of disciplines which has shied us away from arts practice, when in fact art is what keeps the world moving. Art is what provokes people to move on and think differently.
All the stuff that IT people do with computers and computer programs and games and all that sort of stuff. All of that is design work – arts practice is what makes us have that incredible technology.
To work with clay you need to be an architect, a geographer and an engineer. To work with paint, you need to be able to mathematically deduce things like hue and colour and tone and line – all those elements of design which are mathematically informed.
Freya: And as you said, that making of spaces. We as a society are making a metaphorical space where you can step out and step in and be who you are, but we aren’t making the spaces for children to play with and evolve their creativity.
Red: No, but there’s a little step further on from that, because that thinking still assumes there’s a separation between self and expression. Think about Aboriginal art – and I speak here as a non-Aboriginal person – or Aboriginal dance and story – that’s not separate from self expression – that IS the identity.
I’m an Irish dancer; when you learn Irish dancing, you’re mapping country, you’re mapping the places you’re from. That’s why the title of the dance will have the name of the town – whichever region that particular set of steps comes from is related to the Celtic patterns of that country, which are related to the people, which is related to the history, so it is an expression of identity through those arts practices. At the same time, using dance as an example – highly mathematical, highly scientific, great gross motor skills… just by doing that you’re learning all these other skills in that expression of ideas and identity.
I am an artist. I identify that way, and I know and express myself in those ways, so it’s trying to get that message across about the non-separation of what the everyday life is and how we do art in early childhood. Essentially that’s what the book is connected around, and it starts with the introduction.
We keep asking the question “What is art?” and “How do we do it?” and I think those two questions will never get us anywhere. So the questions I’ve posed in the book are “What does art do?” and “What do we do with what art does?” They are the two questions.
If art makes you feel something, you respond. The reason that art makes you feel something and respond is because you connect with it, or you think it’s awful, or you don’t understand it, or it suddenly expresses the entirety of a feeling that you’ve been experiencing. It’s the responsiveness to that.
We know how we feel about children’s art – we respond. What does the art do to us, and then what do we do with what that does? How do we turn that into really good curriculum? How do we simplify things so we’re just using a few really beautiful, well thought out, careful materials or spaces or resources so that a deep investigation, a deep relationship with those materials can transpire into what that self expression means.
It’s a good book! It’s a little bit different to the literature that exists, because it is inclusive of a range of different perspectives. While there’s a couple of chapters that talk explicitly about theory into practice, I’m trying to make it implicit so that it’s not alienating people, but it is also for those people who love to read that stuff explicitly.
The work we’ve had in arts practice up to now has been really good at teaching these elements, but I feel other things have gotten in the way of arts being as central as it used to be, and this is trying to bring that back, trying to acknowledge the legacy of those that have gone before, but also what the work looks like here and now when you’re a person who says “I don’t know how to do this, but I want to know how to do that, how do I learn it?” that’s really the purpose of the book.
Freya: I’ve picked up on a bit of a theme as we have been talking – you’ve talked about yourself as an artist, the availability of materials, the courage to have art adventures. The underlying theme that I am hearing is about bravery. Do you think that in order to engage in arts practice successfully, there’s an element of bravery, courage and risk taking?
Red: I think there has to be willingness, and I think there has to be really good professional development, and that arts practice needs to be made a priority.
Freya: I agree. As an educator, I think sometimes when you’re armed with professional development, it can make you feel a little braver, and a little more willing to take those risks. It’s not just you having this thought or belief or opinion, it’s “Here’s what I’ve learned, let me share it with you – here’s what we talked about, what I was provoked by…”
Red: That’s right, and it’s also about educators choosing things that are going to give you the things where you can walk away and say “I’m going to put this into practice right now”. It’s not just “Here’s a million stories about something wonderful someone did”, it’s hands on, let’s do this. “Let me theorise for you”, “let me build the big ideas into what this everyday practice looks like, as we go along”, which is exactly the way we should be teaching children.
Freya: So choosing tools that empower, not just provoke?
Red: I’m not a fan of the word empower, to be honest. I feel it’s more than that. I think it’s actually using pedagogical approaches within professional development contexts, that enable the lived experience of what it feels like to do the arts practice.
If you know what it feels like to learn this practice, and you go back to another group of educators, or to a group of children, then you’ll see them struggling with that learning, but you can help them in that, because you’ve felt it.
Freya: So it’s that relatability, and capacity to engage with something new, and to approach as a learner as well as a teacher?
Red: Yeah. But also what happens is when you begin with arts practice – if it’s done in an open and equitable way – then everybody can succeed. There’s nothing in those workshops that people can’t succeed at.
Freya: Fantastic, thanks Red. Last question! How can centres factor in a place and space for creating and enjoying art when they are in the construction phase? What tips would you give for those designing spaces for children?
Red: Well there’s two schools of thought here. One is that you have classrooms, and then you have an art studio. The other is that the whole centre is an art studio. That will depend on how you understand art, and what you think art does.
A classroom doesn’t need anything more than a few spaces where creativity can transpire through the materials that you give children. If you give children materials that say “Do this” you’re not asking them to think, you’re not asking them to be creative, to express, or to invent.
If you give them materials that say “What can this do?” – like really high-quality drawing materials, like having a designated clay space, having beautiful spaces for painting opportunities, with a range of different mediums, like having a performing arts space – you really don’t need anything else in your classroom to be honest. You could just have those things, and save a lot of money.
We forget the capacity of children to invent their own worlds – often times they are doing that, we’ve just forgotten how to see it.
Freya: What a great note to end on, thanks Red.