New project repositions children as savvy cultural citizens as they encounter art
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > New project repositions children as savvy cultural citizens as they encounter art

New project repositions children as savvy cultural citizens as they encounter art

by Sarah Maguire, Macquarie University

September 07, 2021

A pilot project has repositioned children under five as savvy cultural citizens who can “show grown-ups a thing or two” about enjoying art. 


Findings from the pilot phase of the Art and Wonder project have been captured in a new book co-authored by Macquarie University researchers, who worked in collaboration with Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)


Art & Wonder: Young Children and Contemporary Art, co-lead authored by Dr Clare Britt, Honorary Lecturer at Macquarie’s School of Education, and Amanda Palmer, Early Learning Coordinator at the MCA, is a 233-page exploration of the experiences of children, families, teachers, artist educators and the research team as the project sought to deep-dive on just how young children engage with contemporary art in a gallery context, and how that up-close knowledge can be used to maximise their creative learning experiences – and by extension their early development, not just intellectually but as cultural citizens.


Building on established knowledge


The benefits to children’s development brought by arts-rich early learning are well established, Dr Britt said, outlining that research has measured direct impacts on school readiness in all areas of learning, as well as improved literacy and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The benefits to children from arts-rich early learning are especially pronounced in communities experiencing economic disadvantage.


“That really deep engagement that you can see through the beautiful images throughout the book will be really interesting and powerful for people,” she said.

The environment and experiences that children are exposed to in the first three years of life, Ms Palmer added, can have lifelong impacts on children’s brain development. By welcoming children into museums and galleries from a very young age, she continued, “they know that they are places where they belong right from the very beginning”.


Blacktown City Council and Mia Mia Child and Family Study Centre visit MCA


The project began in late 2016 and, while disrupted by COVID-19 lockdowns, has involved visits to the MCA based in The Rocks by groups of children as young as 11 months from Mia Mia Child and Family Study Centre at Macquarie University and, further into the project, early learning centres run by Blacktown City Council.


These visits are captured in the book, showing the competence and  capabilities of infants, toddlers and preschoolers when it comes to contemporary art – particularly in the thoughtful way they engaged with the artwork, the artist and the materials.


Dr Britt said that she hopes that the “openness, exuberance and joy that the children bring to their engagement with contemporary artwork will give adults permission to interact with it in a really open way.”

“We saw that happen within the gallery space; whenever we were there with young children it did loosen up the general public; often you would see the smile start to spread and the realisation that these really are wonderful works; this is a place of reverence, this is a gallery, but also there is this joy here, this real exuberance connecting with the work.”

No end of surprises


In 2012, the MCA launched its National Centre for Creative Learning, and the team began to work closely with local early childhood teachers, children and families to pilot a new program specifically designed for early childhood education and care groups. Throughout this process of community consultation, Ms Palmer said, the MCA’s Early Learning programs continued to evolve.


Keen to explore further, Palmer approached Dr Britt with a view to commencing a research project involving collaboration with Mia Mia Child and Family Study Centre.


“We wanted to go the next step further and really delve a bit deeper to better understand how we could continue offering high quality creative learning experiences to our youngest audience,” Ms Palmer explained.


“We want to ensure what we are doing is relevant and meaningful for young children, and that we are not guessing what they want from their museum experience, but that we actually make it research based.”


Even really young children under two, on their very first visit, were able to pick up on the complex cultural protocols of being in the gallery.


As the visits got under way, the children had “no end of surprises” in store for the researchers, whose work to gather deep knowledge through the project has included written observation, analysis of videography and photography of the children in the gallery, and focus groups with families, teachers and artist educators.


Children show reverence for art, display awe and wonder


In the book, Dr Britt talks of the children’s “extraordinarily sensitive and respectful” ways of interacting with the works, and of their desire to know about the artists. 

“Even really young children under two, on their very first visit, were able to pick up on the complex cultural protocols of being in the gallery – the white lines that protect the work from the viewer, and knowing that some works can be touched and some can’t,” she outlined.

“Something else we found early on was that the children wanted to have relationships with the artists: we would be looking at these fabulous works, and the children would want to know, who are the artists? Where do they live? How do they make their works?”


Being open to new directions


The children, Ms Palmer shared, “lead the way through the gallery in totally different directions than the artist educators and research team might expect and, in the interactive space created especially for them, how they similarly took the research project in unexpected directions.”


“The theoretical and methodological approaches taken in this research project are grounded in respecting and listening to the child: foregrounding children’s participation rights,” she added.

“Through an inquiry-based approach, we are able to create space in the program for children to really be heard and take the lead. Through this process we have learned a lot about very young children’s interests and connections with contemporary art.

“This long-term study is providing us with an opportunity to learn a lot about how very young children engage with artists and contemporary art in ways that are delightfully unexpected and unique to childhood.


“We’re learning more about the relationships between children and artists, how children respond to artworks and the spaces they’re exhibited in, and it is the stories they bring to the artworks that has been really interesting, too.”


Art & Wonder: Young Children and Contemporary Art can be purchased through the MCA Store. The book’s authorship includes contributions from research team members Wendy Shepherd, Janet Robertson, Dr Belinda Davis, Nicole Barakat, Cara MacLeod and Brook Morgan.


The images used with this story have been produced by Anna Kucera. This story was first published on The Lighthouse. View the original here.

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