Catherine Reding from Sightlines initiative, (http://www.sightlines-initiative.com) a national early years charity promoting and supporting a creative and reflective approach to early childhood education, shares her observations after spending an afternoon with us.
On 5th April I spent a wonderful afternoon visiting Baby Saturday, part of Baby Art Club, at Manchester Art Gallery.
A studio space in the gallery was transformed into an exploratory play-space for babies and their carers. Artist Naomi Kendrick has created an interactive installation titled invasion of the soft, inspired by Joana Vasconcelos’s current exhibition in the gallery. Soft fabrics with a wide variety of textures, feathers, balls of wall, ﬂour and bubbles had been arranged so they can be explored.
Artist and musician Najia Bagi has made a musical mobile for the babies to explore. The structure is made of bamboo and has a variety of different, mostly metallic objects, hanging from it at different heights. These objects make different but related sounds. The objects include bells, wind chimes and spoons.
Najia welcomed babies and their families into the studio, where they were able to freely explore and play with the installation and sound sculpture. One of the most striking features of the afternoon was the calm atmosphere, even when the room became more populated. This was aided by the subtle use of music – Brian Eno playing quietly – and light – nearly everything was white, with careful attention paid to light and shadow effects.
Being together in play
I noticed many beautiful interactions between adults and babies, promoted by the carefully chosen materials and the calm atmosphere. This photograph shows a boy and his mother who were both very interested in their reﬂections in the mirror. I could see how fascinated he was, and how he watched and imitated the expressions on his mother’s face. I noticed another mother playing with her daughter, gently swinging and bouncing a suspended ball of wool.
Many families enjoyed going inside the den area, and playing games hiding underneath pieces of cloth. A variety of textures of fabric were available, and some parents thoughtfully removed their children’s socks and shoes so they had the experience of feeling these with their feet as well as their hands.
Both children and parents enjoyed sharing their delight in exploring ﬂour, feeling it with their ﬁngers, sprinkling it on one another and sifting it back into the bowl, and on themselves.
I saw a baby girl and her granddad played a game with bubbles that was delightful to watch. Using a desk fan as a propellant, the granddad sent the bubbles ﬂying across towards his granddaughter who watched, entranced, pointing at the bubbles. Once the bubbles had gone, she looked at her granddad expectantly, waiting to see if he would send more. Both granddad and granddaughter were joyfully absorbed in this game for many minutes.
Light and space
Qualities of light were thoughtfully used, through use of window blinds, OHP projections and twinkling lights which could be picked up and held. One baby girl was very interested in the lights, picking them up then putting them around herself.
Reﬂective silver card on the ﬂoor and hand-held mirrors gave the children the opportunity to see themselves in different ways. One very important element of the installation was the space to move – I observed a father and son, both on their knees, moving and playing together in an almost dance-like way.
Playing with sounds
Najia’s sound sculpture consisted of a suspended bamboo frame hung with metal chimes, spoons, beaters and a central cymbal. The whole structure could be moved by holding onto the bamboo and shaking it, or individual instruments and objects could be explored. The sounds created were gentle and magical. Some children played around the edge, others laid inside, and some stood up in or next to the sculpture.
Najia and I talked about the difference between hanging the objects rather than placing them on the ﬂoor. We thought that when they are suspended, the inherent capacity for swinging and moving in a particular trajectory presents itself as an invitation to the children. Hanging objects also deﬁnes their place in relation to other objects and the way that they can move, which is different to placing them on the ﬂoor.
We could a see huge interest in reaching for the instruments, for example in this young girl, watched delightedly by her mother, whose expression shows her captivation with the cymbal. For her, I wondered if the beauty of the cymbal, with its shiny metallic moving surface, was the main attraction at this point.
Often babies would listen and watch intently as adults made sounds to them. This baby girl was very interested in the sounds being made above her. A few moments later she explored the chimes herself, feeling and moving them with her ﬁngers.
Time, space and attention
During my experience at Baby Art Club I was reminded of the three elements of Time Space and Attention which underpin Sightlines Initiative’s Developing Environments of Enquiry framework. Young children and their families had plenty of unhurried time here. They were able to become absorbed in what they were doing together, without the feeling of being rushed. The space was inviting and encouraged curiosity and interaction.
Looking around the room, there were attentive babies and adults everywhere. I saw children’s attention directed to ﬁnding out about the exciting world around them, and how they could affect it with their actions. Nowhere did I see children with ‘short attention spans’; occasionally I did however see a parent try to move their child away from something they were absorbed in and onto something new, presumably because they the adult wanted a change.
I saw how important it was for the children to share their experiences with others. I noticed how they looked out from what they were doing, wanting to be seen and validated by a supportive adult, one who shares in their joy and excitement, and playfully participates in their quest for making meaning.
What is art?
During the afternoon Najia and I talked about our perception of ‘art’ and ‘the everyday’. We could see that both adults and children were taking time to experience everyday objects in ways other than their conventional functions: feeling the soft texture of ﬂour, delighting in sounds of spoons and their reﬂections in mirrors; they were together in the world of play rather than that of just function. Through this context of playful, open-ended encounter, creative possibilities opened up to both the adults and children. They found what I have heard educators in Reggio call ‘the extraordinary in the everyday’.
I believe this is one of the great opportunities that ‘art’ can give us: encountering things in new contexts, taking time to wonder and feel what this means for us.
The signiﬁcance of the environment
At Baby Art Club I saw many lively and beautiful interactions between babies and their families, and their mutual delight in exploring the materials around them. The encounters with the installation were unhurried, spacious and open-ended, full of life and meaning.
I wondered what the impact of the experience was for parents: perhaps they were able to see and be with their children differently in this environment?
One father told me, “It’s really different here to the usual places. The colours – they’re not all bright – it’s great. It feels calm. I might just come and hang out here myself.” A mother told me that the time she was spending here with her daughter was very special to her.
These comments led me to think of how this place can be seen in such stark contrast with many environments which are created for children, which are often busy and noisy, full of primary colours and plastic toys.
The babies and families of Manchester are very lucky to have such a wonderful resource on their doorstep: long may it continue.