Creating captivating spaces for under 5s

Monday 25 January 2016, 11am-3pm, The Whitworth

Are you a EYFS teacher or nursery practitioner? Do you work with under 5s in a children’s centre, cultural venue or within the community?

If so then join us at the Whitworth for a day of show and tell exploring the role of culture and creativity in developing enabling environments for young children and their families.

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We believe museums and galleries are brilliant spaces for young children and their grown ups. They are packed full of amazing objects and artworks, have lots of space to explore and plenty to do to inspire curiosity, develop communication and build confidence.

Join artists, researchers, early years and museum professionals to explore why the learning environment is so important in the early years.

Special guests will include Wild Rumpus who will be doing what they do best; transforming our Grand Hall into a magical, immersive environment setting the scene for a day filled with ideas and inspiration.

We will also be joined by:
Iain Jackson, Research associate, Child Study Centre, University of Manchester
Rachel Holmes, Professor of cultural studies of childhood, MMU
Liz Hardy, Headteacher, Martenscroft Nursery School & Children’s Centre
Michiko Fujii, Atelierista, the Whitworth
Lucy Turner, Early Years Coordinator, the Whitworth
Elaine Bates, Early Years Coordinator, Manchester Museum
Sarah Marsh, Family Learning Manager, Manchester Art Gallery

£25 per person includes lunch and refreshments.
Click here to book your place

BabyDay Belfast


The world’s first BabyDay was held in Belfast on 27th September. This is a great article in the Guardian from REPLAY theatre talking about why the arts are so important for babies and where the idea for BabyDay came from.

If those three years are so fundamental to shaping who we are, then shouldn’t they be filled with experiences which are beautiful, challenging, imaginative, soothing, musical, creative, exciting and calming? We reckon so.

Hmmm we think Manchester needs at Baby Day!

Babies – our future audience! By Saskia Metcalf at Z-arts


Manchester has long been at the forefront of developing creative learning programmes for babies in cultural organisations. The Whitworth have been working in this field since 2011, Manchester Art Gallery have regular sessions and Z-arts is funded for three activities and to deliver strategic lead in this area for Manchester City Council – there is even a blog Culturebabies and a Facebook page the very cultured children in the city.

All of this history and the recent article in The Guardian about Belfast’s Baby Day inspired Z-arts to talk about why we love working with babies; apart from the obvious cute factor there is a library full of scientific evidence to show that involving children, no matter how young, to a diverse and diversifying range of activities helps them to develop emotionally and cerebrally.

Z-arts is Manchester dedicated arts venue for children and families and we want to encourage creativity from the start. We know from experience that babies respond fantastically to stimuli and are transfixed by light, sound and touch. Z-arts run a regular monthly Baby Play session on the second Tuesday of the month. Currently the session is run by Nancy Elizabeth and focuses on a range of sensory experiences and is accompanied by music.

“Today is Emily’s 1st Birthday! She has loved coming to baby play- listening to the beautiful harp music, shaking the bells and generally exploring the space. It’s so relaxing for parents too! Just sitting back and watching your little one play, listen, explore and interact. Thanks for making Emily’s birthday so special” Parent, Z-arts

However, we must not forget that babies can’t yet book online and a grown-up has to be present at the Baby Play session, and that it is equally important to engage the parents. Activities that parents can enjoy with their children helps to strengthen the bond and builds memories and shared experiences that can be the building blocks for their future relationship. Sessions that have structure and the opportunity for self-directed play can give parents confidence in recreating similar experiences at home and also provide the opportunity to meet other like-minded parents that value art and culture from many different backgrounds.

“Brilliant interactive session. Oscar really enjoyed having the chance to make lots of noise and explore all the different sounds that he could make on a variety of instruments. Thank you.” Parent, Z-arts

So not only is important to provide a high quality activity, but also that the venue is welcoming to families. Z-arts are signed up to the Family Standards and we pride ourselves on being an Arts Centre that parents can feel relaxed in with their children and don’t have to worry about crying babies, breast-feeding or needing to bring your own food. We have the usual café, baby change and buggy park but on top of all this we have an attitude and approach that says we see babies not just as today’s audiences but the next generation of audiences too and we want them to keep coming to Z-arts.

“A lovely interactive session in a relaxed setting. Nancy made us feel very welcome. Really lovely class, thank you.” Parent, Z-arts

Creative learning is a huge part of the Z-arts programme but we are now leading the way in Manchester in programming theatre for babies. As part of the Big Imaginations, (Arts Council Strategic Touring funded project) we have hosted several productions that have put have babies centre stage!

This October as part of the Get Creative Family Arts Festival we will be presenting 16 Singers. 16 Singers is a captivating, new work presented by a company of 16 vocalists and actors, who move amongst the young audience members during the performance. Devised for babies aged from 0-18 months and their grown-ups, this atmospheric show blends crisp choral singing, beautifully choreographed movement and a stunning, magical sculpture. With a very young audience at its heart, 16 Singers offers parents, grandparents and carers a rare opportunity to share a beautifully crafted performance with their baby.

“After Felix and I saw 16 Singers on Monday morning, I’ve been thinking about it all week. It was quite a special thing to see, and it has really stayed with me. As we’ve been to the rest of our usual baby groups this week, I’ve realised how much time we spend dangling stuff in our poor babies’ faces and grabbing their attention with an assault on their senses. The performance was so much more beautiful and subtle. I feel like it really fascinated him, rather than just grabbing his attention superficially. Afterwards we felt relaxed and calm, rather than the usual frazzled feeling.” Audience Member, The Egg

Z-arts have gone one step further and have for the first time commissioned a new piece of theatre for babies. The Adventures of Pom is based on an enchanting age old myth for the brightest eyed of audiences. The intimate adventure is adapted from the Greek myth Persephone and incorporates puppetry, projections, soundscapes, storytelling and live music to engage the very youngest audiences and their families in a new theatre experience. After premiering at the Just So Festival in Cheshire on the 21-23 August it has now begun its tour to unusual non-theatre settings across the north west including Sure Start centres, nurseries and libraries in conjunction with seven venue partners: Z-arts Manchester, The Citadel in St Helens, Live at LICA in Lancaster, Waterside Arts Centre in Sale, Burnley Arts Centre, Spot On Rural Touring in Blackburn and The Boo, in Rossendale.

‘I have found babies to be the most responsive, instant, honest, individual and creative audience. I cannot count the times a parent has told me that their child has done something new during a session or stayed focused on a performance for much longer than they would expect. For me, the most treasured feature of sensory play and baby theatre is the relationship between baby and parent. It brings them together to share an experience as equals. A baby’s brain development is so dependent on their relationships with those around them and as I work I can see babies communicating with their grown-ups and wanting to share the experience from weeks old.’ Ruthie Boycott Garnett, Artist

The importance of ‘Invitations to Play’


A lovely blog post from our friends at Tyne and Wear Museums about creating open ended play opportunities for young children. Something that we are very passionate about and practice in our Early Years Programmes here in Manchester, particularly in our Early Years Atelier at the Whitworth.
Thanks to Hannah McKay-Jackson for sharing with us.

Toddlers’ Choice at the Whitworth

Have you ever wondered what really captures a toddler’s eye? 
Do they express a preference for bright primary colours, pictures of animals or more abstract patterns? 
Over the summer we worked with hundreds of toddlers to find out.

Each week over the summer visitors to the Early Years Atelier were presented with a selection of works from the wallpaper and textile collection. Armed with their voting stickers, babies and toddlers were invited to choose their favourite. Each week the artworks were grouped into themes and once their votes were cast children explored the theme further through sensory, imaginative and, of course, messy play in the Clore Learning Studio.

The favourite artworks, as voted by the children, are now on display in Toddlers’ Choice in the Whitworth’s new Collection Centre. Plus artworks created by toddlers in the Atelier can be viewed alongside collection artworks.

It has been a really fascinating and surprising process. The results show a clear preference for bold colour and pattern and not an animal in sight! In most cases, it was clear that children were instantly drawn towards a particular image – perhaps due to the preference of a particular pattern, shape or movement of a line.

“I was really surprised by how long that baby spent looking at all the images and then suddenly he just pointed at the artwork. Mum asked if that was the one he liked best and he pointed again. It was like he had really looked and made his mind up.”

Atelier Volunteer

It was interesting to observe how adults often made assumptions about the kind of images children would like and whether their child was really capable of making decisions when choosing their favourite images. Some adults would try to influence their child’s decision and others would be surprised by their child’s selection.  

“If I learned anything from this exercise, it was to take more time to wait, listen and observe children before making assumptions about their capabilities, preferences and interests.”

Michiko Fujii, Atelierista (Studio assisant)

To celebrate the launch of Toddlers’ Choice we threw a Toddler Art Party! Families were invited to join us for a special Atelier of taste, a feast for all the senses! Everything in the Atelier of taste was edible, embracing the exploratory nature of babies and toddlers! Food was not only eaten and enjoyed but used to create beautiful vibrant artworks too.

Toddlers are part of our lives at the Whitworth and this exhibition celebrates and recognises just how much we value their voice. Toddlers’ Choice has given us the opportunity to look at the collection afresh through the eyes of a child.

The Whitworth runs an award winning Early Years programme to find out more click here.

Creative Baby! The Beginnings of an idea…

A couple of weeks ago Hannah Mackay-Jackson visited Manchester to see some of our work with under 5s in action. Hannah, who works at the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead, has written this brilliant blog post about her experiences which we are delighted to share. We love sharing what we do and we are looking forward to watching Creative Baby! grow. Keep an eye on their blog for updates 

For my first blog post, I thought I’d give you some insight into how ‘Creative Baby!’ came about. This is a new monthly group I’ve developed for babies 0-12 months, which combines an exhibition tour, crafting activity, parachute games and songs, and a sensory play space inspired by the exhibition. Although several baby and toddler-focused groups meet at the Shipley, their activities mainly take place in the Lounge, and I wanted to develop something that really engaged babies and parents in our exhibitions.

Thinking about those parents who enjoyed a gallery visit pre-baby and would now like to introduce their baby to gallery-going, I embarked on a research trip to Manchester, where the Museums and Galleries Partnership (The Whitworth, Manchester Museum and Manchester City Galleries) are working collaboratively to highlight innovative, cultural practice with the under-twos. The Culturebabies website tells you more about their exciting work, which takes a really interesting and creative approach to early intervention, language and social development.

At The Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery I couldn’t stop smiling; my head was buzzing with ideas I couldn’t wait to take back to Gateshead, and everywhere I looked I saw young families being engaged in inspiring ways. At The Whitworth (which has since been awarded Museum of the Year) I was really struck by the Early Years Atelier (meaning ‘workshop’ or ‘studio’); a bright and airy room that not only offers creative activities for families, but smoothly opens out onto a welcoming patio, which seamlessly merges with an extensive public park. I was particularly interested to hear that the Whitworth employs a ‘cultural park keeper’ to help family audiences make the transition from using the park, to exploring inside the museum.

An equally enticing Early Years offer awaited me at Manchester Art Gallery, where I met some of the Learning staff and visited the Mini Art Club, which is just one of the gallery’s many offers for families. I delighted in the Clore Art Studio, where artists Jessica Wild and Sarah Marsh have created a space for families to interact creatively. Here, children and adults alike can explore pattern in exciting and innovative ways, and engage with the themes of the exhibition ‘House Proud’ in a unique and hands-on way. I was so taken with this space I didn’t want to leave; but downstairs more wonder awaited, in the Mini Art Club for 1-4 year olds.

This was a place of exploration, furnished with different textures and art materials, all beautifully presented in ways that invited investigative play. The most striking thing was that none of the children were making an artwork to take home; rather they were freely exploring an array of open-ended creative opportunities. Moving about at their own pace, the children were engrossed in using potato mashers to print on the vast rolls of paper covering the floor; observing how ribbons blew out from a fan; delighting in the scrunchy noise of foil; and exploring how voices were altered by whispering through a hosepipe. One boy spent much of the session putting a plastic waste paper bin on his head and peering through its mesh surface; occasionally taking it off and then deciding the world was far more interested when viewed in this way. This was about having a creative experience in the moment and in the gallery; and what a mesmerising experience it was!


The Clore Art Studio


Mini Art Club


Mini Art Club

I enjoyed talking to staff at Manchester Art Gallery about the Reggio Emilia philosophy that underpins their work with children. Much is written on this approach, and for those interested to find out more I’d recommend reading ‘The Hundred Languages of Children’. The approach puts great emphasis on the child’s environment, which should encourage collaboration, communication and exploration, offering inviting spaces for children to explore their creative interests. The child is the driver of their learning and the adult is the enabler, presenting opportunities for the child to take an investigative approach to the world. The title of the book mentioned above refers to the thinking that there are a hundred potential ‘languages’ through which the child communicates; they use many different creative expressions to show their understanding and interest, and to express themselves. Learning and play are intertwined as the child embarks on discovery through a myriad of creative ‘languages’.

This approach seemed to me the natural way to engage with children, particularly in a creative setting such as the gallery. With a head full of ideas, I returned to the Shipley Art Gallery to get planning. As I embarked on this new venture there were so many unknowns to navigate; How was I going to conduct an exhibition tour that would engage young babies? What should the sensory exploration environment look like? What balance should I strike between facilitated session and free play? Many more questions would emerge as ‘Creative Baby!’ took shape, and it was a creative adventure I was eager to embark on, and one that you can read more about in my next blog post!

For now, I leave you with the poem ‘The Hundred Languages of Children’, by Loris Malaguzzi, Founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach:

The child is made of one hundred.
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking.

A hundred.

Always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling, of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
to discover
a hundred worlds
to invent
a hundred worlds
to dream.

The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and at Christmas.

They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
are things
that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.

Walkabout in Reggio Emilia


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Hello, it’s Michiko Fujii here. I’m the Atelierista at the Whitworth. Working also as a freelance artist and creative practitioner for different galleries, children’s centres and schools across the North of England, I have often referred to the Reggio Emilia approach within both my research and also on a practical level for guidance and inspiration. The wealth and depth of documentation, publications, seminars and academic papers from the schools in Northern Italy have underlined its influence as an exemplary education model where theory is tightly woven into practice.

Working as the Whitworth Atelierista, I have been developing and delivering the weekly Early Years Atelier. This has provided the opportunity to observe a dynamic atelier space in action each week. The atelier runs in the Clore Learning Studio every Monday as a free, drop-in space for children aged 0-5 years. The fundamental difference being of course that in contrast to the Reggio Emilia atelier, our atelier is situated in an art gallery with a flow of different participants of mixed ages who drop in throughout the day, rather than it being a space inhabited by one small group within a nursery or pre-school classroom. It is perhaps more informal too, in that there is no teacher present. Operating within the context of learning and interpretation within a gallery environment, there are also no Early Years Foundation Stage learning objectives to be monitored and assessed, although that doesn’t mean that we aren’t achieving the learning goals.

Since opening, a range of materials and immersive spaces have been set up to form each atelier, inspired by key artworks and exhibits as starting points. Atelier themes have included black & white, natural materials, indoors-outdoors, geometric patterns and movement, light and dark, heavy and light. As the images above show, a range of materials have been used in both conventional and unconventional ways as children have brought their interests and imaginations to the space:



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Having run the atelier in the Whitworth for over six months, I decided it was time I visited the town of Reggio Emilia to research atelier spaces at the International Loris Malaguzzi Centre.  I was also keen to see whether there was something about the town of Reggio Emilia itself that reflected the work that was going on within the world-renowned schools. It is impossible to visit the schools without signing up to a paid research study trip, so this time I wanted to get a feel for Reggio Emilia as a place beyond the schools.

On a fast, cool train from Bologna, we arrived at an ultra-modern and rather deserted high speed rail station just outside the town of Reggio Emilia. The light and shadows cast by the extraordinary white beamed ‘ceiling’ above the platform were highly impressive and once in the main atrium below, each time a train passed over at high speed the building was filled with an immense burst of sound. Already our senses were alive in the sweltering heat! It was here at a vacant information desk that we also discovered that Reggio Children have created the Children’s Park at Milan Expo 2015 , which runs until the 31st October.

Taking a bus into the town centre from the high speed station, Reggio Emilia felt like a typical, sleepy little Italian town with tree-lined stradas, useful for people to find shade under in the intense 37-40 degree heat. It was also clear that the recession has taken a bite even in a prosperous town like Reggio as, upon asking for directions from a friendly Nigerian man, we were told that many people were struggling with long-term unemployment as jobs in the town were hard to come by. This perhaps explained the number of men hanging around in the shade in the parks and outside the train stations at midday.

As with most hot countries, in the the afternoon, the town seemed to become completely deserted as the heat intensified. However, night time in Reggio was a different matter as the streets were filled with activity. A number of free, large-scale, outdoor, cultural events took over the piazzas in the centre as live musicians played in the street, DJs took their decks outside, ballet companies performed on temporary platform stages in the central square, and tango dancers and circus acts entertained the crowds. In one small square, some local women had brought out vintage toys and games for families to play with as children stayed up well past the average UK child’s bedtime. It was also really impressive to see the huge crowds of unsupervised teenagers and young people welcomed in the street for the events. Here there was a sense of the whole town community (young and old) coming today as people set up fun, free, DIY, pop-up interventions.



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After absorbing the tastes, sights, sounds and atmosphere of the town, we took a day out to visit the Loris Malaguzzi Centre. Named after the visionary educator and founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, the centre showcases different aspects of the movement in a large, former Locatelli warehouse. It was well worth visiting the centre in mid-July as the building was virtually empty, so we were able to take in all the displays, images, videos and spaces in our own time. Perhaps the week earlier would have been a different matter though as the website had advertised a study visit and conference for educators.

Upon entering the building we bought a swift americano and biscotti to wake us up. The first stop was the Pause cafe – one of the designated areas of the Atelier of Tastes. A nice touch to this area was the open-ended materials placed in a small children’s area in the corner of the cafe, giving a taster of the Remida creative recycling project. Here, different samples of materials, image flashcards and words in different languages provided an insight into the way Reggio have worked to create a local, creative, recycling, resource centre, receiving industrial waste materials which are then sent on to the local schools to be used as open-ended resources in the classroom and ateliers.

Moving into the exhibition display areas, long, detailled documentation boards charted the history of Reggio Emilia as a partisan town whose citizens bravely resisted fascism duing WWII. A long timeline charts the influence of this progressive, forward-thinking town, whose inhabitants wanted to insure that such atrocities would never happen again. This strong sentiment led to the decision to create the Reggio schools and the displays illustrate how the visionary education approach came to be. To mirror this progression, in another corridor, a rich documentation board describes the way children were consulted in the development of the current Children’s Park at Milan Expo – which focuses on engaging children with the theme of sustainability through interactive, sensory exhibits, games and activities. The boards document the ways Reggio schools worked with young children to develop ideas and content for the Children’s Park.

The main reason I visited the centre was to get an insight into the way Reggio set up their atelier spaces. Both the digital and light ateliers are really worth visiting as they are huge rooms set up to demonstrate the numerous ways children can encounter and question light, transparency, translucency, shadow, reflection, objects, images, landscapes, projections, film, colour, rainbows, refraction, etc. in thoughtful, aesthetically pleasing spaces. Provocations and open-ended questions line the walls alongside the exhibits, and for further insight into how the ateliers in the schools would work, a Reggio atelierista runs a paid guided tour for visitors. Unfortunately, taking photos in the centre was strictly forbidden, so I spent much time taking notes and watching extensive video footage of children in the Reggio schools, exploring the world of natural materials, pens, mark-making, etc.

You would need at least a day (if not longer) to explore the Loris Malaguzzi centre as there is a lot to see and absorb, such is the nature of the approach. Hours passed quickly as we focused on the detailled displays, documentation and discourse. There is also a bookshop in the centre which sells all the publications which provide further extensive information to carry away. AND the Pause Atelier of Tastes restaurant is really worth a visit too, especially if you have a starving husband in tow. He was happy to propose a return to the centre for Day 2, on the condition we return to the restaurant which is run by friendly, talkative chefs and seemed to be the place where all the Reggio staff spent their lunch hour – in true Italian style.

Unfortunately, there were no children to be seen though, as it seems most were either out in town or on holiday. The centre is more for educators and professionals to meet up and learn more about the thinking behind the approach. Reggio Children had also taken over part of the subway underneath the railway lines nearby as further documentation showed how adults and children had illustrated bicycles through drawing, wire and bike parts – quite apt as numerous adults and children zipped past as I took photos, in the region of Emiliano Reggiano – known to be the most progressive, bicycle friendly region in Italy.

All in all, I definitely think a return visit to this town and region is on the cards again soon. Hopefully along with a trip to Milan before the end of October!