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 https://www.facebook.com/Culturekidsmanchester/for 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