Great expectations

Fostering criticial awareness in the very young is not a waste of time, as one nursery school has discovered. Mike Prestage reports

The popularity of media studies at GCSE, A- and degree level shows no sign of waning, but teachers have tended to fight shy of introducing the subject to primary children, perhaps because of an assumption that the very young do not possess sufficiently developed critical faculties to make the exercise worthwhile. Now a project involving Ashfield nursery school and the Laing Gallery, both in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is demonstrating that even young children have far greater critical aptitude than many professionals realise.

Ashfield started to foster greater critical awareness among its children by taking them on trips to the cinema. After a first visit to watch a Postman Pat cartoon, they returned to see how the images appeared on screen by watching the projectionist at work, and learned about the effects of light and animation techniques.

Film appreciation was further augmented by giving the children specialised "stills"cameras and teaching them how to use them.

"We have to extend the children's knowledge," says Susan Newell, one of the school's teachers. "They are surrounded by images, still and moving. They spend hours of their lives in front of the television. We wanted to tap into that to give cultural experiences."

The cameras were purchased with grants from Tyneside TEC and Toyota. They are large, chunky, child-friendly gadgets. Larger than a conventional camera, they have hand-grips on either side and a goggle-style viewfinder, which enables a child to focus steadily on a subject.

Susan Newell believes this was a ground-breaking step. "Much of what we have done is deemed by many to be an adult field," she says. "What people forget is that children are often much better than adults, because they have no preconceptions."

While the children were training their eyes to look through a viewfinder and select a photo-worthy composition, the school also began to take the children on visits to the Laing Gallery, where they were encouraged to study a range of works from paintings to sculpture and choose their favourites as a basis for further work back in the classroom.

Headteacher Joan Lister says that gallery staff had at first been sceptical about the idea of school visits by children as young as Ashfield's.

"It was fascinating to see how the fears of the gallery staff and the fear of the school staff about taking the children there disappeared," she says.

Gallery staff, in particular, were astonished at the children's evident appreciation of art and the ways in which they expressed their views. Some of the children were quite critical of what they did and didn't like.

"By the end, children were telling gallery staff how the work should be displayed," says Mrs Lister. "At what height and whether the display was light enough or too dark."

Over the course of a year, the children studied not only paintings and sculptures but film, moving and still pictures. It was the unexpected that often thrilled them most. One child was fascinated by the humidifiers in the middle of each gallery. She listened to the machine "breathing" and kept going back to feel the air on her face. Her painting back at school reflected this machine rather than the works it was designed to protect.

Similarly, the projector often gripped the children's attention more than the film it was showing; one boy's work showed that the large red cinema curtains and the way they moved was what caught his eye. Allowing the children to go off at such tangents and find their own source of inspiration was the key to the whole enterprise.

Mrs Lister believes this project has helped the children express themselves better than more traditional means. "We were successful because of the way the whole process developed," she says. "The children enjoyed many different experiences along the way. We didn't just sit them down with stills cameras and let them get on with it."

A video pack, supported by Northern Arts, has been produced showing the work done at Ashfield nursery. It is hoped that this will inspire others to tackle film and media studies with young children and show how much can be achieved.

"It is about our expectations of children," says Mrs Lister. "It never dawned on me that children couldn't do this. The most inventive minds in the world belong to young children."

The video of the Ashfield media studies project costs Pounds 6.99 and is available from Tyneside Video, Tyneside Video Shop, 10 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne NE1 6QG; tel: 0191 232 5592

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