Do dragons exist? The children of St Saviour's nursery and infants' school in Bath are undecided. "There's no such thing. They're only stories; they were never alive," says Ruairidh. "There is such a thing as dragons," insists Jessie, "'cos when knights in shining armour and Romans were alive, dragons were alive." But what do they look like? Where do they come from? And how did they get so big?
Most nursery staff might just smile benignly at such chatter, but at St Saviour's they are all ears - somewhere in this metaphysical small talk is a clue to help them shape their next lesson plan. They don't know it, but these children are part of an experiment that could set the agenda for a new kind of pre-school education. Nine months ago, St Saviour's was one of five early years centres in Bath that each linked up with an artist and a cultural centre, and embarked on a pilot project called 5x5x5.
As the name suggests, it has proved to be more than the sum of its parts.
While the content of what is taught in our classrooms becomes ever more prescriptive, 5x5x5 turns this trend on its head, making children the protagonists of their learning and the architects of an "emergent curriculum". The project began with the children and their teacher visiting the cultural centre - for the youngsters from St Saviour's, that meant a behind-the-scenes tour of the Theatre Royal Bath, exploring the auditorium, stage and dressing rooms with artist Sasha Laskey. This was the first of the "provocations and interventions" - little nudges teachers and artists hope will be catalysts for the children's creativity.
Their teacher, Ed Harker, expected them to be wowed by the huge space or hundreds of seats, but their imaginations were grabbed by something else entirely. One group was entranced by the way the curtain went up and down, while another became fascinated by a scale model of a set they found lying on a table.
Back at school, the model-makers and story-makers set about creating an environment more suited to their new roles. That old staple of nursery classrooms, the home corner, was soon dismantled and a more adaptable, loosely defined construction emerged in its place - a stage, with drapes, a borrowed spotlight, boxes of costumes and "magic" objects chosen by the children. Here they convened for storytelling sessions, giving free rein to their imaginations - which is where the dragons come in.
Without the usual stand-bys of books and toys, staff found the process a little daunting at first. "We were a traditional nursery," says Mr Harker.
"We would do 10 activities and spend 10 minutes on each." Now the children can easily spend an hour or more engrossed in simple prop making or acting out stories and, says Mr Harker, "the toys hardly come off the shelf".
Instead, the children have begun demanding simple, everyday objects - masking tape, feathers, string, sticks and cardboard - to fuel their imaginative creations. "The children are happy and engaged, they seem to have so many ideas and so much energy," says Mr Harker. "When we clear up the mess at the end of the day, the learning is much more visible. It feels like proper teaching."
This way of teaching may be virtually unheard of in mainstream British education, but in the northern Italian province of Reggio Emilia it is the norm. A touring exhibition of Italian children's work came to the UKthree years ago. It was called The Hundred Languages of Children, a metaphor for their many forms of expression, and caught the eye of Penny Hay, arts education development officer for Bath and North East Somerset. Ms Hay teamed up with early years consultant Mary Fawcett, and the pair hatched a plan to bring a little bit of Italy to this corner of southwest England.
They were advised by the exhibitions organiser, Sightlines, which also co-ordinates a growing network of UK early years educators interested in Reggio Emilia's methods. This affluent, socialist northern Italian province, situated between the gastronomic capitals of Parma and Modena, began to reinvent its nursery education after the Second World War. Its methods have been carefully developed over half a century of observing, listening and responding to children. Every nursery in Reggio Emilia employs a full-time artist to work alongside the teacher, but their job is to enable the children, not direct them. Great care is taken to create a stimulating classroom setting. In the philosophy of Reggio Emilia, "the environment is the third teacher". With these things in place, learning takes off.
As Loris Malaguzzi, founder and director of this pre-school movement, puts it: "Once children are helped to perceive themselves as authors or inventors, once they are helped to discover the pleasures of inquiry, their motivation and interest explode."
At the independent Kinder Garden nursery in Bath, the theme of exploring space emerged from weekly meetings between the children, artist Deborah Jones and Daniel Hinchcliffe, visual arts co-ordinator at the University of Bath's creative arts department. When a huge bundle of willow wands, or "withies", appeared on the nursery floor one day, the children soon began using them as extensions of their arms, probing the space above and around them. After they were shown ways of fastening lengths of the twigs together, they began to build a large irregular shape, which they decorated with ribbons, feathers, wool and Ripstock (parachute fabric) and hung with flags, birds and bats. This huge skeleton of branches was compared to many things, but never named - it was simply their creation.
This process of teachers taking a lead from the children (what Ms Hay calls "child-initiated, teacher-framed" learning) was a revelation for staff at Kinder Garden. "The major difference we have found is that the children feel empowered," says Liz Elders, the nursery proprietor. "They become absorbed in those materials and the connections they can make with them.
They are making so many more decisions for themselves about what they want to do, the materials they want to use, and planning their own sessions."
Instead of imposing ideas, teachers have used children's comments as the signposts for the next topic; investigations of colour, gardens and buildings have followed their promptings. Observing and recording these processes is a delicate science and a crucial aspect of the pilot project.
The process of reflection central to the Reggio Emilia philosophy seems to have lost nothing in the translation.
In June, 5x5x5 completed its first phase with an exhibition at the Michael Tippett centre in Bath Spa University College of the children's artwork and their activities, recorded in dozens of photographs and transcripts of conversations. "We wanted to push boundaries and influence practice in such a way that the child really does initiate learning," says Ms Hay. "But one of the big findings was that it not only benefited children, but was a powerful learning experience for the adults."
Teachers have been rejuvenated and talk about rediscovering their sense of vocation. "It has brought me back to what I first believed," says one. "My career in education had chipped those beliefs away." Parents have been impressed, too, with one mother commenting to a nursery teacher: "This is the way childhood should be." And, noting the way each centre's work had been carefully weaved into the foundation stage requirements, one visiting Ofsted inspector pronounced it "wonderful". But the greatest beneficiaries have been the children. Their creativity still astounds Liz Elders.
"Sometimes when there's this big empty space in the classroom, I think, 'is something going to happen?' But if you stand back, something will happen - and the most amazing things do happen."
Penny Hay, BNES arts development officer, tel: 01225 396425.Sightlines: www.sightlines-initiative.com. Its co-ordinator, Robin Duckett, was adviser to the project. Tel: 0191 261 7666.Nesta: www.nesta.org.ukourawardeesprofiles3281index.html
HOW TO MAKE IT HAPPEN
Five early settings (three nurseries and two infant schools), five cultural centres (including the University of Bath, Theatre Royal Bath, Royal Photographic Society, Hotbath Gallery and Bath Spa University College) and five artists. Individual mentors attached to each triangle met every month to discuss the progress of each group, swap ideas and record developments.
More than 100 children were involved.
The triangles met for half a day every week for 20 weeks. All sides believed that this continuity - rather than a short, concentrated residency - added to the cumulative effect. The artists and educators would spend time after each session reflecting on progress and their next steps.
The project began with meeting of the triangles in October 2002. Once their work was under way, there were regular review meetings and two interim exhibitions before the final exhibition at Bath Spa University College in June.
The project has been managed by Bath and North East Somerset's arts development team and is a key part of the council's education plan. Its main funding came from a pound;42,500 grant from the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (Nesta), with additional support from the LEA and Arts Council South West.
Penny Hay has put in a pound;200,000 funding bid to Nesta which, if successful, will help 5x5x5 expand to take in another five centres, with more professional development and dissemination of the findings.