Let it all hang out;Arts

6th August 1999 at 01:00
Developing pupils'creativity is seen as a teaching trend

past its sell-by date. But Esther Read found a pilot project in Inverness that proves it's more than a passing

Like bell-bottoms and mini-skirts, educational fashions come and go. Creativity, all the rage in the Sixties and Seventies, has been declared a fashion accessory. In the sternly accountable Nineties, what measurable outcome can there be for a child's unique and individual creative output?

Two groups with some suggestions are the Inverness-based Hi-Arts (Highland amp; Islands Arts) and Children in Scotland. Back in 1996, the talk at tea-break in the premises they each rent from Highlands and Islands Enterprise was about the New Directions scheme, proposed by the Scottish Arts Council Lottery Fund. Hi-Arts wanted to find a way of using the scheme to provide artists with a means of undertaking work in the communities in which they lived.

Children in Scotland was concerned that the Government's new National Childcare Strategy would result in more children spending time in childcare settings which were not geared to meet their needs. What could be done to ensure that the opportunities offered were of sufficient quality - particularly with regard to the arts, which were being progressively squeezed as the focus switched to promoting core subjects like numeracy and literacy?

The answer for both organisations came in the evolution of a pilot project, "Stimulating Creativity", in which professional artists agreed to work with preschool playgroups, childminders and out-of-school clubs in an effort to pass on their skills to both the children and their group leaders. Twelve groups in four geographical areas (Skye and Lochalsh, Argyll, Ross and Cromarty and Orkney) co-operated in the project. All had strong local arts organisations who nominated suitable artists.

But individual group leaders had significant reservations, so project co-ordinators Linda Thompson and Shona Arthur organised an initial training weekend in which a working relationship between the artists and the playleaders began to evolve. Even so, scepticism remained as to how it would all work in


Shifting the balance from "product-based" to "process-based" activities made some people uneasy. It wasn't just the adults wanting to control children by using, for example, step-by-step processes such as templates or stencils to make life easier for themselves. It was about constraints on time and resources and about the adults lacking

confidence in their own creative


Susan Grieve, an experienced playleader, recalls having strong reservations about experimenting with drama in her playgroup. "My first thought was that this was going to be horrendous," she admits. Only when she began to see the benefits, both for the children and the playleader, did she change her mind.

In one group, a little girl whose behaviour following the death of her mother was causing concern began to "smile and participate". "I realised," Susan Grieve says, "that drama doesn't have to be a big production on stage. It can be as long or short as you like. The important thing is to take your lead from the


Taking the lead from the children became something of a theme for the project, for the artists as well as the group leaders. Most had worked with children previously, but few had worked with any as young as the preschool groups. The childminders' groups and the out-of-school clubs posed their own challenges: not only was there a broad age range but, especially in the case of the out-of-school groups, children often came and went during the session and you couldn't rely on the same ones being there each week.

Furthermore, the art-form based approach, adopted so that the individual musicians, artists, dance and drama specialists could each focus on their own groups, proved particularly inappropriate when it came to working with the youngest children, for whom music, dance, story-telling or the making of mobiles all led quite naturally into one another.

The artists discovered that they could not be fixed in their ideas of what they wanted to achieve. What was important was flexibility and a willingness to improvise in response to the children's own ideas.

Robert Livingston, development director for Hi-Arts, says: "One of the most important things the project demonstrated is that children are not a blank sheet. The aim must be to create an environment in which they, as learners, are allowed to reach their own decisions, either as part of a team or as individuals. Only then can they grow their skills and develop the sort of self-confidence which will be transferable into other areas of learning."

Childminder Gillian Newman confesses to taking the musical instruments out once a month - but only after swallowing a couple of painkillers. But she found the sessions a revelation: "I thought music was about playing a recognisable tune," she says. "What I've discovered is that it's about teaching children how to listen, so that they can create their own rhythms or sound resonances."

One of the toughest assignments was that tackled by dancer Caroline Reagh and musician Chrissie Stewart. None of the boys in their out-of-school club was willing to co-operate with the original idea to create some kind of "piece". So the pair resorted to skipping and playground games instead, using these as an introduction to the musicdance skills originally intended.

Three of the boys (two of whom had recognised educational and social needs) did all they could to thwart the activities. As Caroline Reagh puts it: "It was almost as though they were afraid of achieving anything, even though they all had natural rhythm and bags of energy."

What looked like a lost cause changed the day one of the boys unexpectedly began tapping his feet to the music and was encouraged to join Caroline in a step-dance. As he responded to the rhythm with mounting enthusiasm, his friends tried desperately to distract him - but this time there was no holding him back. "I'm doing better than you anyway!" was his defiant cry.

The project devisers felt it was important to consolidate their achievements. The Highlands and Islands Enterprise training department came up with additional support, providing funds for a professionally produced video documenting the project and further training materials which could be used to support Scottish Vocational Qualification programmes for childcare


But the legacy stretches further. Two new projects have been developed spontaneously in Skye and Argyll since the project ended, both by artists involved in the original scheme. Open evenings have been held to encourage more of the community to learn about it. While parents and playleaders in both the public and private sectors attended, the strongest representation was from the professional childcare sector looking for inspiration.

All of this activity confirms Robert Livingston's view that the "Stimulating Creativity" project is capable of being taken up and expanded by arts groups and the educational sector right across the country, as they realise that developing the creative potential of their staff can help develop the creative potential of the nation's children.

For a copy of the video, contact

Hi-Arts at 20 Bridge Street, Inverness IV1 1QR. Tel: 01463 244271, fax: 01463 244331, e-mail: fiona@hiarts.demon.co.uk

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