A provocation by Liz Pemberton (The Black Nursery Manager)
Updated: Jun 24, 2022
What do you think is important to achieve at this festival when you’re creating art with, for and by children?
When we think about children and art, we often think about what is pre prescribed, particularly from an Early Years settings perspective. As a former Nursery Manager from Birmingham and as somebody who has worked in the Early Years sector for close to 20 years in various capacities including as a secondary school Teacher of Childcare, Health & Social Care & Drama to now as an early year’s anti-racist trainer and consultant I can’t tell you how many times the word “art” has been interpreted by the many, many practitioners, parents and students that I have worked with. Ironic really, given the word because of course, that is the beauty of art, isn’t it? it is something to be interpreted. But, I guess, what I am getting at is that for some, the adult-led notion of art for children is for that child to be handed an A4 sheet of white paper with a thick black outlined picture that adults then proceed to tell children to carefully “colour in nicely” and “be careful not to go outside of the lines.” We forget that art is also encompassing of dance and drama, of music and poetry and can only be produced through the most important thing that we can give our children- the ability to imagine and dream and that so much of this is achieved through play.
But what cultural strands inform play and imagination? Is it through singing wind the bobbin up along with the accompanying hand gestures, which originated in Yorkshire textile towns more than 100 years ago or by singing Mr Vegas’ 2012 reggae version of the hymn I am blessed as the grand finale song for pre-school graduation? (No guesses which song my pre-schoolers sang every year for their graduation). This early obsession with “neatness” is such a limiting instruction for children, who, by nature are “messy”, free, rule breaking and limitless. How dull it is to then be encouraged to colour in and stay in the lines and who taught us that this is what qualified a legitimate piece of art for children? I’ll tell you who, adults.
When I was invited to offer my thoughts about this topic for the festival, I had a clear sense of why. There is an acute awareness on my part that I am somewhat in the minority as a Black voice within a sector that is predominantly and disproportionately white. We are responsible for shaping the lives and outcomes for a U.K whose child population is far from just white. There is clearly something not adding up there but isn’t that symptomatic of U.K society in general and its workforces. We see where Black people are overrepresented and also where they are significantly underrepresented, and it isn’t because we are not good enough or are genetically predisposed to being fast runners and better footballers.
That I am in a sector where policy and guidance is delivered with a top-down heavy approach straight from the DfE to the nursery pre-school room and we are regulated by body (OFSTED) whose clear lack of understanding about childhood is depressingly obvious in its failure to detect the multiplicities of childhoods and early years settings who are informed by the cultures of the children, families and practitioners who constitute the setting. Invariably this leads to an extremely limited lens through which “outstanding” settings (demonstrations of children’s learning and development) is measured and of course, that is through a lens of whiteness- a framework of a particular class, ability, heteronormativity and patriarchal notions of what learning looks like and how well those responsible for facilitating learning can evidence and track it for the satisfaction of the inspectors who are churned out by this regulatory body.
What is missing from art created by children, is the child. Simple as that may sound it is rarely achieved nor carefully considered.
A sense of self In our work we are always told to consider who the children are and how they show up in any space that they occupy, and that sense of self becomes a myriad of things because children come with their own identities, agency, and way of doing and expressing. As adults all our job is, is to facilitate and scaffold this development in a nonobtrusive fashion. Of course, this is extremely hard because by the time we reach adulthood we are often cemented and rooted in our own ways of doing and expressing. We hold our values dearly and whether consciously or subconsciously pass these things on to the children in our care. So for example, if we are of the belief that art is something that is racialised and gendered and is done by people who occupy a particular body because that is what our lived experiences have told us and what wider society further affirms, we may be more inclined to encourage those children who are able-bodied, racialised as white and gendered as girls to take up more arts-based activities than any of the little Black boys diagnosed with ADHD that we may encounter.
The question that we must be conscious of asking ourselves here is why? And how often do assumptions like this feed into our work and opportunities to provide this access point for all of our children if they show a liking of arts-based things?
Exercise Think about the art teachers that you had at school, what was their racialised identity? In hindsight where would you have positioned them socio-economically? What was their gendered identity? How did the other teachers interact with them? And in hindsight perhaps how do you think art or the arts-based subjects were valued in comparison to maths or the sciences?
Uncomfortable Truths Much of the dialogue that has occupied society, particularly since the social uprising born out of the summer of 2020 has been that of race, social justice, and equity. For many of us who are racialised as Black the sudden centralising of our voices during a global pandemic propelled the dialogue about racial injustice because of the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin had us shouting that Black lives Matter. What became even more hyper visible because of social media was that comrades from various other racialised identities and memorised groups joined in to rally support and strengthen our positionality against systemic racism and a backdrop of hundreds of years of the brutality and violence directed to Black bodies, but what did this mean for our children who had bared witnesses to this and how did we use this to facilitate conversations about the expressions (read art) that has inevitably been born out of this time? Often is the case that the framing of talking about race and racism with children is positioned socially and politically as not appropriate for fear of exposing them to the harshness and realities of the world that they live in, but I would argue that to not speak to children about race is a privilege. When children are encouraged to produce self-portraits in our early years spaces or start to draw their families and friends, we know that there is this route that some children take where there is an evolution of that expression and their mark making becomes interpreted by us, the adults, as stick figures and then an evolution to the insertion of a colour palette. It is at this point that we see how children are really starting to consider the racialised constructs about the world around them as well as considering their place in it. What colour is my hair? What colour is mommy’s face? What colour is my brother? What colour am I? To ignore that this is something that is taking place in some strange attempt to not want to bring up “race” is indicative that you have much more work to do as the adult in exploring exactly why you feel like this and what you will do to reckon with overcoming this feeling?
We cannot separate society and politics from the early years space, nor should we seek to. The early years space and early childhood is the place from which so much thought about society and the politics that govern the world that our children are a part of and have a stake in is shaped and should be openly explored. How often are we told that children are like sponges? Remember, children will learn their social cues from you and if you do not engage with opportunities to talk about race as a first step in countering racism or how skin colours range as they start to do something as powerful as select the colour of paint that they feel best reflects themselves then how will you know that it is at the point that the Black child selects the pink paint to draw themselves that , that is your cue to interrupt as an adult and gently guide them to the Brown paint instead and use this as a learning opportunity.
Art as communication As we explore the power of art being central as a tool for children to explore and express let us look more closely as to why we must be explicit in our understanding about how art for children is a powerfully communicative medium. Speech and language are often prioritised as the way in which children communicate and whilst speech is something to consider children acquire speech and language at various points during their life, if at all. We must be conscious that even as very young babies the art of mark making is happening in their high chair at meal times when they pour their food from the bowl on to the tray and start to submerge their hands in it swirling and making patterns and feeling the texture of their creation. Depending on your response to this they may express their delight in their masterpiece by giggling if you too put your hands in or they may take the cue that what they have done is bad if you respond with exasperation and “clean up the mess” immediately. This communication of joy and “look what I have done!” as that baby does this even though they have not acquired speech and language as we know it is an explicit form of communication that we must learn to be fluent in and responsive to. The pouring of food on to a high chair tray can lead us to the outdoor environment with water and soil, mix the two together and create another medium that babies can use to communicate with.
Value and Importance, some considerations. As this festival will draw upon the outdoors and community, we must be clear about all that I have provided by means of provocation in this piece. As we construct art with children do, we position them as co- collaborators or as beings who we do art to and hope that they get involved with what we think they should be doing with our pre-prepared colouring sheets?
Whose voices are valued and whose expressions are celebrated? And how do we use this festival to create resistance to dominant voices and to redress the balance? How will the art produced with a community inform our perspectives without othering and exoticizing? How do we move away from creating “Chinese lanterns” or “African headwraps” with little or no understanding about the rich cultural tapestry that has led to the production of such pieces? Who is the outdoors for, are the English heritage spaces welcoming to our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children or are we so caught up with the narrative created by a society that we are all a part of that sees those children as an extension of how we see their families? As pests, eyesores, and thieves? How will our art challenge the notion of forest school being for middle class white children with wellies and rain macs versus Black and Brown children living in high rise flats who play together in the communal concrete space on the estate? How do we build in a nuanced and multifaceted perspective using the art of all of our children and let their narrative be the one that we are taking the lead from so that our own limited perspectives van be challenged and widened? If we are not using this as an opportunity to re imagine and dismantle structures that no longer serve the children born in the last five years, how do we expect to see a different future accessible for all to invest in and to see a very real tangible return on those investments?
Art is a powerful tool and we must allow every child to create it.
About the Author.
Liz Pemberton (she/her) is an award winning early years anti-racist trainer and consultant.. Her company, The Black Nursery Manager Ltd, focuses on providing tailored support working closely with Local Authorities, early years organisations, Primary school teachers and a range of other professionals in the sector to promote the best anti-racist practice. With over 16 years in the education sector, Liz’s roles have included Secondary School Teacher (QTS), public speaker and Nursery Manager. This has enabled her to teach, manage, support and educate early years students, practitioners and professionals in a variety of forums.
@lizpemtbnm on twitter
@theblacknurserymanager on instagram