Artists Interviews

February 2013: Orla Kelly

Órla Kelly interviews Julie Clarke

Guest Editor Órla Kelly interviews Julie Clarke, Youth and Education Arts Officer at Fingal County Council, about recent early years initiatives.

Órla Kelly: What does your role in the Fingal Arts Office entail?

Julie Clarke: My role as Youth & Education Officer in Fingal County Council Arts Office requires me to research, design and programme arts education activities for children and young people in County Fingal. Artists, schools, youth groups, arts and education organisations, fellow local authority officers, children, young people, and their parents, are my primary work partners. Crèches and childcare organisations are a recent addition to that list.

Órla Kelly: What early years projects to date have you engaged with/funded?

Julie Clarke: In 2010 we began a process of investigating the possibility of delivering an early years project with mothers and children of the Travelling community in Fingal. Artist Jackie Maguire worked closely with Fingal Arts Office and the residents of two halting sites in Fingal for this project. It highlighted a deficiency in arts provision for young children (0-5years) in Fingal, and so we set about investigating various means by which we could reach out and engage this sector of the community. Visits were made to some of the new community facilities in Fingal, to ascertain their suitability for early years projects. Tyrellstown, Ongar and Applewood Community Centres show great potential for future initiatives. Each centre has a residential crèche, and Fingal County Council’s Community Department support the mother and toddler groups which meet in these centres on a regular basis. Both the crèche and mother and toddler groups would welcome early years arts initiatives.
In 2012, I had the pleasure of meeting you Orla, Laura de Burca and Helen Barry with a view to programming an early years event. Our plan was to design a project for children outside of any formal childcare setting, with parental involvement at its core. We visited the grounds of Farmleigh Estate and knew it was perfect for what we wanted to provide Fingal’s young citizen’s with - a safe, comfortable environment, where both they and their parents could create and learn together. The programme titled, Now We Are Ready to Start! was set and delivered in October and November 2012 with great success. Interest in the programme was so high, that many of the parents wishing to attend with their children were unable to, because the event was fully booked within a few days of advertising.

Órla Kelly: How does early years arts fit in with the aims of the Fingal Arts Office and do you think that early years arts activities has become an agenda item in terms of providing for the needs of one of the youngest and fastest growing council areas/ populations in Ireland?

Julie Clarke: We are embracing a new era of programming in Fingal Arts Office as we begin to research and write our Arts Plan for 2013-2017. Early years is identified as a priority within the Youth & Education programme for the next Arts Plan. We acknowledge early years arts practice as a means of supporting the social, educational and creative development of the child, during their early formative years. We aim to identify a suitable model of practice which could be delivered in Fingal through our two arts centres, community centres, libraries, pre-schools, crèches, and other pertinent spaces. Ideally children of all ages should have the opportunity to access quality arts activities on an ongoing basis, irrespective of their geographical location or financial circumstances.
We are guided by Aistear, the National Early Childhood Curriculum Framework, and benefit from the knowledge shared by national and international early years programmes, research and literature.

Órla Kelly: What has the response from parents and children been so far for the early years projects you have been engaged with?

Julie Clarke: The participating children and parents of Now We Are Ready to Start! responded with amazing enthusiasm and curiosity! The artists delivered the sessions with great care, creating an environment where the children and parents could participate at a level they were comfortable with. Some attended all of the sessions and others attended just the one. Either way, all expressed an interest in attending future early years arts events in Fingal.
A number of parents took the time to contact Fingal Arts Office following their participation, to share their observations. One parent noted a growth in their four year old child’s interest in arts activities and ability to participate both in group work, and independently. Another parent shared her surprise at her three year old child’s ingenuity; the child had found and used everyday materials in her home to replicate activities she had taken part in during one of the sessions.

Órla Kelly: There was a piece in the Irish Times about early years creative activities just before Christmas briefly stating how fast some places on early years projects in Fingal booked out. Do you think that early years arts is in ways a novelty for parents who want to do something different with their children, or is there an understood and respected value of early years arts present? (Perhaps a bit of both?)

Julie Clarke: There is a bit of both and I think that is healthy. Parents that believe their young children would enjoy and benefit from attending something new are open-minded and great participants. Also, it is interesting to hear observations from diverse perspectives - the parent who is predisposed towards the arts and the parent who is not. If we want early years arts practice to be all inclusive and become a staple in all children’s education, then I believe, at this stage of early years arts planning in Ireland, it matters little why the parent brought the child. Either reason for attending provides project managers with the opportunity to engage the child (and parent) in a quality arts experience. We hope the experience will encourage them to return for more.

Órla Kelly: In Now We Are Ready To Start! in Farmleigh, there were a few parents who came to all of the sessions and it was outlined by them that they could see developments in their child stemming directly from the activities engaged with. But in the main it’s not so easy to see or capture impact of work through a single engagement. Is there value in trying to evaluate what is done and its impacts, etc., as for many it is such a new field of experience and if so how do we do that? (Photos, funding for research?..)

Julie Clarke: Definitely, documentation is a vital part of any programme and ideally a budget should be allocated for it specifically. We recorded Now We Are Ready to Start! using photography and video. We had a good photographer, who didn’t inhibit the children and still got close enough to capture interesting moments. The email feedback from parents contributed towards, and assisted in evaluating the programme. It would be ideal to be able to capture the children’s words and actions which accompany their drawings, songs, and movements also. Consideration has been, and will be given to funding research of long term initiatives.

Órla Kelly: What do you see as the most important element of early years arts programmes or events for children, their parents and for artists?

Julie Clarke: There are many vital elements, and it is difficult to give one priority over the others, however, in Now We Are Ready to Start! the artistic content was fundamental. For all involved, it was imperative that the programme provided opportunities for the child’s imagination, artistry and creativity to develop. Three professional artists designed and facilitated the programme which ensured aesthetic quality.

Órla Kelly: In your experience to date, as artist and youth and education arts officer, what works really well / or what has been most successful for the participants and their parents in early years arts events/programmes?

Julie Clarke: Children have a natural instinct to express how they feel through their voice, movement, gestures, acting and doodles. Often they move between these forms of expression at a fast pace, but also with great ease. All the sessions in Now We Are Ready to Start! incorporated several art disciplines - visual art, storytelling, music, song, movement. Suitable media and materials were supplied for each art discipline, allowing the parent and child to learn about a wide variety of media. This integrated arts approach worked really well.

Órla Kelly: Seeing some of the photos from some projects it is very obvious how engaged the children, parents and artists are with activities and it’s a real joy to see such absorbed concentration. What has been the most inspiring or beautiful moment within the programmes you are involved with?

Julie Clarke: Observing the child’s inherent ability for spontaneous play and creativity was certainly inspiring. We programmed Now We Are Ready to Start! with the belief that the sessions would provide children with something unobtainable from any other source, i.e, they would learn about the arts. The children were uninhibited in the space we provided for them; all materials were suitable for their age group and the space was decorated with their height in mind, to allow maximum engagement. The artists were well experienced in early years arts practice and delivered the programme flawlessly. It was great to see what early years arts practice can achieve when correctly resourced.

Órla Kelly: What has been the most exciting / innovative arts education programme for children you have encountered in your research or on your travels?
Julie Clarke: I have encountered many models of good practice in arts education for children, and in the context of early years education practice, the Reggio Emilia approach remains to the fore. However, the school based project, Room 13, also holds my interest. Initiated in the UK, the project has been adapted and used as a model for arts education throughout the world. Supporting schools in Fingal to establish sustainable projects of this nature is certainly an ambition of Fingal Arts Office.

Órla Kelly: What is the next early years programme/event on the agenda for you?
Julie Clarke: Now We Are Ready to Start! has assisted Fingal Arts Office asses the feasibility and desirability of future early years arts programmes. The public are keen to participate and with artists and organisations eager to collaborate, I believe future programmes are feasible. As mentioned, I am in continued talks with artists and organisations about the future of our early years arts programme, and researching innovative ways to engage our young citizens. We are aware of the Aistear Curriculum and its value as a tool from which best practice can develop. All plans are tentative at the moment, but keep an eye on our website all information will be posted there in due course.


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