This post features a reflection upon my visit to the Atelier van Licht at the Centraal Museum in Utretch, The Netherlands. The Atelier was being presented as part of the museum’s Nice’n’Light exhibition (17 October 2015 – 24 January 2016).
Last month I travelled to the Netherlands to meet with Annemieke Huisingh, the founder and creative force behind the Atelier van Licht. The atelier has been running for many years, continuously moving around different galleries, museums and community centers within the Netherlands.
Within the art-science atelier (art studio) children aged 3-12 years are given the resources, time and space to create, experiment and investigate the phenomenon of light. The space is designed for children to direct their own learning through the experimenting, questioning, hypothesizing and playing. Children are able to learn with their hands through self-directed, open-ended play allowing for the exploration of new creative processes and expression of personal ideas. The space is a highly curated, painstaking thought-through and designed in a way to guide children through deep learning experiences led by their own interests. The important role of adults within the space is also emphasized with the presence of ‘atelieristas’ (artist educators) whose role is to introduce new concepts and demonstrate techniques to children with the aim of sparking curiosity and creativity, leading to new thinking pathways.
The Atelier van Licht has been designed by an interdisciplinary team of specialists consisting of a scientist, pedagogist, industrial designer and artist. The team start with an idea or provocation, for example the concept of the refraction of light. From this point they collaboratively develop and prototype ideas until it reaches a physical form that is accessible and meaningful to young children. Final activities and play environments are often simple in design but have a high potential to be manipulated, transformed, modified through children’s processes of self-learning. The team continuously responds to how children play within the space with nothing remaining static or predictable.
I found the approach of putting together an interdisciplinary team to design the atelier environment particularly interesting. It is something I have been observing the development of in a handful of progressive informal learning environments such as The Tinkering Studio at The Exploratorium in San Francisco and MAKESHOP in Pittsburgh. It is also the process used by Reggio Emilia to develop their atelier spaces at the Loris Malaguzzi Centre in Italy. This concept is something which hasn’t been replicated within art galleries and is an area that I am particularly interested in exploring within my doctoral research.
My conversation with Annemieke focused on the need to develop more ‘creative studios’ for young children within our community. Every creative practitioner has their space for making – a cook has his kitchen, a furniture maker has his workshop, a dancer has his studio however there are not places within the community that children can go to freely experiment and creatively play. Annemieke pointed out within our meeting that space could be anywhere – within a library, a kindergarten, an art gallery or a science center. The more opportunities an individual has to direct their own experiential learning within the community, the more likely they are to develop creativity as a tool for living.
Our philosophical discussions has led me to continuously reflect upon on my own practice and research on a daily basis. In particular in regards to how an experiential model for early years learning – that places children as the artists within the gallery space – fits within a gallery context. A critique I frequently get from fellow gallery educators – NB: I’m not sure if it is actually a critique as I find it so fascinating and subjective – is that the exhibitions, workshops and learning environments I have worked on the development do not fit within the ‘responsibilities of an art gallery.’ To me this attitude is representational of a much larger social misconception about who is regarded as an artist within our community. In particular it raises questions around: are art galleries a place for an elite few ‘creative geniuses’ to exhibit their work and for everyone else to be mere consumers of it? Should children be regarded as artists within their own right in galleries? What sort of unique affordances can the gallery create within the design of ‘pedagogical events’ for young children?
As a designer and researcher of learning environments for young children in galleries, I have occasionally feel it is my role to advocate for people making time to play. In our chaotically busy lives, families are often incredibly time poor. People often dismiss play as having little purpose or reducing it to something that it ‘cute’ and ‘fun’ for children. However play is a fundamental and crucial part of young children’s and adult’s learning. It is the way in which we come to understand the world – to construct, deconstruct, experiment, explore and arrange ideas. Cognitively it has been proven to provide a fundamental phase of brain development within a human’s life. Yet children, and adults, are being offered increasingly less time for play in their lives.
Do we want a generation of children that are able to replicate the ideas and artistic processes of others or a generation of children who think for themselves? How can we, as designers of such spaces, support individual expressive thought and amplify it to its maximum potential? This isn’t just about developing art museum visitors for the future, it is about creating happier and more meaningful lives for children now.