Below is a selection of five key texts which underpin both my practice as a children’s curator and current PhD research. There are many other books and papers that could have made it onto the list! As very little has been written on early year’s gallery education, especially around the construction of creative environments for children, I have included descriptions which apply the theories to gallery education practice. I have written more detailed descriptions of the theories explored in Tools for Conviviality and Simon Nicholson’s Loose Parts within previous blog posts.
Reggio Children & Harvard Project Zero (2005). Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners, Reggio Children Publications.
This text introduced me to the tools of pedagogical documentation, where young children’s learning and theory building is collected using predominantly visual research methods such as photography, film and field notes. The documentation can then be used by teams of practitioners to fuel collaborative reflection. Reggio Children & Project Zero demonstrate how theory and practice are not opposites but two mechanisms that are in need of being in continuous dialogue with one another. The application of this approach to gallery education can be used to support equitable and dialogic conversations between curators, artists and wider communities through processes that allows for young children to participate in the construction of the spaces, activities and beliefs that shape their lives.
John Dewey (1934). Art as Experience, Minton, Balch & Company.
Here Dewey brings together the deep and enduring connection between art and lived human experience. Art is understood as an intense expression and meaningful transfiguration of life, rather than the reduction of artworks to commodities and objects. This text taught me about the necessity to view art as a process, and not just a product when designing experiences for children in art galleries. Within this, art needs to be perceived as both an expression of the human who created it and within the personal experience of the viewer.
Olafur Eliason (2011). Seu Corpo da Obbra (Your Body of Work), SESC Pompeia. Image credit: Everton Ballardin
Hillevi Lenz Taguchi (2010). Going Beyond the Theory/Practice Divide in Early Childhood Education: Introducing an Intra-Active Pedagogy, Routledge.
Lenz Taguchi applies Karan Barad’s theory of ‘intra-action’ along with Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of multiplicity, potentiality and immanence to early childhood education. This taught me two key ideas that I have applied to my practice and research. Firstly, that children’s agency emerges from an individual’s meeting with non-human entities such as construction materials, the gallery space and curatorial discourse. This is to say that agency does not exist independently but materialises from children’s relations with objects and things. Secondly, in order to progress interdisciplinary experiences that are meaningful to children, artists and curators must develop non-hierarchical practices that break down the divide between matter/discourse, theory/practice and adult/child. Both of these ideas are crucial in guiding thinking around how young children experience art galleries.
Ivan Illich (1973). Tools for Conviviality, Harper & Row Publishers.
In this epilogue to the industrial age, Illich critiques the advancement of mass industrial and mechanical production as having removed people’s free use of their natural abilities. This has come at the expense of human connection with themselves and others in the community. Illich iterates the need for people to utilise ‘convival’ tools that allow people the ability to express meaning through making and action. The question this then poses gallery educators is: how we can design experiences for children that allow for a balance of collaborative knowledge production alongside the transmission of existent cultural knowledge and values? Both individual creative knowledge production and the transmission of existent knowledge are important and the equilibrium between them is continuously changing. Continuous critical reflection is needed to evaluate this balance in different contexts.
Simon Nicholson (1971). ‘How NOT to cheat children – The theory of loose parts.’ Landscape Architecture, 62, 30-34.
According to Nicholson, the cultural elite have fed us a social lie in convincing us that the construction of any part of an environment or artwork is so complex and difficult that it can only be undertaken by a gifted few people who have university degrees and artistic expertise. This misconception has led people to believe that creativity is for a select few ‘geniuses’ and the rest of us are compelled to be mere consumers of the music, art, poems, buildings and ideas that these people create.
In this article Nicholson presents the proposition that young children’s creative empowerment comes from the presence of open-ended materials that can be constructed, manipulated and transformed through self-directed play. These ‘loose parts’ permit children, alongside adult artists and architects, to co-produce art, space and culture. Loose parts theory articulates the need to incorporate flexibility in early year’s gallery education practice that allows children to have meaningful experiences that are in alignment with their beliefs, interests and curiosities. The theory does raise complex ethical questions around authorship and what part of an environment or artwork can be constructed by artists/curators and what parts can be done by children.