Early years learning in galleries

This seminar was an opportunity to hear about and share practice around how galleries are using a range of approaches to engage early years children, in both family and childcare/nursery settings. The day was jointly led by Engage Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland learning team.


Who was it for?

Educators at arts and heritage organisations, artists, local authority officers, and anyone interested in developing meaningful, purposeful and sustainable creative approaches to engaging with children in the early years.

The seminar was programmed by Liz Conacher, Schools Learning Coordinator at the National Galleries of Scotland; Anna Murray, Learning Programme Coordinator (Families and Early Years), National Galleries of Scotland; and Sarah Yearsley, Engage Scotland Coordinator. Liz, Sarah and Anna started planning the event in autumn of 2017 and the event should have taken place in early March 2018, but had to be rescheduled due to bad weather.

The seminar offered a mix of activities, including:

  • Presentations
  • Case studies
  • Practical gallery activity session
  • Small group and whole group discussion
  • Networking opportunities
  • Gallery tour

Key questions for the day were:

  • What early years work do you do at the moment?
  • What works well?
  • What doesn’t work so well?
  • What do you think are the key factors for success?
  • What would you like to do more of/differently?
  • Where do you look for inspiration/who’s doing exciting/innovative work? Doesn’t have to be in the visual arts or cultural sector
  • How do you make sure your early years programme is inclusive, accessible and reflects your local communities?


Locating early years pedagogy in Scotland today

Jane Whinnett, Headteacher at Hope Cottage & Balgreen Nurseries, Edinburgh

Jane Whinnett set the scene for the day by sharing her thoughts about learning theories and their applications in early years learning settings. She contrasted international approaches to early years learning from her own research visits to India, China and Denmark alongside historical approaches developed by Robert Owen at New Lanark and the McMillan sisters in Deptford and Bradford.

Jane described Froebel as the biggest influence on her own pedagogy, using a principle-based approach. Jane also described other popular and well known pedagogical approaches to early years learning such as Montessori where there is a focus on a prepared environment for children with structured materials. Montessori raised the professionalism of early years work. In this approach, it is the adult who decides upon structures for the children.

Reggio Emilia is another well-known pedagogy where children are empowered and engaged. There is a strong aesthetic element to Reggio with the involvement of an ‘atelierista’, a teacher with an arts background. The context of Reggio is not for everyone and it requires a high level of parental commitment. There is an element of brand control behind the Reggio approach.

In Scotland we have more freedom to develop our approaches to early years learning. In relation to her approach to early years learning Jane talked about:

  • The values that underpin her practice
  • Childhood being what you are about now
  • The need to respect and include all children, particularly when working with children with lots of different cultural identities
  • Uniqueness of every child
  • We can’t compartmentalise learning into subject areas
  • The Froebel framework offers support to the practitioner to carry out their own ideas
  • Children need to have rich experiences out in the world
  • Loose Parts and Froebel’s Occupations
  • Sir Harry Burns (former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland) talking about people feeling a lack of hope and of control in their lives and the impact on their health and wellbeing.
  • Children without access to play
  • How can we encourage parents and families to come to galleries
  • Getting parents to stand back

Early years learning at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

Lucy Turner, Early Years Coordinator, The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

Lucy shared the extensive programme of activity for under 5s at the Whitworth including Art Baby, a programme specifically designed for non-walking babies and their parents/carers and the Early Years Atelier, a Reggio Emilia inspired space where babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers can get messy, play creatively and follow their own interests. As well as the newly developed Forest School inspired Toddler Outdoor Art Clubworkshops that take place in the park come rain or shine.

Lucy also shared her top 10 tips for working with this audience. The Whitworth offers a programme for babies and values the early years within the gallery.

The Whitworth dedicates Mondays to early years audiences, running baby and toddler programmes and ensuring that the gallery is geared towards them on that day – setting up a buggy park for example. They also manage their audiences by telling other visitors to come on other days.

Art Baby always takes place in gallery spaces and is run without a structured beginning and end to the session. They offer 6 rugs within the galleries with a selection of objects. There’s no led element and it encourages very active learning.

Music Baby – musicians move around the gallery and engage with the babies

Language Baby – sessions with a storyteller.

These sessions are free and usually oversubscribed. The gallery operates a booking system which even though the sessions are free can act as a barrier to access. So they now do drop in sessions in the afternoon.

The Early Years Atelier – aimed at under 5s. A Reggio Emilia inspired space which is child-led and blurs the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. Drop in is from 10am3pm. It’s a laboratory for play. Each atelier session is inspired by an artwork. They develop a research question for the atelier. The atelierista keeps a diary of activity. In the atelier they use a lot of paint. They set things up to look beautiful, they don’t dumb down. The atelierista doesn’t teach. People wanted a more flexible child-led session.

Toddler Outdoor Art Club – families wanted activity at weekend, for full time working mums for example. So they have created the Toddlers Outdoor Art Club, working with Forest Schools Practitioners and artists. Activities include rain painting and snow painting.

Art Hampers are available in the gallery so that there is something available all the time. It’s a pick and mix of craft materials with a picnic blanket to use in the galleries.

Lucy’s role straddles formal and informal learning. She facilitates an early years network which meets once a term to share ideas.

Early years programmes at Tramway, Glasgow

Holly Rumble, Public Engagement Coordinator, Tramway

  • TRYOUT: drop-in creative workshops for all ages, which respond to the contemporary visual art programme.
  • Family Days: expanded multi-artform events which respond to the visual art and performance programme, and which aim to develop confidence in the venue as a safe and engaging space for young children. This programme is designed to support the whole family to attend, with activities tailored to each age group.
  • Tramweans: a new programme for 3-5 year olds exploring contemporary performance.

The main focus of the presentation was on the nursery school workshops Holly has delivered over the last two and a half years. Tramway is now in a position where every available nursery session is fully booked. Some of the children who visited in previous years are now in the local primary school (where Tramway is delivering a school-wide project) and they are still able to articulate their experiences of those visits. Tramway is aiming to build a strong progression route for local children, so that contemporary art becomes a regular part of their lives.

In 2014 Pollokshields East was the neighbourhood with the highest percentage of primary school pupils with a Minority Ethnic background (82%) in Glasgow (Glasgow Education Services, Glasgow City Council). Tramway is committed to be relevant and welcoming for these children, so that some may consider a future career in the arts and increase the representation of people from minority ethnic backgrounds in the sector.

This presentation included examples of how Holly has designed nursery workshops to explore the ideas and materials in the gallery programme, including methods for engaging children with English as an additional language.

Holly spoke about how Tramway want to be relevant to people walking past the door. Tramway are interested in how their early years sessions can be part of a strong progression route and start to change the representation of black and minority ethnic people in the sector – family involvement is key.

The TRY OUT programme responds to the gallery’s contemporary art programme. All the activities are led by professional artists. They have had family days where they have worked with 1500 people in 4 hours.

Why is it not white?

Carol Dunbar, Education Officer, The Pier Arts Centre, Stromness

In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.

Simon Nicholson, Theory of Loose Parts, 1972

The Pier Arts Centre (PAC) is currently developing a series of workshops based around Simon Nicholson’s 1972 Theory of Loose Parts with Orkney’s early years’ practitioners that focusses on the extraordinary capacity of the very young to construct thoughts, ideas, questions and answers.

Through the project they want to discover ways in which they can retain these faculties along with the enthusiasm that accompanies them, for future, ongoing and lifelong learning.

PAC want to find out if they can gather valuable, qualitative data and establish methods of working with young children that have the potential to impact significantly on their overall learning through continuing creative engagement as they progress through formal learning.

A key aspect of the project is for the children to engage with selected works from the Pier Arts Centre permanent collection of 20th and 21st century modernist art, which along with the exploration, sorting, cataloguing and utilisation of materials enables them to investigate their research ‘brief’.

Carol talked about how PAC want to offer some direction for parents visiting the gallery with young children. They are developing an approach based upon Loose Parts Play. Carol brought brown paper bags filled with resources which had been assembled by the children she has been working with.


Heather Armstrong, Creative Skills Programme Manager, Starcatchers

Starcatchers is Scotland’s National Arts and Early Years organisation.  In her presentation, Heather shared some insights into the work of Starcatchers, including their partnership work with the National Galleries on “Wee Wanders” and “Toddle Tours”, the importance of Wonder in the lives of young children, and why equity of access to the arts is so important.

Their approach is to go through the creative process together with participants. Babies and young children are seen as co-collaborators. Young people as artists. Equity of access is important and they feel that everyone should have the chance to experience their work so will often go to their audience’s space rather than just expect the audience to come to them. Wonder is important within their work. Starcatchers also train early years practitioners across Scotland.

Heather brought an interesting slant to our discussions with her experience in working in the performing arts sector. Starcatchers make theatre for under 3s and work with under 5s. They have a strong research base and make work that is developmentally appropriate for the age of children they are working with.

Art is at the heart of their work and they have high artistic standards for their work with children and young people. They work mainly in theatre, music and the visual arts. They deliver programmes of community engagement, they work with young mums and kinship carers. They are playful when bringing in an artistic element.

BALTIC’s approach to early years learning

Rachael Rickwood, Assistant Producer (Children and Young People) BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Rachael talked about the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art’s (BALTIC) previous early years offer and why and how they are changing it and what that process has been like. She also briefly talked about their EYFS work in community settings and schools.

They created a sensory room within the gallery and the profile built very quickly. They have delivered Toddler Time sessions in community settings.