Early learning at the MCA

Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia
Early childhood education and care groups

Art Escapades programme in action, 2017. Installation view, Hilarie Mais, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2017. Featured: Nomad (detail), 2006-12, synthetic polymer paint on wood. Courtesy of the artist and Kronenberg Wright Artists Projects, Sydney. Image courtesy of Jacquie Manning.

My favourite part of today was seeing your messy studio! I want to be an artist!

An exclamation of sheer delight from a four-year-old child, when invited to reflect on their time working with Artist Educators at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) is a wondrous place for very young children to connect with contemporary art, collaborate with artists, play and learn. At the MCA, we recognise that children are active citizens of the world with rights from the very start of their life, and we believe even the very youngest children should be welcomed and visible in public cultural spaces. We celebrate the powerful creativity and deep learning that children bring with them, and are driven by knowledge from research that shows the importance of rich experiences in the early years of every child’s life.

Since the opening of our National Centre for Creative Learning in 2012, there has been a growing interest in museum-based pedagogical creative learning experiences from Early Childhood teachers. In consultation with local Early Childhood teachers and informed by our Creative Learning Manifesto and Indigenous Cultural Learning Framework, we developed the Art Escapades program for Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) groups. Over the past 6 years, feedback from children, teachers and families has informed the content of this unique programme. The Art Escapades program invites young children to work alongside Artist Educators during interactive gallery experiences and play-based art making. Through the Art Escapades program we make meaningful connections with contemporary art via multiple lenses, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, Mark Making, Storytelling, Extraordinary Objects, Light and Sound.

Since introducing the Art Escapades programme we have welcomed thousands of 3 – 5 year olds, their teachers and families to the Museum, with many groups returning multiple times throughout the year. With each visit we see enormous transformations within the children as their confidence and sense of belonging grows. Conversations about their MCA experiences continue within their ECEC setting and at home, between visits. We are always so delighted to receive emails and letters from our regular Early Learning programme participants, sharing their art making journey since they last saw us. These post visit interactions help to sustain the rich relationships we create with the children and better understand how MCA experiences are adapted to suit multiple contexts.

Through the Art Escapades program we have also seen children and their carers become independent museum visitors, regularly attending our Kids & Families programmes on weekends and during school holidays.

Art Escapades programme in action, 2014. Image courtesy of Anna Kucera.

Teacher professional development

In addition to the Art Escapades program for ECEC groups, we also offer a range of accredited Early Childhood teacher professional development workshops. Over the past 12 months we have seen increased interest in this area, with teachers travelling up to 7 hours, from regional New South Wales to attend. Often we work with ECEC Directors to create bespoke professional development programs for entire ECEC teams on weekends and during school holidays, based on their specific areas of interest.

Thank you for a wonderful day! I am excited about creating time and space for children to be with materials and explore their properties and potential. I feel so happy! I feel inspired.

Feedback from an early childhood teacher programme participant

Thank you for helping me to slow down and wonder, to see the little details and reflect. I will incorporate your ideas into my practice, giving a greater depth to my programme.

Feedback from an early childhood teacher programme participant
Macquarie University Master of Early Childhood students participating in a tailor made MCA professional development programme, 2017. Installation view, Kerrie Poliness, OMG (detail) 2014. Image courtesy of Jacquie Manning.


In 2016 we deepened our commitment to working with young children, by embarking on a pilot research project in collaboration with Macquarie University and Mia Mia Child and Family Study Centre.

By developing the Art and Wonder: Young Children and Contemporary Art Research Project, we celebrate the voice of children within cultural organisations. Our research is concerned with children’s rights to beauty, wonder and complex aesthetic experiences, and how this is developed within a museum and gallery context.

The core questions guiding our research are:

  • How do very young children bring meaning to and make meaning from contemporary art within a museum context?
  • What potential might there be for creative reciprocity between artists and young children?
  • Can we create space for intellectually rich, thoughtful, deep and complex early childhood visual arts pedagogy for the very youngest children in ECEC settings and non-traditional places of learning?
  • In what ways can a sense of belonging be created for infants and toddlers (and their families) in cultural institutions?
  • What might be some of the benefits of actively and regularly welcoming very young children, their families and teachers into the context of the public, cultural, creative space of an art gallery: from the perspective of children, their families, their teachers, the artist educators and the museum

The pilot project started in late 2017, with 4 visits to the MCA planned over 6 months (September, November, February and March). 12 children aged between 1 and 4, along with their families and Early Childhood Teachers from MiaMia agreed to participate in the research project. Over the 6 months, we learned so much. The research project has challenged our way of working as Educators, programmers and practicing artists. Although we are still in the process of analysing our pilot research project data, our discoveries are already influencing and enriching the way we work with early childhood, primary, secondary and adult groups. We are beginning to find answers to our research questions and also making many unexpected and extraordinary discoveries!

Stay up to date with our research by registering your interest here –https://www.mca.com.au/learn/early-learning/research-project/

Tactile resource created by MCA Artist Educators, 2017. Image courtesy of Ken Leanfore.

Outcomes: Informed by our research and early learning programme development

  • Created a collection of artist-made tactile resources for young children to make multisensory connections with artworks in Gallery
  • Developed visiting tips for ECEC groups, to support groups with pre and post visit planning
  • Developed training sessions for our team of Artist Educators and Gallery Hosts, providing strategies and language to facilitate meaningful engagement with young children
  • Continue to receive positive feedback from ECEC groups

The MCA’s provision for children with additional needs and your flexible approach to the inclusion of all children are wonderful for all children, families and teachers. As language is so important to making connections and understanding culture, identity, storytelling and the arts, it was beautiful that time was taken to introduce different forms of communication such as sign language, body language and examples of an Aboriginal language. We felt that these simple acknowledgements were important, respectful and powerful to include.

Feedback from Art Escapades programme participants
Art Escapades programme in action, 2014. Image courtesy of Anna Kucera.

For further information about the MCA’s Early Learning programmes, please contact amanda.palmer@mca.com.au

Amanda Palmer
National Centre for Creative Learning Coordinator 
Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia