Moonbeams – ‘Hundreds and Thousands’ of ways of speaking

An evaluation report for Moonbeams 2022/23 and the pilot of the triad model for project development.

Moonbeams sought to develop language and communication through arts and creativity using an action research triad partnership between libraries, early years settings and artists. Children lead artistic encounters; the children’s interests therefore drove the direction of the project, and educators, artists, librarians, and researchers followed. Children’s engagement and interests enabled adults to plan meaningful experiences; artists particularly noticed the expressions of enjoyment and happiness as children participated whilst librarians noticed the value in an unhurried approach.

Aims

Moonbeams, supported throughout by Arts Connect and CREC, recognises the importance of early learning for culture, well-being and lifelong learning and is inspired by the creative and democratic approach to early childhood evidenced in Reggio Emilia and explored through the work of Malaguzzi (Edwards, Gandini and Foreman, 2012).

Creativity, as a key learning disposition, is central to Moonbeams along with children’s deep-level engagement and their participation. Moonbeams supports artists, educators, and now wider community members to listen carefully to the voices of children. This most recent inception of Moonbeams responded to the current wider context and sought to support language and communication development within a community context and brought together artists, librarians, and educators to work alongside a research team in exploring the following.

Research Questions

  • How can we support children’s communication and language development through sensory and creative experiences?
  • How do we listen to children and adopt participatory practice?
  • What are the benefits and challenges of triad partnerships?

Participants

The triad programme itself comprised a central team with representation from Arts Connect, Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) and two pedagogistas; one providing an artist insight and one an educator insight. Their specialist perspectives were focused on supporting the pedagogy of artists, educators and librarians as the project developed paying particular attention to the key focus of developing children’s language and communication through creative approaches. CREC provided support for participatory action research to mirror the democratic approach within Reggio Emilia.

Whilst each Moonbeams triad comprised an artist, an educator (representing an early years setting) and a librarian (representing a public library), the responsibility fell upon the library service to pair with the early years setting and to then make the initial application. Arts Connect then matched an artist, following a selection process, resulting in three triads. The selected Moonbeams triads were located in areas of deprivation across the Midlands region and sought an agenda of transformation for the children within a localised early years cohort.

Triad one was located in Staffordshire between a library, a nearby Primary School and a visual artist with a fine art specialism. The library was walking distance from the school and the artist was travelling to sessions either within the Primary School setting or within the library.

Triad study two was located in Telford and Wrekin between a library and a nearby Children’s Centre with a verbal artist. This triad would be operating within two ‘stay and play’ sessions; one located within close proximity to the library and the other in the library itself. One session was an existing group of ‘targeted’ parents and the second session was a group set up specifically to support the outcomes of this research project.

Triad three was located in Solihull between a library, a nearby two-form-entry Primary School and a visual artist and maker who had worked previously in Moonbeams. Again, the library and Primary school were within walking distance of one another.

What learning was involved

The entire research team initially attended a planning and training day, facilitated by Arts Connect, that provided the opportunity for each triad to develop their shared ethos and to begin to plan their ten-session project. The day enabled the research team to develop a contextual understanding of each triad and to begin to plan support visits. The day also provided a brief overview of child development priorities, an overview of the Reggio Emilia ethos as well as basics of action research methodology. This initial day framed our community of practice as democratic, collaborative and context-driven. A further mid-point reflective day enabled the entire research team to come together and share developments to date. This further supported the community of practice that was emerging and enabled cross-triad reflections from librarians, educators, and artists. It also enabled each triad to refine their focus beyond the overarching research questions and to ensure their own enquiry was meeting the needs of their specific context.

Methodology

Case studies were built around the three triads following an action research methodology. Traditionally, action research follows a cyclic approach of planning, doing and reviewing, and is embedded in the practicalities of daily life. The programme, influenced by practice in Reggio Emilia, sought to be democratic and so a participatory approach was embedded within the documentation and research processes as well as within the sessions themselves. Each triad was encouraged to adopt a democratic and non-hierarchical approach enabling all members to contribute. CREC’s code of ethics was followed at all times which is informed by EECERA ethical guidance (Bertram et al., 2015). Reflective discussions were documented by all participants and revisited for analysis.

Artworks, artefacts, exhibitions involved

Case study 1
Children’s interests developed around the theme of transformations and the adults sourced related provocations. Clay and wire were added to the resources offered in support of their explorations of change. Bumblebear (Nadia Shireen) provided provocation as the children considered their own transformations. The artist provided a selection of loose parts resources and children began to make their own shields and masks as they transformed into superheroes.

Case study 2
Parents participated alongside their babies with a verbal artist. Each session started with a song and a story and then provocations were provided within boxes. Initially, parents took the lead with these boxes but as the weeks progressed parents began to ‘ease back and take it at the pace of children.’ Children were encouraged to explore the boxes, tapping a rhythm, before opening lids and selecting contents themselves.

Case study 3
A story and suitcase were used as a provocation. As the children explored their space and the materials, triad members were ‘consciously modelling what they could do and how they could look at the world differently.’ Clare Thompson’s work (Junk D.N.A.) was used as an additional provocation and the children sought permission to use materials in open-ended ways.

Outcomes

  • Children’s language and communication were encouraged through the open-ended sessions and specific children’s progress is documented through the case studies.
  • The influence of the Moonbeams philosophy extends beyond sessions and impacts upon pedagogical approach specifically through its unhurried approach.
  • Loose parts provocations alongside books, rhyme and song enable a breadth of communication from non-verbal to verbal. These affordances are limitless.
  • Triad members have benefitted professionally by developing both practice and research elements; the division of labour was flexible, responsive and a strength of the approach. Community connections have been strengthened and all triads will seek to sustain these.

The project recommends greater financial investment in community-based creative early years projects due to the benefits for both children and professionals participating.

You can read the full report here, and find out how to submit your own case study here.