How important is quality?


Earlyarts talks to early years consultant and UnConference delegate Geraldine French who gives an insight into her views on quality, why it's important as well as ideas derived and advice for others post UnConference.

Q. Is quality important when it comes to young children's creativity?

Yes. The problem with quality is that it has to be defined because it has multiple perspectives. When I think about it I think of general quality in early years settings, which has so many different dimensions and is very difficult to pin down because it changes continually. From my experience, it manifests itself in the quality of children's experiences, i.e. 'what am I getting out of this as a child in that setting?' - as well as the level of development of the settings and focusing on what children are experiencing, which also leads into pedagogical organisation. In Ireland in particular we have a very broad developmental level in settings, for quality to be manifested you need to look at the nitty gritty interaction between artist, educator and child. You need to take a birds-eye approach to looking at how creative arts and education are being supported in the curriculum. Quality is also about parental participation in the experiences for children directly or from collaboration with the settings i.e. children's needs, likes and dislikes. You need to harness social values in relation to early years education and that is included in the arts.

There is also a need to ensure an environment that supports the child, such as space enough for them to dance and that the range of arts is available to them. A lot of what I believe was confirmed at the UnConference, for example, Leadership being extremely important. When you have good leadership you have a very good start!

The Carousel Project was a fantastic example of quality, I have since spoken about it a number of times academically and shown it to my students as it displays the importance of collaboration. I'm particularly interested in collaboration between artists and early years educators, and for educators to see the skills of, for example, storytelling in a quality setting. To have an artist as a member of staff would be wonderful, but in Ireland this is light years away.

Q. How do we know what excellent quality practice looks like?

It is so hard to capture what it is when talking about excellent practice. I believe it is about skill and quality interaction. When you walk into an environment and you see children's creative work whatever that maybe, documented and kept with respect and reverence, which maybe photos, comments or experiences in order for other practitioners and parents to see them, it communicates the message to parents that the children are competent and can articulate, which I think is extremely important.

Another element is a sense of things being slowed down, practitioners need to not rush to get on to the next thing, but rather support children to engage them to their absolute optimum and they can end when they want to end rather than when the adults want them to end. Excellent practice allows children to dictate their own level of engagement from the beginning to the end while being supported by educators and skilled practitioners. Educators must follow the children's lead, especially in the creative arts, and then document that, particularly for the children themselves to see.

Q. What ideas about quality practice did you take from the UnConference?

The importance of collaboration and also networking were two key things I took away from the UnConference. I met some of my fellow countrymen and was very impressed with their practice and I suppose that is a key thing, anybody you meet who is passionate about the same things, in this case Earlyarts, means you are immediately with a group of people that are all interested in the same outcomes for early years education. I could see lots of connections beginning to be made - since the UnConference, we now have a Facebook group and are sharing research, and that has been a great benefit from the UnConference. I also wish we had an Estelle Morris in Ireland! She had some great things to say in terms of quality practice. Her three things - to go out and seek quality, find a language in which to communicate it and then find a structure with which we can disseminate it - is something which would be hugely beneficial in Ireland and we need to implement it.

The Carousel Project again also highlighted the benefits of using simple materials, such as sand, water and rope. This was a great idea I took away, as was the notion of fewer materials. In the past I have proposed a lot of stimulating materials and actually if you want a more focused art experience you're far better off having a few simple materials and controlling them, rather than having more materials.

Q. How will this change your practice?

It has already, I lecture to 2nd and 3rd year education students and most have now seen the Carousel Project YouTube clip, and we have had lots of conversation about using art in children's development. I have encouraged them to go and check out the Earlyarts website and to watch the videos of Sir Ken Robinson and Estelle Morris's keynotes. It has also highlighted and made me more aware of the importance of creative arts and opened my mind completely about the key things I have learned from it, ranging from settings to props.

Q. What advice would you offer to other early years, arts and cultural professionals in developing quality in their work with young children?

If people could realise and look at what creative practice actually offers children in terms of learning and development generally, they should start with that. They should ask themselves, 'How can creative practice support children's development?', and, 'how do you assure the quality of the children's experiences?'. For people not confident in their own experience, they must go out and find what others are doing, find the quality practice that is out there and then try and implement those in their own settings. Focussing on the process and focussing in on supporting children's language development through the arts and their numeracy. It all comes down to the quality of the experience, it is vital to slow the practice down, keep it simple and really focus on what children are getting out of it educationally, but also for fun and enjoyment.

Geraldine French was a delegate at the UnConference 2012 and is an early childhood consultant in Ireland.