The truth of art is linked to the truth about children

How we can document children's ideas better in an artistic and creative way? 

The psychological needs of children when interacting with their toys and games can all too easily be read in textbooks; we can easily ascertain what is good, what is recommended, go beyond direct observation, share our own experiences and understand their preferences. But do we do this when we want to fulfil children's needs for art, stories or theatre for example? To know what a child likes and to offer them the things they're interested in or passionate about is a different challenge.

Some parents and teachers have no problem in deciding what children's preferences are and hence abandon the idea of the need for any prior research, because they believe they know what is best for the child. The result is a contradiction in terms. A child may be constantly offered poems to read or listen to, while their real fascination is for music or singing, or to learn an instrument – which they are never offered.

As a storyteller and cultural educator myself, I also fell into this trap last year. Having the best intentions and also believing that I know what is best for children (after having read many books on the subject!), I prepared a selection of stories for a workshop. All the stories were educational, valuable, meaningful and age-appropriate and were told with passion.

The children liked them, but I constantly felt that still there was something unsaid from their point of view. By chance, while I was telling one story, I learned that laughter was in fact what they really needed. This was a chance for me to really find out, by experimentation, the need for laughter at an early age and how happy they can be when they're offered the opportunity to laugh.

The (5-6 year old) children had to play the role of a grumpy and bad witch, like the one in the story. But they couldn't frown, or be grumpy, so they immediately burst into laughter and kept on laughing with great enjoyment. On conducting some further research, I found out just how great the psychological need of children really is, and it is derived from their freedom as human beings and an intrinsic need to be happy, to smile and to laugh. Just as we used to be when we were their age.

In terms of what to offer the children artistically, I find the best way of assessing their needs is through a workshop. A workshop for instance, is a chance to find out what the real interests of children is, what do they want to see in a show or what they like. In this way I learned that early years children not only like construction, but also de-construction! Watching things fall, buildings that break down, and other actions that we may associate with something negative, but which have a positive effect for discovery and learning.

This led me to realise that being in a nursery or kindergarten provides really rich opportunities to observe, especially if you do not strictly follow set themes. Whenever I notice that what I am offering to the children isn't as interesting as I had thought, I let myself get inspired by their interest for different things. In this way they teach me new things all the time that I have not found in books before.

I realise that it is more important to spend quality time with children, but it's not simply about the amount of time, it's everything from the way we look at them and the voice we use which are important. For this reason, I believe that internships for working with children should be made more available to artists in order to learn the skill of observation, experimentation and dialogue, especially when dealing with arts and theatre for 0-6 years olds, when psychological differences between age groups are so high and important.

I learned about their needs by means of careful observation, by talking to them, being by their side and connecting with them directly. Children know immediately when someone really wants to talk with them, not only to be the wise teacher or tutor but they also need an adult as a friend, to confide in using words or art about what they like, what they want and what really interests them. For example, they may like dinosaurs or want to laugh, or to discuss what happens in kindergarten or school through a story. They need us to meet them in their own world as much as we need to share ours with them.

A one-year old child, for example, is more interested and curious about sounds than words, while 3 year olds are passionate about stories with words. So if the tool to engage the children is not appropriate to their needs, the artistic device does not captivate their interest. I believe very much that what we offer them should take account of their needs, interests and discoveries, not just what we think is good, beautiful and necessary for them.

I would love to hear about other ways of documenting children's needs for an artistic event as to me this is a major topic. I think it has to do with the respect for children as human beings, who have a distinctive personality in their own right. I say this because over time I have seen many theatre performances that failed to meet children's needs and didn't show a real understanding of their world. Art should bring joy especially at a young age, and for me joy is linked to the honesty within children and this honesty makes art resonate clearly with them.

We must always remember that honesty and truth is more than the beautiful things made and put in front of them.

Daniela Miscov is the Manager of Artelier D, Proiecte, a free art and education association whose mission is to bring stories to babies and children, on the basis of all Art languages: theatre, music, fine arts, visual arts. We are close to children in all ways and this closeness is the source of our inspiration.