Questions on children’s art education
By Dr. Louisa Penfold
Dr. Louisa Penfold is an art educator who currently works at Harvard University as a post-doctoral researcher in early childhood education. She has previously worked on the learning programs at contemporary art museums including the Ipswich Art Gallery (Australia), Tate, and the Serpentine (United Kingdom). Louisa also runs the blog Art Play Children Learning – an online platform that helps parents to cultivate children’s creativity through art.
Pía Dalesson: During this time, children receive a lot of activities from school, and on the other hand, parents, although they are more time with children, are working at home and dealing with a lot of things. Why does art matter today? How can parents help?
Louisa Penfold: It has been a tough year for so many families all over the world! No one could have predicted the challenges we have had to face at both an individual and global level. I see art as being so important at this time. It is a way for people to explore complex emotions and ideas. For young children especially, it is a vessel for them to navigate the unknown, to communicate feelings that cannot be put into words, and to empathize deeply with others.
I have worked with many families in art museums over the past 10 years. One thing I have consistently noticed is that most parents want to do their best to support their children’s learning and development. But doing art with kids often feels very overwhelming to a parent if they do not have a background in the field themselves.
The most important thing for parents to do is give art-making a go! Getting started is often the hardest part. It is totally fine to start with a small art project then build to something bigger over time. Also, forget the perfect Pinterest pictures! It does not matter if what kids make does not resemble a Da Vinci painting. The most important thing is that you have fun as a family and that children have the opportunity to express themselves in creative and imaginative ways.
PD: Which cultural models and countries do you follow, or which ones do you think are the most advance in educating through art?
LP: I get great inspiration from all over the world. I don’t think there is one country or geographical location that is ahead of another. Some countries have got a very child-friendly approach to cultural engagement. There are some wonderful play-based education models in Danish and Norweigan cultural organizations. For example, the Louisiana Museum of Art has a beautiful children’s wing, and last year I visited some ‘ReMIDA’ creative recycled centers in Oslo that were very inspiring. But I don’t think that there is one country that is a leader.
From my experience, the most innovative and exciting children’s art projects are usually being done by individuals or small groups of people who just wanted to do something new. I think it is rare for something truly cutting-edge to happen first at a large cultural organization. The big museums usually pick ideas up once they are in a more developed form.
I have been very influenced by the work of Reggio Emilia educators in Northern Italy. I love how they talk about the importance of children’s rights and how people learn through a ‘hundred different languages.’ This is so important because in mainstream schooling, there is such a huge focus on math and literacy. These two ‘languages’ of learning get prioritized over all the others – such as art, dance, music, and the performing arts. Reggio educators continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in children’s art education and I find this really impressive. I also absolutely love the work of American educators such as Elliot Eisner and Maxine Greene who have written some wonderful books on art and education.
In terms of art museums, I recently spent four years doing my Ph.D. in the learning department at Tate in London. They have a wonderful approach to developing educational activities that they call ‘practice as research’ which is basically a very rigorous form of reflective practice that the learning curators use. I recommend checking out their website if you are interested in learning more about this!
PD: I see how often you include nature and re-usable materials. Why are these important in your work?
LP: I love using natural and repurposed materials in children’s art activities! Examples of these include recycled cardboard, secondhand plastic, leaves, rocks, and twigs. These materials are fantastic in children’s art activities because they come in unusual shapes and sizes. They are unpredictable and because if this, they push children’s imagination into new directions. When they are presented in unfamiliar ways – for example, a beautiful leaf that is brought inside and stuck to the window – the repurposing of the material can spark new curiosities in children. I feel like many children see the creative potential in repurposed materials that adults look over. Repurposed materials are also great for families to use in art activities because they are inexpensive and can be easily gathered from around the house!
For example, I recently shared an art activity on Art Play Children Learning that was about doing ‘soil trays’ as a land art activity with kids (pictured below). In it, the soil acts as the blank canvas that children decorate using flowers, twigs, leaves, and tree nuts.
PD: What is your relationship with contemporary artists? Do you work with people around the world? Did you work with Latin American artists or Latin American Institutions?
LP: Contemporary artists are at the center of everything I do. I am very interested in how modern artists are developing new ways of experimenting with materials. For example, the techniques, processes, and tools that they use. And then thinking about how we can take these to design learning environments where children learn through play with materials.
When I was in high school, I remember my art teacher showing me the sculptures of Doris Salcedo. I was so amazed by them and how she communicated the trauma of Columbia’s civil conflict through materials such as wood, fabric, and metal. I have followed her work closely ever since! I have previously worked mostly with Australian, British, and American artists as I have been living in these countries. I would love to work more with Latin American artists and institutions in the future!
PD: Museums are facing a lot of questions and challenges. The economic factor in Cultural Industries is determinant. Why should a museum’s education area be active now?
LP: There is a lot of change currently happening in the museum sector. For example, a lot of staff have lost their job and organizations are having to reconsider how they can re-open in a ‘socially distant’ world.
Museums are so important in our communities as they offer an alternative space for learning to happen. Traditionally, museums have been spaces where people can go to be educated about cultural history however a forward-thinking education program can also active museums as places where cultural values of the future can be produced. As we go through this turbulent time, social and cultural values are in a rapid state of transformation. We need education programs in museums at this time to mediate new relationships between diverse communities and the creative ways that artists think!
Learn more about Louisa’s work
Louisa has also recently developed a new printable resource for families called ‘Play Shapes’ (pictured below). It is free to download from the Art Play Children Learning website when you sign up to the email list. ‘Play Shapes’ is a great resource for parents who are stuck at home with kids and want to do something creative as a family!