Why childhood creativity could lead to a more empathetic world

A girl with hair and make-up done fantasy style by Sienta La Cabeza
A girl with hair and make-up done fantasy style by Sienta La Cabeza

The Belfast Children’s Festival offers a wealth of activities for young people from Baby Raves to thought-provoking dance pieces. JOANNE SAVAGE talks to Young at Art about the importance of powering young imaginations towards a brighter future

“Every child is an artist,” said Pablo Picasso, sagely, “The problem is how to remain an artist once he [or she] grows up.”

Director of Young at Art, Ali FitzGibbon, makes it her mission to draw out the artist in the child with the excellent annual Belfast Children’s Festival which offers all kinds of creative activities to allow young ones to draw, paint, listen to or write stories, see art exhibitions and go to theatre and dance pieces that are tailored specifically for them and are laden with magic, wonder, trickery and sometimes also more difficult themes; one piece on the programme this year - A Mano, delivered by a Spanish company - even deals with the recession through clay and puppetry.

“We wouldn’t do what we do if we didn’t believe in the intrinsic value of art to this society,” says Ali, who has been hugely successful at the helm of this festival, bringing acts from all over the world to Belfast with the help of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

“I think what art does for us and for our children, is that it helps us to remember what it is to be human.

“The whole focus of society at the moment is about being efficient, earning, coping under the economy, and there is a real danger of play and creativity being sidelined. For children in particular this would be disastrous.

“I really believe that by seeing performances on stage or by taking part in a creative activity we recapture the imagination we have inside us. Children’s imaginations can be so vivid and we need to celebrate and nurture that.”

This year’s line-up, which will run March 1-14 across a range of venues, will also feature performances by Swedish dance company Bartolomeo - four female performers who will use movement, percussion and flour to mesmerise over tens, while local dance group Maiden Voyage, working with choreographer Enrique Cabrera offers a piece called Quartet for 15 Chairs, which appears to involve one extremely talented man balancing said number of chairs in his hands by means of some kind of Houdini-like capability, and which also includes accompanying music by local composer Brian Irvine. Fantastical styling and face-painting from Barcelona company Sienta La Cabeza will arrive in Belfast shopping centre CastleCourt, while what will be called The Office of Important Art will open at the same venue allowing all ages to enjoy creative play, storytelling and relaxation free of charge. Plus favourites such as the annual Baby Rave returns, which allows 0 to four-year-olds to get their groove on to a DJ-delivered setlist under disco balls and with plenty of cushions and soft furnishings.

“Childhood is so special because children have a natural tendency to be creative - every child is an artist in that way,” continues FitzGibbon.

“All that encourages creativity and imagination is linked to empathy and empathy is all about becoming a good, feeling and right-thinking adult. All the studies show that children who are read to when they are young and who are helped to draw and engage with art develop into more empathetic and well-rounded adults.

“A lot of work has been done to show that children who are encouraged to imagine and dream become better at recognising and understanding emotion in later life, better at empathising, better at problem solving.

“Children start out innately creative, then as we grow up and are forced into boxes and offices we lose that side of ourselves. So many adults will say ‘I’m not creative’ because they have forgotten their childhoods. But give them something creative to do and you see that side re-emerge.”

Belfast Children’s Festival, March 7-14. Visit www.belfastchildrensfestival.com.