Picasso said we are all born artists. How dependent is child wellbeing on creativity?

Pupils at Ballysillan Primary get creativePupils at Ballysillan Primary get creative
Pupils at Ballysillan Primary get creative
Engagement with the arts is vital for healthy, well-adjusted children. JOANNE SAVAGE talks to Young At Art

Children especially flourish at this kind of activity, painting, drawing, crafting. As the modernist painter Pablo Picasso said: “Every child is an artist.” We cannot all be Mozart, but most of us can sing, no matter how out of tune or caterwauling a result our vocal chords may have cursed us with.

People should be encouraged to use their imagination and propensity for creativity from a young age, because apart from anything else it is an absolute joy to engage in such unfettered freedom of self-expression, and doesn’t everyone remember painting truly awful stick men and pets and houses and pictures of parents, friends and siblings in primary colours, hands covered in the cheap watercolour paint, our efforts praised to the skies by kindly relatives who read genius in our rudimentary scrawls and quickly pinned them up on the fridge with quivering pride at the embryonic genius artist in their midst?

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But artistic expression and creative endeavour are not just supreme sources of pleasure for children, they are also vitally important ways of encouraging their full cognitive development, confidence, independence of mind, spontaneity, the cultivation of wonder, mental wellbeing, joy, and that all-important and increasingly elusive, much coveted state of positive mental health. Experiencing creativity and the arts takes us out of the mind-numbing rote-learning we mostly do in maths and English, gives us a sense of beauty and aesthetics, enables us to see the world anew, awakens in us a fledging desire to express what we feel inside, whether joy or pain in paint or in language or perhaps tentative notes on a piano. Young children fizz with ideas, the urge to play or draw or build sandcastles or elaborate Lego constructions or collages of jungle animals; maybe they fill in colouring in books in a fluorescent palate from cover to cover or make strange papier mache creations that defy rational explanation. Adults lose this facility for easy creativity and it is rather sad.
“We believe that every child should experience the arts no matter who they are or where they come from,” says Eibhlin de Barra, director of  Belfast creative organisation Young at Art. “Culture and creativity are so important to children’s educational development, their ability to express themselves and their overall health and wellbeing.

”We want to reach children and young people largely across the Belfast area, where levels of socioeconomic deprivation and child poverty are among the highest seen in Northern Ireland.

“And by engaging in projects promoting creativity in schools, we hope to have a positive impact on the lives of young people here, particularly at a time when enjoyment of the arts has been so curtailed.

”We want to remove barriers to creativity, be they geographical, economic or perceptual and we offer a range of projects in schools that allow us to draw out the natural creativity of young minds.”

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Young at Art facilitators go into schools across Belfast to help make the creative magic happen and the award of a new grant from The Garfield Weston Foundation, which supports 2000 charities engaged in the arts and education across the UK each year, will go some way towards helping them continue delivering their Education and Engagement programme into 2021. Through its Creative Child, Creative Teacher and Journeys and Stories projects, some of which began in 2013 and run throughout the academic year, Young at Art will work with 1,500 children plus 200 teachers/adults. Since a great many of the schools are located in the most deprived areas of the province, with many of the children facing multifarious issues including digital poverty, limited or no access to books, toys or play materials at home, family members facing mental health issues, as well as poor language and verbal skills and poor nutrition - these attempts at creative enterprise can produce a vital escape for children struggling with difficult home environments.

Eibhlin continues: “These projects are really about helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds engage with the arts and creative activity, which is just so important. But you know, there is this stubborn idea that the arts are for the middle classes to enjoy; but children should not be denied what can be a highly educational pleasure. Children love to draw and paint and are naturally creative, so our initiative aims to foster that in schools, maybe getting children to try something they haven’t before like drama, say. The funding we have received will allow us to deliver our vision and hopefully help children who would not normally get the chance to be creative because of disadvantage or problematic circumstances at home.”

The founding principle for Young at Art’s Education and Engagement programme is using arts-based engagement to build each child’s early life skills - confidence, imagination and critical thinking. The projects will increase creativity in the classroom and help teachers.
Young At Art’s key annual event is its much lauded Belfast Children’s Festival, which brings a wealth of entertainers and performers from around the world to the city each year, allowing young minds to get to grips with some of the most innovative drama, performance, and storytelling on offer today.
The festival had its last run in March, just before lockdown sent us all under house arrest, and with Covid having changed the entire nature of life in the performing arts, the company is now looking to pivot to a semi-virtual platform for next yea; hopefully socially distanced live performance will then be commonplace. 

“We are very proud of the festival because it gives children here the chance to experience art from around the world that we really feel is ground-breaking. And as we’ve discussed exposure to art from a young age is so enriching in terms of intellectual and social development and wellbeing.”

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Eibhlin added: “The Garfield Weston Foundation’s support will allow us to continue to work with and train the highly skilled visual art and drama facilitators who deliver the programme, more important than ever in the current climate.”   
Simon McLean, principal, Nettlefield Primary School, welcomed the news saying;  
“Now more than ever Nettlefield needs Young at Art’s projects to help my staff create new ways to support and develop our children’s learning within a completely new ’normal’.”  

Children at Ballysillan Primary School and their parents were roundly delighted by the impact the creativity had on their children. Teacher Louise Hamilton said: “They absolutely loved yesterday’s activities (Extended Experience at the Strand) and we had a message from a parent thanking us for providing such an amazing opportunity for her child!’

And at Seaview Primary one parent spoke passionately: “One of her daughters was involved in the project at nursery and it made a massive impact on her life. Beforehand she hated nursery and would cry going and severely lacked confidence, but being part of the project gave her a massive confidence boost, even a few years later she still plays the imaginary play games designed by the drama facilitators,” adds Eibhlin.

An Irish-speaking school in the north of the city is a previous participant in the Creative Child programme. Principal Máire Uí Éigeartaigh said: 
“Our pupils really enjoyed taking part - it gave them a wonderful opportunity to explore their creative side.” Visit ww.youngatart.co.uk

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