Paper Worlds & Colourful, Musical Meadows - The Pre-Raphaelite Experiment

How do we engage very young children with collections of art in art galleries?

This was the question I have been attempting to answer, working on the Pre-Raphaelite experiment project with Ruth Edson and Manasamitra at Manchester Art Gallery.

Working with a very lively group of 0-2 year olds and their parents and carers, it was evident that the children were very keen to explore movement, space, sound and materials in the art gallery. This presented a challenge when visiting the Pre-Raphaelite Experiment gallery to see the four exhibited paintings, in particular, our selected painting 'The Hireling Shepherd' by William Holman-Hunt. We aimed to work with the children to develop a child-led story inspired by the painting, although it was clear that the children were keen to explore the rest of the spaces, running through the long walkways of the gallery, rather than spending a lot of time in front of the painting.

Dancer Shrikant worked on interpreting key elements from the painting into gestures and movement, dancing to music and drum rhythms. This was often introduced in the studio in a group circle before beginning a short journey upstairs up to the exhibition space to visit the painting each session. Here I would offer different paper props to bring a sensory element to movement, as the children could rip, scrunch, throw, blow and even smell scented paper as a way of bringing the painting to life as they moved.

Then the group would come back down to the studio to further explore my carefully created paper environment, incorporated with music and movement. This also included exploring shape and shadows through the inclusion of a thin, cloth projection screen and overhead projector.

Of course, we had to include wet materials and paint too, and this was a great way of combining mark-making with movement and music. It also provided inspiration for our performance of 'Dancing Through the Meadow' as the children began to associate colours and textures with landscapes and journeys, dipping our feet into the 'water' or 'pond', following 'train tracks' across the meadow, feeling the soft wool of the 'sheep' and looking for 'birds','fish' and 'flowers'.

It was really important to work with teacher Jenny who was able to identify what elements of the session would work, when making plans for the following week. The children needed to engage with songs and nursery rhymes that were familiar to them. This helped when Shrikant was encouraging the children to dance and move, as they were much more responsive to familiar music. It was useful to meet at the end of each session as a way of reflecting on children's activity and interests, which would then feed into the next session.

The 'Hireling Shepherd' provided the starting point and then the backdrop to creating a multi-sensory world of beats, smells, colour, paper textures, music, movement and giant mark-making meadows. A visit to the painting in the gallery each week reinforced the focus of activity, whilst the studio downstairs provided a safe space for creative exploration of different materials and art forms.

Coming soon: the 'Dancing Through the Meadow' project video!