Arts education suitable for early years children

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In this assignment, we look at the general roles of arts education in the early years curriculum and how teachers can use different approaches to include arts in their lessons. By using a children storybook entitled 'Swimmy' as an illustration to demonstrate the different lessons in arts education to develop the relevant skills and aptitudes in various form of art.

Arts Education

Arts have often been associated with leisure and personal experience, whereas education is the way to develop 'understanding, insightfulness and qualities of mind', not simply 'acquiring a repertoire of skills and facts' or having 'experiences' (Swanwick, 1988, p.36). Swanwick (1988) recounted a report done by the Gulbenkian Foundation in 1982 that had brought about a new insight to counterbalance the analytical form of discussion commonly used in subjects such as science and maths. The report attempted to assemble 'a whole range of answers to the question of value' in the arts such as arts 'utilises the right hemisphere of the brain'; arts develop 'qualities and abilities such as poise, grace and co-ordination'; arts that encourage 'discipline, dedication and attention to detail' and on how arts 'aid interpersonal and international understanding'. The report was indeed 'an illuminating and persuasive document' with many benefits and good reasons being highlighted about arts (Swanwick, 1988, p.36).

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Teachers who work with young children often acknowledged the importance of including elements of arts education in the curriculum so as to develop children holistically. Most of them would have included some form of arts during their teaching career - such as singing, playing with instruments or percussion, dancing, drawing, painting, role-play or simply imaginative play. However, the quality and extend of arts provision in the curriculum has largely being dependent on individual teachers' confidence and proficiency in tackling the work required. As most teachers are 'excellent generalists', described aptly in the book entitled 'Arts in Schools Project (1990, p.37)', they may not have the professional or formal training in the arts discipline themselves, thus may feel uneasy to embark on teaching children arts. Each form of arts has a different set of 'specialist skills and concepts to be developed', thus often than not, rather than teaching arts in its various specialised forms, generalist teachers will teach art within a theme resulting in children 'learning through the arts rather than on learning in the arts' (Arts in Schools Project, 1990, p.37).

There are varied ways and methods as to how a generalist teacher could incorporate or plan for arts in the curriculum framework. Arts could be learnt within a thematic approach if they are being 'carefully planned and adequately resourced' (Arts in Schools Project, 1990, p.38). This approach requires trained teachers to be competent and well versed in the various developmental milestones of a child so as to scaffold learning and make learning meaningful. Examples are to teach mathematical concepts using rhythm in music and dance, or to develop speaking and listening skills during drama session, or using puppetry as a form of therapeutic session to assist the social and personal development of a child.

Research has shown that there are lots of cohesiveness in arts education and the concept of play, and there are three elements of play that are strongly related to Arts, namely the mastery, imitation and imaginative play (Swanwick, 1988, p.41-42). Swanwick (1988) explained that Mastery is gaining the skills that are associated with each respective art form. Examples of mastery is learning to mix primary colours to get a secondary colours, learning to find line and texture in drawings; learning to make a finger puppet; learning to keep in step with rhythm, learning to spin, learning to speak like someone else, learning to work with others in drama work etc.

Imitation has to do with the expressive nature of the art form, not just merely copying, learning to express sympathy and empathy to show concern, or being able to identify with things and people. Examples of imitation is the understanding of the nature of a piece of art and what it is all about, moving the body like the movement of a wolf or to make musical sounds to suggest the sounds of a stream in the forest. Lastly, Imaginative Play is to play with the structure of an art form. Examples of imaginative play is to experiment with mixing colours in order to get the desired shade of colour, experimenting with musical instruments to get the sound to represent the movement of a bear through the forest, or experimenting with different ways to move with the body to suggest the movement of a snake (Swanwick, 1988, p.43-45).

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The following are some of the illustrations on how early years teachers can teach arts using a thematic approach while incorporating the three elements of play. With reference to the scope of work that was done as a group project to teach the four to five years old children, we had chosen a simple storybook entitled 'Swimmy' written by Leo Lionni (1963).

Swimmy was about a tiny black fish who had lost his mother to a great big tuna fish and was separated from the rest of his family. He was lost and swimming alone in the deep blue sea where he met many other sea creatures. Then he came upon a school of small red fishes but they were very afraid to swim freely because of the big tuna fishes. Thus Swimmy came up with a brilliant idea and taught them how to move together to form the shape of a much bigger red fish so as to ward off the predator. Swimmy being the odd little black fish became the 'eye' of the 'big red fish'.

This story was chosen as there are numerous opportunities to teach children various art form such as playing with musical instruments, rhythmic dancing, printing, painting, drawing, using puppets to tell story and dramatize the different characters in the book. It is able to meet the objectives of the various developmental domains in the early years such as to expand children's vocabulary in language and literacy, it can teach self and social acceptance that it is alright to be different so as to accept ourselves even when we are different from others, it can teach the importance of being part of a team and to work as a team and develop critical thinking skills and problem solving skills.

As 'games can become a substitute for drama' (Winston & Tandy, 2009, p.9), the lesson starts with an ice-breaker game entitles "Catch Me If You Can". In this game, one child who stand in the middle will the big fish and the rest seated in a circle will be the small fishes. The child in the middle will try to find another child to switch role with by calling out his friend's name and swim towards that child with outstretched hand snapping like the fish mouth, the child whose name is being called will become the next big fish to stand in the middle and the game continues until everyone's name is being called, giving all children a chance to participate in the activity. This play activity is an imitation game where children get to move their body and their hand acting like the big and small fishes.

After the ice-breaker game, teacher will gather the children to be seated and show them the cover of the book and have them talk about what they see from the cover, and with the use of 'atmospheric music' in the background (Winston and Tandy, 2009 p.16), teacher will begin to narrate the story till the time when Swimmy said "We must THINK of something". Teacher will be Swimmy and children will be the small fishes. Swimmy host a meeting with the rest of the fishes to find a solution on how to ward off the predator. Teacher will prompt children for various solutions they may have, encouraging their problem-solving skills. Thereafter, teacher will continue to narrate the story to the end and gather children to 'swim' close together like a big fish in a dramatic play. This imaginative play allows children to experiment with the different ways of moving with the body to suggest the movement of a fish, and learning to cooperate as a team to move together.

For visual art form, teacher can have children make finger puppet of 5 red fishes to put on the fingers of one hand and 1 black fish on one finger of the other hand and children can imagine these fishes swimming together with their fingers. Teacher can also provide children with various art materials and recycled materials to make various sea creatures and seaweeds to put on a blue net on the bulletin board to make into a three-dimensions display, giving them acrylic paint to paint the seawater and seaweeds in the background and do prints of small fishes using stencil or a fish mould.

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For music art form, teacher can provide various musical instruments for children to imagine and experiment on how each sound being produced can fit the movement of different sea creatures in the sea.

For a large group music & movement activity, teacher can divide the class into two groups where one is the water and the other group fishes. Children are to move freely and gently in the open space waiting for teacher to give instruction for children to dramatise. Those who are water will quickly find a space to sit down and with their hands moving freely like the water flowing in the sea, whereas the other group of children will be the fishes that weave in and out among their seawater-friends just like how little fishes move freely in the sea too.

These activities clearly illustrated how arts can be strongly 'adapted to a playful characteristic' (Swanwick,1998, p.51) and enable teachers in early years to implement meaningful arts education in their lessons and curriculum.