Dr Louisa Penfold is an expert in children’s art education. Having a background in fine arts herself, Lou became very interested in how children’s creative learning can be supported by artist’s experimentation with materials. This interest encouraged her to complete a PhD programme exploring the design of children’s creative learning environments in art museums. Her thesis was run as a partnership between the University of Nottingham, Tate Modern and the Whitworth Art Gallery and you can read more about her work in her article ‘Material matters in children’s creative learning’ that was published in MIT’s Journal of Design and Science last year.
It was in Nottingham where I met Lou and we immediately became close friends. With the arrival of our son, Lou took on an adoptive aunt type role and acted as a continual inspiration for us for simple activities within the home to encourage learning through art and play. Lou is now in Boston in the U.S., working at Harvard University in Early Childhood Education. We miss her dearly(!), but she continues to inspire us through her blog and Instagram, and it was great to have a good catch up last week and have her share more about her work and knowledge for the LOMIE journal. Enjoy the read below!
Tell us a little about yourself and what you’re currently working on.
I have spent the last 10 years working in children’s art education across the world. A lot of my time has been spent working in modern art museums. Firstly, in Australia (my motherland), and then more recently I moved to England to complete my PhD.
Working in art museums has really appealed to me over the years as I get to be a part of the creative side of education. Unfortunately, creativity often gets left out of school curriculum, so I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work in an area that I really believe in!
This year I had a big life change and relocated to Boston to take up a new position at Harvard University. I am currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Early Childhood Education at the Graduate School of Education. The work I am doing is based in preschools across the city of Boston - it is really interesting work but unfortunately (for now) it has come to a bit of a standstill with the schools being closed. So, I am working on writing a book for parents on kid’s art education.
I also run the blog Art Play Children Learning which I started a few years ago to help parents cultivate creativity in children’s lives. I love running the blog and connecting with amazing families and educators from all over the world. I get a real buzz out of seeing all the inspiring art activities that parents do at home and it is so much fun meeting others who are also passionate about children’s creativity!
Why is art so important to children's learning?
Art is such an important part of young children’s learning and development!
To me, it is important for many reasons. Art allows children to learn through their senses - like movement, touch, sight and sound. This is so important as a lot of learning that happens in schools is based around sitting at a table, reading and writing. Not everyone learns well in this structured way, so art is wonderful at giving kids the opportunity to communicate and express themselves in a more tactile and hands-on way.
At a more philosophical level, the arts are built on an understanding that there are many different ways that something can be interpreted. I feel this is very important for kids as it allows them to experience the multiplicity of the world… there is no right or wrong in art, just individual opinion!
How does ethics and sustainability come into play in kid’s art?
Environmental sustainability is always at the forefront of my mind. For example, wherever I can, I always incorporate reusable materials in kids’ art activities. Little changes such as using masking tape instead of glue to stick bits of plastic together means that the materials can be taken apart and re-used in a future activity.
I am constantly encouraging parents to collect recycled materials that kids can use to create things out of. For example, I am a huge fan of packaging boxes and how these can be decorated, cut up and transformed in different creative activities. Parents can set-up a cardboard collection area at home and then get it out when it is time to do an art activity with the kids.
In terms of environmental sustainability, I also personally never use glitter in kids art activities as it is made up of microplastics that destroy the waterways. A lot of parents are not aware of this and accidently purchase it. I think little changes like this can add up to a lot!
Your recent hashtag #quarantineplayideas has been a great success to help parents engage with their children at home during quarantine and self-isolation from COVID-19. Tell us about why you set it up and the response.
The past couple of weeks have been such a stressful time for parents, especially those with babies and toddlers! As soon as I heard that the schools were planning on closing, I setup the #quarantineplayideas hashtag so that people could share play ideas to do at home. When I did this, I laid out the rule that all the activities needed to be done indoors with things that can be found around the house or bought from a standard supermarket.
People have shared some truly wonderful play ideas!! Some of my favourites for kids aged 6 months to 2 years have been to make a toddler obstacle course, a recipe for edible glue (flour + water) and using masking tape to create a road that kids can race their toy cars around. I’ve done a series of Instagram lives where I’ve shared recipes for making playdough, that uses spices and essential oils to make it smell fancy, and also for edible paint (important for babies and children!). Lots of parents have been submitting one or two ideas a week but this adds up to a lot when many people contribute, and we share ideas together.
If you are looking for some inspiration for play ideas to do at home, I highly recommend skipping over to my Instagram page to have a look!
Our son Max exploring with edible paint, made using Louisa's recipe (#1).
What do you think is important for fostering children’s creativity in the future?
The future of children’s creativity is exciting and full of potential. I believe that one of the most important things in fostering young children’s creativity is how parents support this at home. For example, allowing time for kids to be bored so that they have to use their imagination to be entertained. Parents also play an important role in encouraging young children to make new connections between themselves and the world. A great way to do this is to ask open-ended questions like, “can you tell me why you painted the cars different colours?” instead of only giving praise. This way, children can begin to reflect on how and why they do things.
Also, making time for unstructured play in children’s day-to-day lives is very important for learning and development. For example, time spent freely playing by themselves in the sandpit or with the water in the bathtub is important. These activities allow children to construct imaginative stories as they play, develop their fine and gross motor skills and explore concepts like size, measurement and weight. Play isn’t necessarily just about kids mucking around and doing whatever, it does have a really important place in their learning and development.