Case Study 6: Stanley, the Visual Artist

The project took place on Fridays roughly once a month, in the nursery of a primary school in a socially mixed area of London. The school has beautiful new buildings; the head teacher is a long time enthusiast and leader of creativity activities and committed to forms of progressive education. The project was managed by a creative agent who works across two neighbouring primary schools. The artist, Stanley, worked in both schools.

The project involved working with parents and their children. Stanley ran morning and afternoon sessions. In each of the three observed sessions, Stanley had between two and five parents working with him; at the meeting which concluded the project there were 12 parents, all of whom had been involved at least once over its duration. About a dozen of the 73 children in the nursery participated in the project. The nursery teacher and one of the teaching assistants or nursery nurses were involved with each session.

Each session opened with Stanley reviewing the previous week, going through images on his laptop and encouraging the parents to comment on the children’s learning and their progress. This broad invitation tended to result in murmurs of assent and shared moments of recognition rather than sustained discussion. Stanley then invited the parents to go outside and begin to arrange the materials he has brought with him into some sort of order. The materials consist of a huge number cardboard boxes, tubes, grips, plastic sheets, felt tips, rubber bands, ties, tape and other kinds of ‘safe’ found materials in relatively good condition. He also brought three digital cameras for use by children and adults, as well as his own camera which he used for documenting the day.

The materials were arranged in the playground according to type. The staff marked off the playground with chairs. When the parents judged the play area to be ready, the staff brought out the selected children - those whose parents have come along that day - and 40 minutes to an hour of intense play ensued.

The purpose of the activity was for the children to make structures and then engage in imaginative play. Stanley encouraged the parents and the children to engage with the tactile, ‘felt’ qualities of the play: he was interested in the use, experimentation and manipulation of materials and, the structures that were built. Most of the play involved single children engaging with their parents. The staff made notes about the children’s learning, particularly their language use and the points where tactile and experimental play moved into narrative.

About ten minutes from the end of the session, Stanley encouraged the children and parents to visit each edifice and ask the child to describe what it was and what it meant. When the session had come to its natural end, the constructions were dismantled and the materials were re-sorted for use next time. The adults then sat in a small group and discussed what had happened. Stanley encouraged each parent to reflect on his or her own child’s play and the other parents to join in the discussion. The parents were keen to participate, to get validation of their own child’s play and also to find a way of supporting other children’s achievements. Stanley then put photographs of the session onto the computer in preparation for next time.

It was, of course, the parents who were the object of intervention in this project, although the children obviously benefited from the activities both directly (in sessions) and indirectly at home, where parents reported feeling more confident about playing with them. They talked, for example, about how children wanted to play with cornflakes packets and pasta at home and how the sessions had created a demand for the quality of play that Stanley was advocating. The head teacher believed that the school had a community role that extended beyond involving parents in school-related learning; he was interested in helping parents – and his own staff – think about children’s education in the round.  The project he established through employing Stanley was about bringing different groups together to share perspectives and develop ways of talking and thinking about children’s learning. This helped all concerned: the parents, the children, the teachers and the reputation of the school.

Through the encouragement of parents to work alongside one another, the school offered itself as a mediator of informal talk about their child’s learning. The standard playground set of relationships became slightly more formalised and although Stanley did not explicitly address the parents as learners – that is as those learning to be parents – but as artists or play workers, he was, in effect offering a kind of parent education to this constituency. (For a comparison with other schools, and an overview of ‘creative’ work with parents, see Safford and O’Sullivan, 2008). The parents said they appreciated Stanley and had enjoyed learning about learning through the project, which had brought them together as fellow ‘students’ yet in a parental role that allowed them a natural and obvious way of being at school. The school felt that through the project they had found more positive and constructive ways of engaging parents than other tried and tested methods.

Stanley rarely gave direct instructions, although he clearly ran each session. His talk was characteristically marked by praise (‘wow!’), warnings (‘be careful’) and the reinforcing, elaborating and extending of ideas. He was very physically active, sitting with children and parents making, tying up, taping, etc. During these kinds of actions he spoke almost exclusively to the children rather than the parents (though in a way he was addressing both) and his talk with the children emphasised possibility: ‘shall we..., let’s try..., how about...?’  In the adult group with parents at the beginning and end of sessions, he maintained a positive tone. As an artist engaged in the construction activities, Stanley inhabited a teacher but-not-teacher role, supporting and embodying certain values, drawing parents into new ways of talking about their children in professional contexts.

Stanley managed the de-briefing sessions so that all participating parents could equally and fairly praise the achievements of everybody there. He set the tone for this but parents seemed to self-regulate so there was never any situation where Stanley had to intervene or lay down any protocols. He offered a vocabulary and a way of evaluating children’s progress in line with the values of the project, achieving this by two means. First, he used the ritual of going through images of the preceding session as a way of teaching how to look, pointing out features of the play, such as the size or scale of the edifice and the child’s achievement. Secondly, he was entirely positive in his comments. He avoided moments of conflict and tension allowing his interpersonal skills, his enthusiasms and his kindness to predominate. This was a set of values everybody wanted to identify with and the parents seemed to join in on that basis – as equals in a collective enterprise. The sense that this was a special and additional activity involving new and different members of staff (Stanley) and the extra play materials, added to the positive feel, and Stanley’s way of constructing the activities as neutral, appealing to a vision of play that transcended the immediacy of its context, allowed all stakeholders in this community-making process to find a place for themselves and their families. In several senses, then, this was a project based on learning to live together through ‘discovering’ other people and creating a ‘new spirit’ through engagement in unaccustomed forms of action.