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Art when you’re not arty

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Darren Brisbane is the author of many inspiring and insightful Amplify stories, often sharing lessons learned at the expense of his own preconceptions.  This story about how he took a complete turnaround on templates for children’s art activities is another example of his candid style. 

While Darren works with school-aged children, this article will appeal to educators in any part of the sector and might help directors and training managers understand more about the stubborn grip on templates some educators maintain.

Remember you can easily save, print, and share Amplify articles by using the Print or PDF button or social sharing buttons at each story’s start and end.

Not an arty educator

I am not an arty or creative educator. I never have been, and until this year I would have proudly told you that I never would be.

A few years ago I worked in a place where a supervisor told me that we were no longer allowed to use templates because it wasn’t good for children’s development. This just fuelled my hatred for art and craft – if I can’t use templates then what was I supposed to? How do you guide children to create if you haven’t got a sample?

Neat lines of templates

Traditionally, my service has always seen a lot of template work happening in the arts department.

Our displays have been made up in straight lines of near-identical replicas of the concept, and as much as the children, parents, and staff have found it appealing it has never sat well with me. Ask my 2IC, we’ve had many disagreements over what a display should consist of…

Art has been nothing but a headache!

Image credit: Darren Brisbane

What changed?

So what changed?

Actually, the truth is that I met another educator who was just like me. I don’t mean that they also are not arty or creative – I mean that they were just like me in almost every single way.

They shared the same operational concepts that I like to live by, they believed in a good system that all staff should work to, just like I always have. Like me, they had been trying for years to implement their vision in their service and falling short. This was either because it can be quite difficult to motivate staff teams to get on board, or the revolving door and greener pastures will claim a strong educator and you’re back to square one.

Image credit: Darren Brisbane

 

Focus on the blind spot

For years I said I wish I had another me – and my wish was finally granted.

Let me just say, the ability to work alongside someone who mirrors your strengths is every bit the blessing you might think it is, but it also came with an unintended side effect… I was forced out of my comfort zone when I realised that this person was so similar to me that nobody was paying attention to my blind spots.

I had to look away from the mirror of myself to really examine those blind spots. On the journey out of my comfort zone I found myself examining something that had always been a headache for me: art.

Image credit: Darren Brisbane

The creation of art

I began exploring different types of art through history, reading about artistic pedagogies, and learning what I find aesthetically pleasing as art.

What I discovered through this process was an interest in the creating part of art – the resulting artwork was merely a nice reward. I realised that perhaps in the past I had been too focused on the end product.

Comparison is the thief of joy

I read an article about art at the time that convinced me I was on the right track.

In the article a child who loved drawing was given a colouring in book as a gift and he wouldn’t draw again afterwards because he couldn’t draw like in the books.

This struck a chord with me because my extremely entertaining and delightful middle child refuses to pick up a pencil and draw or colour in while my extremely creative and talented oldest child is in the house because all she does is criticise!

How to ‘art’

It occurred to me that the only thing that prevents me from being a brilliant artist is that I haven’t learned what I could do.

It’s not actually about the end product while I’m learning how to art – a child once told me that she was arting when I asked her what she was doing one afternoon, many years ago, and the verb stuck with me! – it’s all about the process.

Image credit: Darren Brisbane

Doing away with templates

With this realisation in place I discussed with my team how I wanted to do away with templates altogether in one of our programs.

I can only describe the response I received to this statement as excited relief!

It meant no more trawling the internet looking for things that looked cute, no more countless hours spent pre-cutting templates at home for the children to decorate, and it meant that we were going to have to come up with a plan for where we were going to go from here.

Big, colourful, and goes bang

I suggested that we needed to go with big and colourful and we decided that nothing was impossible. As my team came across art that terrified them we ran it past each other and if it looked awesome or went bang it was on the list!

My art supplies have grown from paints and paintbrushes to include mallets, darts, film canisters, antacid pills, chains, and I’m sure it will continue to grow. We have created at least three large artworks on canvas each week.

Image credit: Darren Brisbane

Children drawn in

The moment we dropped templates our art program was packed with children who were drawn in by the processes we’re exploring. I say exploring very deliberately because half the time we’re not sure what the end-product is even going to be!

I think my favourite thing about this change is that everyone is out of their comfort zones. The educators assigned to arting are just as uncertain of the process as the children are, and so the exploration is occurring in partnership.

As the team realises that nothing is impossible, they are starting to share experiences that they come across that might be interesting.

Image credit: Darren Brisbane

A place for templates

So are we done with templates? Actually: no, not at all!  We use them extensively with our Kindergarteners and other children who are expressly interested in the end-product more than the process.

It all comes down to the purpose for the art and craft action.

I still don’t consider myself to be arty or creative.  I can proudly say, though, that this just means it’s not my place to tell anyone else what art should be.

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Darren Brisbane

Darren Brisbane is the Operations Manager for the south western Sydney based franchise, Sherpa Kids Narellan.He has been an OSHC educator and director for 11 years, including various for-profit and not-for-profit services in Sydney’s inner west, Queanbeyan, and now south-western Sydney.Diploma trained (OSHC), and WHS qualified (diploma), Darren also worked for several years in the youth development industry with tall ships, navy cadets and scouts.

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