Finding work as an artist in Bogota isn’t easy, said Angela, a dancer and yoga instructor. She never expected to get a job performing for preschool children, and certainly not to be paid by the government to do it.
But now, more than 200 artists like Angela, from musicians to painters, are holding creative workshops with kids under five in Colombia’s capital city. In 2017, they reached over 80,000 children, the vast majority of them from poor backgrounds.
The team behind Bogota’s Nidos: Art in Early Childhood program hopes that these workshops can have a profound impact on the kids’ lives. More and more evidence shows that the arts can improve social skills and build a foundation for academic success. So what do these experiences entail, and can they really expect to change the lives of poor children?
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Learning to explore
Over the past five years, workshops have taken place in over 2,000 different places around Bogota, from childcare centres to sports fields. The sessions are interdisciplinary, involving two artists from two different art forms, and borrowing various techniques from each.
“We need to make this encounter unforgettable for the babies and the parents,” said program coordinator Mauricio Galeano.
One session follows an old mythological Colombian story, in which a supreme being called Chimingagua searches for light and water. The artists tell the story with a shadow theatre, using a cloth screen in a dark tent, and encourage children to move around to see how the projection is made. In the next section, the kids are given bottles of water with glitter and silicon inside, along with lanterns to play with reflections in the dark.
Then the story continues as Chimingagua searches for water, and the artists use devices on the roof of the space to release small pieces of fabric to impersonate rain. “This is very striking for children,” said Alejandro Baquero-Sierra, a member of Nidos’ research team. After the rain falls, in the final section the children are allowed “free play” without the intervention of adults, helping them explore the world around them and learn social skills.
“We need to make this encounter unforgettable”
The artists are trained by early childhood specialists once a week for 4-6 hours throughout the year. Working closely with the experts, they tailor the sessions to what kids need at different stages of their development.
For example, workshops for babies are focussed on light and sound stimulation, said Baquero-Sierra. This helps to build patterns in the child’s fast-growing brain which help them to explore their environment. Meanwhile, he said, for kids from three to five more emphasis is put on “solving problems, learning about communication and acquiring vocabulary”.
Angela’s sessions include lots of movement, from working on kids’ balance to developing motor skills through actions like clapping and touching sand. Working with various different artists from actors to musicians, she also uses a number of their special installations, with objects hanging from the sky and tunnels made out plastic, to help promote things like agility and coordination.
The sessions are just as important for parents or caregivers, who always attend. Like their kids, parents “are sceptical in the beginning” and tend to get more involved as the sessions progress, said Angela. It can be valuable time to build a positive relationship with their child: “The reality here is hard [for them],” she said: “it’s not easy to be calm and present for their children”.
Targeting those in need
The Nidos program, run within Bogota’s District Institute of the Arts, works closely with a number of government departments, including the Secretariat of Social Integration, the Colombian Family Welfare Institute and the Secretariat of Education.
The program utilises the data which these departments hold in order to reach kids who most need it — for example, those in families who receive welfare benefits. The more deprived preschool kids are, the more they’re likely to gain from the extra educational support.
“The reality here is hard, it’s not easy to be calm and present for your children”
The program is publicly funded and therefore free for the families who participate. However, Galeano said, the performers are badly paid by the program. They currently receive around COL$1,890,000 ($659) per month and do not get social security, paid vacation nor time for other work. Galeano wants to give them more guarantees.
A life-changing experience?
The research team are working on a large impact evaluation. In the meantime, though, scientific knowledge about early childhood development, along with smaller scale studies of the program, point to encouraging results.
Research in neuroscience suggests that the diversity of experience which developing brains receive could have a significant impact on building their capacities to learn, said Baquero-Sierra. Therefore, introducing two different art forms to the kids — who themselves don’t differentiate the arts at this age — could prove important.
In 2016 the team evaluated the project on a small scale. They found that children who had participated in sessions showed better performance in a number of different areas of development, said Baquero-Sierra, such as their social skills and physical ability.
Meanwhile, he said, the researchers predict that parents’ ability to engage with their children will improve; an essential relationship which can help to determine a child’s social, cognitive and even physical development. And despite the fact that most attending caregivers are mothers, their research so far suggests that it could encourage male involvement in care-giving too, said Baquero-Sierra.
At the moment, the project is just being tried in Bogota. If the evaluation produces the positive results the team expects, it could become a model for elsewhere in the country and beyond. — Jack Graham
(Picture Credit: Diego Filella and Juan Franco)