The Ark’s Early Years Artist in Residence 2019/20, Joanna Parkes, talks about how play, props and the participation of grown-ups has helped little ones explore drama, stories and different characters in her Seedlings Early Years Workshops.
The saying “Time flies when you’re having fun” has never been more true for me than during the first 6 months of my residency at The Ark, which have just flown by. I’m really enjoying this opportunity to create a series of original drama workshops for young children and their accompanying adults. Although drama is my main art form, in these workshops I have been using a combined approach of drama, story and play to imagine a new scenario each month where the children have an active role in the story and meet a character who needs their help.
Each story has taken place in a different location with a completely new cast of characters, although Elliott the Dragon has appeared a couple of times, and will take another starring role in January! The locations for these stories have included a dragon’s cute and cosy house, an Italian pizzeria, a king’s bountiful garden, a beach with a stranded boat, a woodland scene and, most recently, a workshop for young wind wizards. The children have played a range of different roles: in some cases they’ve been members of an agency of super-helpers called ‘Ark Angels’, other times they’ve been chefs and waiters in the pizzeria, gardeners for the King, wood elves coming to the rescue of a disorganised hedgehog, and wind wizards called in to blow away the rain so that the washing can dry.
The drama and story elements focus on the characters they meet and the different situations these characters find themselves in, and the play element comes in when the children have choice about what they want to do and how they want to play, such as if they want to be a cook or waiter in the pizzeria, if they want to make food or a den for Howie the Hedgehog, or decide how they want to develop their skills as a young wind wizard.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the process so far has been the creative time at home, making props for all the different stories including: salt dough bread rolls, sausage rolls, biscuits, cakes, pretend pizza and ice cream, creating a large number of flowers and butterflies, varnishing autumn leaves, making kites, painting fish, and creating dens for hedgehogs. The hardest thing I have had to do was deliberately burn the edges of a picture book so it looked as if the nervous dragon Elliott burnt it when he got a fright; it was a challenge to burn any part of a book but the reaction when the children saw what had happened to Elliott was worth my misgivings.
I have gotten great satisfaction from planning and preparing these workshops, and then seeing how the children and adults respond and react when they come in. The children show an immediate desire to engage with the story and great willingness to help, and the grown-ups have been very willing to play and engage with the children too.
It’s clear that the children really enjoy it when the grown-ups join in and take the playing and their role seriously, for example, when the children were in role as waiters taking the order from the adult customers in the pizzeria. Many of the grown-ups tell me they have been reminded of things they enjoyed doing as children and had totally forgotten about, such as making dens, cooking up soup with leaves and acorns, playing with fans and paper airplanes, using little magnetic fishing rods to go fishing, turning boxes into ovens and blankets into houses.
Parents and I were surprised with just how popular the toy wheelbarrows were – they first appeared in the King’s Garden and were such a hit they reappeared on the beach and in the woods. Several parents said to me “I’d have never thought of getting a toy wheelbarrow for my child but now I know what to get for their next birthday”. I have focused on using props and materials that can be easily found or made at home so that when the families leave the Ark the playing can continue and the stories never end.
Joanna has been working in the field of Creative Arts Education as a Drama Facilitator for many years, in many diverse contexts. Primary School education has been the focus of much of her work, and she was one of 6 lead artists chosen for a national research initiative in 2014: Exploring Teacher/ Artist Partnerships. In 2018, she was appointed as a Creative Associate in the Creative Schools initiative led by the Arts Council, in partnership with the Department of Education. Since 2013, her work has had an increased focus on Early Years contexts, including interactive drama and story workshops at the Ark, a commission by glór in Ennis to develop a 6 week Early Years residency and an ongoing collaboration with Joanna Williams (Little Bigtop) to produce performances for Early Years audiences. She recently completed a Masters in Early Childhood Education.