Creative Activities for the Early Years


Stella M. Skinner

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    Author's Acknowledgement

    The author would like to extend her gratitude to her family for their patience and IT support, to her colleagues for their interest and enthusiasm and to her chauffeur for an impeccable service.

    The CreatAbility Project

    In the spring of 2005 two visual artists developed a programme of weekly sessions for five nursery settings in West Sussex. These sessions formed the basis of the pilot project and consisted of introducing children and practitioners to a wide variety of visual arts processes and materials. The intention was to raise the profile of creativity in the early years by offering the opportunity for practitioners to work alongside practising artists and by involving the families as much as possible. In this way, working from a largely child-led activity, the adults were encouraged to observe and reflect on the child's developing skills and the children were encouraged to discover how the tools and materials worked.

    Following the success of the pilot project it was decided that a wider range of artists would work together offering opportunities to develop and integrate the visual arts, music and dance. The approach of the CreatAbility project to working with Early Years can be summarised as follows:

    • To encourage children to lead their own exploration of the materials or processes.
    • To encourage children to work collaboratively.
    • To stimulate creative thinking skills and problem solving solutions.
    • To focus on process rather than product.
    • To use skills, materials and processes that are easily transferable to staff and parents.
    • To demonstrate ways of recording the children's experiences.
    • To use materials that are easily available.
    • To consider the environments and routines when planning the workshops.

    Ten settings in West Sussex were selected to take part in the next phase of the project. In March 2006 four lead artists and three local artists visited the settings to meet the practitioners, to see what spaces were available to use and to ensure that staff understood the ethos of the workshops that were going to take place. The artists decided to use the theme of journeys as a starting point to describe the experiential journey the children would take, moving from one art form to another in a variety of spaces.

    The project took place over 8 weeks in the summer of 2006 and the evaluations were very positive, with many practitioners recognising that they needed to allow far more time for children to experiment with materials. They were also impressed with the way the children developed in confidence and asked more probing questions about the process that was being explored. The project gave practitioners the opportunity to observe the children working with other adults and to consider their own practice and training needs.


    The whole team would like to thank the children and staff at the following settings for their enthusiasm and commitment:

    • Bognor Regis Nursery School
    • Glade Nursery, Bognor Regis
    • Kingston Bucci First School, Shoreham-by-Sea
    • Little Owls Nursery, Hawthorns First School, Durrington
    • Magic Minders Worthing Childminders Association, Worthing
    • Manor Green Primary School, Crawley
    • Play Centre Nursery, Wickbourne Centre, Littlehampton
    • Stepping Stones Neighbourhood Nursery, Bognor Regis
    • Westerfields Day Nursery, Worthing
    • Woodstock Day Nursery, Worthing


    The CreatAbility Project was devised and managed by West Sussex County Council's Arts Service and was generously supported by Arts Council England South East and West Sussex County Council. Thanks also to the members of staff in the Early Childhood Service, Children and Young People's Services, Bognor Regis Nursery School and Family Learning, whose advice and support has been invaluable.

    The Creatability Team Consisted Of:

    Visual Artists

    Claire Simpson Claire studied on a Foundation Course at Lincoln Art College and then took a degree in Fine Art at Bretton Hall, Leeds University. She currently works as an artist, project facilitator and trainer, working with people of all ages through her collaboration with organisations and community groups.

    Teresa Grimaldi Teresa trained in theatre design and puppetry at Central School of Speech and Drama and has recently completed an MA in Visual performance at Dartington College of Arts. She is a practising visual artist developing installation and puppetry ideas that are enriched by her work with early years children.

    Jane Chalk Jane studied at the University of Plymouth gaining a BA Hons in 3D Design. She creates costumes and stage props for theatre, film and carnival and is also a Level Three qualified playworker working with children in many different environments, exploring materials and found objects to create wonderful and imaginative costumes, puppets and masks.


    Sharon Quinn Sharon grew up in West Africa, developing a love of African music. She combined studying early vocal music at Kingston University, Surrey, gaining a BEd Hons, with performing electronic music. She has worked in Britain, Western and Eastern Europe, teaching, singing and collaborating with other artists and children.

    Louise Bradbury Louise studied at the Royal Academy of Music and teaches recorder at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama Junior School. She works as a freelance musician and has established the pre-school music programme, little notes for little folks, currently serving over 200 families in Horsham, West Sussex.

    Dance Artists

    Amanda Drago Amanda trained at the Laban Centre, London and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Leeds. She performed in dance and theatre companies for many years and in 2004 started her own dance company, called Falling Cat. Her first work, ‘Closer’, is a sensory movement installation for children with autistic spectrum disorders.

    Natasha McKenzie Natasha began her career as a nursery assistant and then took a degree in Dance and Women's Studies at Roehampton University. She has worked with experimental and professional dance companies and has been a ‘stand in’ in films and pop videos. She runs youth dance workshops in Sussex and London.


    Matthew Andrews Matthew trained at St. Martins School of Art in London and has worked as a photographer for 14 years specialising in arts and education. Recent assignments include the Sultan's Elephant and Urban Cultural programme for Arts Council England and the Brighton Festival, which he photographs each year in May.

  • Appendix: Integrated Arts Planning Format

    The completed activity records here show how the projects described in this book link together. A blank photocopiable is also included for practitioners to use in recording how the projects in their own settings are integrating.

    Chapter 2 Starting from the visual arts

    Chapter 3 Starting from music

    Chapter 4 Starting from movement and dance

    Starting from:


    Visual Arts
    Paint and Mark-Making Tips
    • Explore different types of paint (non-toxic) such as acrylic, watercolours and inks. Remember you can mix things like washing-up liquid, washing powder, sand, glue and vegetable oil with most types of paint to thicken it and make it more stimulating.
    • Paint on flat and upright surfaces as the paint responds in different ways. Try painting on windows, clear Perspex, thick polythene sheets, bubble wrap, material.
    • Use paint inside and outside to explore scale opportunities.
    • Experiment with different tools to apply paint, such as big and small brushes, twigs, cotton buds, cloths, sponges, string, fingers and feet.
    • Good ideas for mark-making are oil pastels, chalk pastels, felt-tip pens, graphite pencils.
    Light and Shadow Tips
    • Explore a variety of light sources – torches, overhead projector, slide projector, lamps, sun.
    • Test out different fabrics and papers to make the screen for a light box e.g. cotton, Lycra, tracing paper, silk. Try coloured materials, too.
    • Project anything that will cast an interesting shadow – Christmas tree decorations, household objects.
    • Explore on a big and small scale using small light boxes and large pieces of sheeting. Play games – guess who/what is making the shadow.
    Print Tips
    • Mono-printing: use water-based printing inks. Roll the ink onto a hard surface and make marks into this with a variety of tools.
    • Oil printing: print with vegetable cooking oil onto paper, experiment with foam blocks, feathers, string. Let the print dry a little then rub powder paint into the oil.
    • Potato prints: still wonderful, but try a variety of paints and surfaces to print on.
    • Use real clay, red or white, but not air-hardening clay which has added fibres and is hard to manipulate. Buy bags from educational suppliers: it's cheap and will last a long time if looked after. Store it in a bucket with a lid on to keep it damp.
    • Use a piece of cardboard to work on to stop the clay sticking to a table-top. You can use a variety of tools, for example strong plastic cutlery, garlic press and combs, to explore the properties of the clay.
    Materials/Natural Objects
    • Weaving materials can include strips of coloured bin liners, coloured plastic bags, thick wool, string rope, ribbons.
    • Natural objects such as shells, stones and sticks to make patterns.
    Sources of Supplies
    • Remainder stock shops (‘pound shops’).
    • DIY stores.
    • Stationers.
    • Army surplus stores for items such as big foil sheets, tape, plastic sheets, tents, parachutes.
    • Fabric shops and market stalls.
    • Educational supplies catalogues.
    • Kitchen suppliers.
    • Charity shops.
    • Art and craft stores.
    • Scrapstores.
    • Free from families and local companies in the community.
    Artists' Further Resources Suggestions
    Damm, Antje (2005) Ask Me. London: Frances Lincoln Publishers.
    Gee, T.A Moveable Feast – a Workshop Handbook, (accessed September 2006).
    Van Swaaij, L. and Klare, J. (2000) The Atlas of Experience (trans. D.Winner). London: Bloomsbury.

    Most music-making in the Early Years should involve singing and rhythmic work using hand-held un-tuned percussion instruments. These are instruments that produce a rhythm rather than a tune. However, many children of nursery and reception age are ready and have the enthusiasm to experiment with tonal instruments such as xylophones and electronic keyboards.

    Essential Range of Instruments
    • Hand-held percussion suitable for Early Years children, such as egg shakers, claves, tambourines, tambours, maracas, triangles, Indian bells, sleigh bells, small drums, woodblocks, agogos. It is highly recommended that you buy high quality instruments, fewer if necessary, rather than a lot of cheaper plastic instruments.
    • Several tuned instruments, such as the little xylophones that are readily commercially available that have coloured keys, enabling the children to invent a tune and recall it by a pattern of colours.
    Desirable Additions to Your Range of Instruments

    A range of ‘real’ instruments is desirable, some examples of which follow, reflecting the richness and diversity of our culture. These can be ordered from general educational suppliers or local music shops. Consider the cultures that are represented in your setting and ask for advice from the families:

    • Mbira (African thumb piano)
    • Djembe (African drums)
    • Darabuka (Middle East and North African drums)
    • Panpipes
    • Electronic keyboards.
    New Ideas

    Keep a look out for new developments in musical resources, as they are constantly evolving. For example, Boom-Wackers are tuned plastic tubes which can be beaten on different surfaces to produce single notes, chords and patterns. They are a particularly effective way to draw boys into music-making because they involve large-scale movement to create sounds. These and related music resources are available through mainstream educational suppliers and good music shops.

    Make Your Own Instruments

    Ensure you keep a well-stocked range of items to enable children to explore the possibilities of making their own instruments to produce a required sound. These will include card tubes, plastic film wrap, dried pulses and sticks. It is also well worth exploring the shops at specific times of the year, for example just after Easter time, as you can find reduced plastic egg containers to make into simple egg shakers.

    Record Your Music

    Make sure you have a reasonably good quality cassette player or similar to enable the children to record their music-making. Don't forget that many mobile phones will record sound.

    You will also need an extensive range of different types of music for the children to listen to. We would recommend that young children are not automatically exposed to ‘background’ music all day long because they begin to lose the ability to really listen to a piece of music, which is a skill in itself.

    Artists' Further Resources Suggestions
    Hedger, A. (n.d.) Hubble-Bubble: 22 New Things to Do in Music Sessions with the Very Young. Golden Apple Productions, a division of Chester Music Limited.
    Hedger, A. (n.d.) New Ways with Old Rhymes: 21 Rhymes with Singing and Percussion Activities. Golden Apple Publications, a division of Chester Music Limited.
    Floyd, M. (1991) Folk Songs from Africa. London: Faber Music.
    Gritton, P. and Bolam, K. (1993) Folk songs from the Caribbean. London: Faber Music.
    Both the latter collections have an accompanying cassette or CD. As well as the lyrics and music they also include simple percussion activities.
    Movement and Dance

    Movement and dance does not need very much in the way of resources but one important thing is space. Most Early Years settings have a dedicated outside space divided up into areas that contain fixed items, for example a sandpit, a garden or planting area and shed for wheeled toys storage. While these are all an important part of delivering the Early Years curriculum it could be worthwhile thinking about the space carefully before items are ‘fixed’ because an area can sometimes be more versatile with a little more flexibility. The following are some points that may influence your decision.

    The advantages of an empty space are:

    • It ensures the children focus on the activity, as there is nothing else to distract them.
    • The children are able to safely create big energetic movements in a controlled area without the threat of hurting themselves or others.
    • Music can be played loudly if appropriate.

    The disadvantages of a large empty space are that it can have the opposite effect of dissipating the focus, especially with only a few children in it. This can be addressed by cordoning off one area and then working the group in a circle to direct the energy inwards.

    An empty space means that the practitioner has to be really prepared with dance ideas and must use resources to stimulate the children. If the children are not engaged in an activity they can cause havoc by endlessly racing around, which is a potentially stressful and non-productive situation for a practitioner to be in. It is also bad practice to get everyone warmed up and then run out of ideas and have to ask them to sit down again and get cold.

    • Small non-slip bath mats are a brilliant idea, as illustrated in many of the activity examples, because they provide the children with a place to ‘be’, which also helps to focus their concentration.
    • A range of beautiful materials will help stimulate movement. One tip is to sew a little sand in a corner of a lightweight piece of material, which will alter the way it moves.
    • Ribbons and scarves – these can be hand-held, tied on short sticks or sewn onto a small hair scrunchie and then placed on a finger or wrist. These can be used for a variety of large movement and pattern explorations.

    Music is an important resource and you need to set aside a significant amount of time to listen to a selection and research your collection. Choose tracks that really do what you want them to do, for example, create an atmosphere, provide a heavy beat or complex rhythm. Listen out for music and if you hear something you like – on television, radio, in the cinema or out shopping – find out the name of the artist.

    The following are some music ideas to start from. Please check all lyrics before use to ensure they are age-appropriate, and, if necessary, clear copyright with the appropriate copyright-holder.

    • Electronic dance music:
      • Mylo
      • The Chemical Brothers
      • Lemon Jelly
      • Orbital
      • Fat Boy Slim
    • Traditional world music:
      • Regional UK folk
      • Blue Grass/American folk
      • Cuban rhythms
      • Flamenco rhythms
      • African /Indian drumming/singing
    • Film scores:
      • Disney/Pixel films
      • Bollywood films
      • Quentin Tarantino soundtracks
    • Compilation CDs:
      • Music from adverts
      • Music from films
      • Music from television programmes
      • Compilation CDs given free with newspapers
    • Music websites – some online music websites allow you to listen to a short sample of the album so you can try before you buy.
    • Apple: iTunes Music Store – a large catalogue of songs in digital formats available for purchase and download.

    • Music – online shopping for thousands of music CDs.

    • Music companies:
    • Dance organisations
    Artists' Further Resources Suggestions
    Dance Books Ltd
    Specialist dance bookshop that sells new books, videos and CDs.
    Sightlines Initiative
    Supports creative thinking and practice in early childhood services across the UK.

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