Arts and Culture for Early Years       May 4 – 24, 2020        

A Child’s Right to Arts and Culture

A still from Knock, by Magnet Theatre, featured in the 2018 WeeFestival


A lot can happen in two years.

Your world can expand from one child to two, ushering you into the role of “Parent” in a more complete way than you ever thought possible. Say goodbye to tossing your one, pre-verbal baby into a carrier and hitting the town. Say hello to dueling nap schedules and endless, beautiful, quizzical, distracting inquiries from your 3-year-old. What has happened to my impulse to view live art, you may ask? Well, if anything it has become stronger, as has my desire to expose my kids to new and beautiful things. The challenge is that the scaffolding of support around that live art needs to be much stronger now. For me, and loads of parents in my place, that means nursing-friendly spaces, reasonable start and end times, accessible venues, non-judgmental staff and a fun, welcoming, calm, child-friendly vibe. Luckily there is such a place as the WeeFestival, which has thought deeply about how to help children and parents have a profound connection with art – in the midst of a hectic day in the middle of a hectic city. The WeeFestival is building the scaffolding for us.

I spoke recently with Lynda Hill, Artistic Director of the WeeFestival, about what has changed since the last festival in 2016. She spoke about the dynamic creative energy of the theatre for early years movement, which “is entering a new era of cross-cultural collaboration and cross-generational mentorship.” This sort of collaboration is represented at the festival this year, one example being Magnet Theatre’s Knock. The show, created by an experienced South African theatre company, had input from Barbara Kölling of Helios Theatre (Germany) who are veterans of the theatre for early years movement. Hill told me that families who have attended the festival before will see an interesting through line from Helios’ previous shows (H2O and Woodbeat) to Magnet Theatre’s Knock. Says Hill, “Those who have seen both festivals might recognize Helios’ unique approach to object theatre reflected in Magnet Theatre’s Knock, but with Knock being very much rooted and developed in Magnet’s own cultural context.” I love how these companies are sharing their pools of knowledge, best practices and cultural points of view, and I hope to see these modes of working extend into the future. It will serve to deepen and enrich the theatre for early years movement.

Speaking about recent changes in our local community, Hill noted there’s more of “a visible hunger for quality arts for the very young.” She proposes that this hunger has always existed, but with other players in our community turning their gaze to hot-button issues like childcare (urban planners, provincial politicians) she feels there’s “more focus on the need to create healthy, engaging, seamless creative experiences for very young children.” The demand for arts for the very young has been enshrined in a Charter of Children’s Rights to Arts and Culture, and this year the WeeFestival is offering an exhibit inspired by it. From La Baracca-Testoni Ragazzi (Bologna), an art exhibit in the Theatre Centre gallery celebrates the 18 principles of the charter in 27 languages and beautiful illustrations by Italian artists. From the WeeFestival’s website: “Children have the right to experience and enjoy the physical and mental spaces that art and culture can offer, sharing with adults a condition of closeness and belonging.” Hear hear.

The idea of art as a child’s right is interesting to me. And I can see so much potential for this idea to flourish in the parenting realms I interact with. Imagine if circle time at the local drop-in centre or library was given more time, (budget!) and attention. Instead of awkward, embarrassed, over-enthusiastic renditions of “Little Red Wagon” while we all wait to chit chat and sip coffee, what if there was more social permission to spend that 15 minutes engaged with a beautiful little nugget of art? A song we’ve never heard before. A fragment of a puppet show. Challenging storytelling. Experimental dance. I can see the parents in Toronto blushing already, not knowing where to look, laughing nervously. But I can also see a circumstance in which we all just throw that pretense away and enjoy a tiny fragment of art in the middle of our day.

It’s not going to happen overnight, especially since arts education programs in the city have been stripped since I was a lucky TDSB kid in the 80s and 90s, with virtually endless access to free arts camps, workshops, and artists-in-the-classroom. I actually remember a situation in primary school, perhaps grade 4 or 5, where my class was asked to volunteer for a theatre workshop at another school. I was the only one to volunteer. When it was time for the workshop, an empty school bus picked me up and chauffeured me all the way across town. A teaching artist who seemed very different from my own teachers led me through a strange jungle of activities. She spoke about emotional impulses, creative movement; bizarre, strange, artsy-speak. It was awkward and embarrassing at the time, but also sort of thrilling. Like I had a secret knowledge of some other world. I’ll never forget that day, and I didn’t meet a teacher like that again until I was in grad school for theatre. Was the bus a waste of taxpayer dollars? Perhaps. But it shows the respect for arts programming that our city had, only a few decades ago. We can get back there.

This sort of shift is what the theatre for early years movement, the Charter for Children’s Rights, and certainly the WeeFestival is hoping to inspire and normalize. I can’t wait to spend the next couple weeks interacting with these ideas, deepening my convictions about art for the very young, and seeing some of the best domestic and international theatre that Toronto will offer this year. So grab some friends (young ones or old ones) and meet me there!

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