Playful images of kids playing dress-ups: wearing stick-on moustaches and over-sized sparkling bow ties, balancing books on their heads, and holding up chook eggs to their faces with ‘‘eyes’’ drawn on with black texta.
These are the striking promotional photos of Big Fat Smile, the Illawarra-based organisation which has a network of children’s services across four states and territories.
The images were taken last year when the non-profit company changed its name from Illawarra Children’s Services to Big Fat Smile, a rebranding which the board of directors felt better represented the expanding business which now operates childcare centres outside the region.
The name, says Big Fat Smile chief creative officer Jennine Primmer, also captures the strong focus the organisation places on developing children’s creativity from a young age.
So when the images were taken, imagination ruled the photo shoot. A group of kids were sent into the studio, given a box of dress-ups, and were told to have fun. There were no instructions from adults regarding set poses.
The outcome is a collection of light-hearted photos which portray kids in an unaffected way.
It’s the sort of good faith placed in children that is typical of the education programs at Big Fat Smile which runs community preschools, playgroups, play centres, creative workshops and recreation clubs for kids.
If a child is creating a piece of art at a Big Fat Smile venue, parents are gently encouraged not to stand over their shoulders whispering instructions about keeping inside the lines or that red looks better for lips than orange.
‘‘What we really want to embrace is the idea of giving children the tools, giving them the materials, and giving them the inspiration but allowing them to come up with their own ideas,’’ she says.
‘‘I think that’s the thing that’s not happening enough and I think everybody is so caught up with the product. What we want to do is focus on the process.’’
Kids are viewed as competent individuals. From the age of three, they are shown images of the works of skilful visual artists to inspire ways and opportunities to express themselves.
‘‘Children do not live in a bubble, they are part of the world,’’ says Primmer.
‘‘Some people believe that children don’t understand the context of things yet we want to show them their relationship with other people and things.
‘‘We are living in a world where all these amazing things are happening and creative people are creating amazing things.’’
The principles are modelled on the Reggio Emilia approach, an educational philosophy that views children not as empty vessels but rather as capable individuals, able to develop their own ideas and expressive styles.
‘‘If you look at Australia’s most respected living painter at the moment, John Olson, you’ll see that what the children are doing at any of our community preschools is just as beautiful as what he is doing but as adults we don’t somehow respect the creative voice we are seeing,’’ she says.
‘‘We don’t get it. The artists here [at Big Fat Smile] really have a lot of respect for what the children can do because most of us are trying to get back to that innocent expression which has been lost.’’
Primmer, an exhibiting artist in painting and drawing for more than 20 years, has been employed at Big Fat Smile for five years. In that time, she has introduced Artspace, a creative arts studio in Railway Street, Corrimal for children and young people aged 3 to 16 years. The studio offers art classes during the school term and special-interest workshops during school holidays.
She has also overseen the employment of eight artists-in-residence, who deliver the Artspace classes, as well as arts programs in preschools, recreation clubs for 5 to 12-year-olds, and outreach programs for children of all ages. The artists also provide arts training for Big Fat Smile staff and University of Wollongong education students.
Creativity has become such a big concern at Big Fat Smile that it now has its own department, which Primmer heads.
‘‘I’ve been very lucky in that I have an incredible CEO [Bill Feld] who understands the importance of creative thinking,’’ she says.
Primmer was also responsible for organising the South Coast Children’s Festival, in conjunction with Merrigong Theatre Company, in 2010 and 2011.
Next month The Creativity Project, another Primmer-driven project, will be staged at Sydney’s Museum Of Contemporary Art. The one-day event on March 13 will feature a line-up of speakers including writer John Marsden presenting their views on how to teach and engage effectively by understanding the learning process from a child’s divergent perspective.
So why is creativity so important to the learning and development of children? And how can engaging in the visual arts help to make a better person?
Primmer believes the ability to think creatively can be the difference between getting by and excelling in every school subject, including maths and science. She also believes that the visual arts can help with life skills by boosting self confidence and esteem and teaching cause and effect.
She quotes a recent survey of CEOs which revealed that creativity was considered the No1 quality needed for optimum leadership.
‘‘The creative process and making art, whether it be music or visual arts or writing, is basically connecting children to the right side of the brain,’’ she says.
‘‘It’s developing their right brain and helping them to become more creative thinkers.
‘‘It’s getting them to create from scratch. They are having to come up with ideas and make them happen and that’s different from computer games in which they have instructions and they tick the boxes, so to speak.
‘‘With creative arts, children can do their own thing, they can express themselves, and science has proved that that sparks those brain connections which are all important to learning.’’
On its website, Big Fat Smile says it likes colouring outside the lines and that thinking outside the box is important.
‘‘It’s interesting that we’ve noticed after five years of age, particularly between five and 12, some children have lost their confidence and they are worried about getting it wrong,’’ she says.
‘‘We’d really like to address that here and in our programs because we believe they need to be creative thinkers if they are going to get ahead in this world.’’
Primmer, a former Wollongong High School student, moved to Sydney when she was 18 and completed an early childhood education degree at Macquarie University. She also went to art school, graduating with a degree in visual arts, with a major in painting, and a masters.
She then worked at the Australian Film Television and Radio School for several years in production and design.
It was during her involvement in the artist-in-residence program at the Bundanon Trust that Primmer saw first hand the benefits of having school children engage with practising artists. She loved the West Cambewarra living arts centre so much that she ended up working there for three years as the trust’s education marketing manager.
At Big Fat Smile the aim is to get practising artists working alongside educators for the exchange of ideas.
‘‘The uniqueness of the practising artist is that they are thinking divergently all the time, so they are in a better position in a way to get inside a child’s way of thinking and a child’s way of seeing the world,’’ she says.
The message, Primmer says, is to develop creative minds at an early age.
‘‘One of our artists in residence, Jill Talbot, often says to me the program that she is delivering to the preschoolers is really similar to the program that she delivers to the HSC students and again it’s that idea we are not underestimating children.’’
Primmer believes that engaging in the creative arts helps children to develop interpretative skills and contributes to making their education more well-rounded. ‘‘I think that’s the message I find the hardest to get across – is that people really do think that creativity is not important and they don’t get that children are learning from it.’’