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THE JOY OF THE ATELIER

Before I became a teacher, I worked for “The Scrapstore” in Gloucester. Now and again the team would get the chance to go into local settings and schools to run art projects.

The energy and ideas that we saw spilling out of the children when we went there were extraordinary and confirmed to me that every childhood deserves to be one of creativity, collaboration and curiosity.

Cute 5 years old boy and toddler girl painting on white background
Cute 5 years old boy and toddler girl painting on white background

This view was further enhanced by an international study trip to Reggio Emilia in 2005 which I can only describe as life changing — ten days immersed in the magic of children and in a culture that values childhood and its joy.

The highlight of the trip was learning about the importance of the atelier within the Reggio approach and it raised a question that I brought back with me to England.

How can atelierism spring to life in our settings without having to be ‘Reggio’? I wanted to discover ways of adults sharing expertise and adventuring with children that showed them that they were ‘seen’ and honoured whilst being introduced to skills in a similar way.

Rather than trying to ‘do’ Reggio, my thinking has been about the principle of atelierism and how it can be sprinkled over play-full practice.

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The Reggio atelier is often an artist or creative who visits the setting to share their wisdom so that children can explore the soul of their creative drive — clay, shadow, light, paint, collage and drawing all being shared and adventured in with an emphasis on process rather than a polished outcome (although outcome is celebrated; simply not as the first objective). It is the journey that is held in high regard, as well as the cross-pollination of skills and ways of seeing the world.

What struck me was how it might be possible to shape a team into one of ateliers, not necessarily concerned solely with art, but atelierism in all areas of children’s experience in a setting. Nowadays, I no longer consider children in terms of ability, but rather confidence — each child working at the cusp of it — and the same can be said of the adults who co-play with them. Each of us works at the cusp of our own confidence when interacting with children, which in turn is shaped by our own fascinations, history and assumed skill-set.

Rather than having a focus on just art, each team member can become an ‘atelier’ in a certain area of provision. So for example, one might be the outdoor atelier, someone else the garden atelier, construction, junk modelling, role play, the list goes on. Each adult taking on the pride of being an expert in their field.

Little preschooler girl playing with plasticine. Happy child, adorable creative toddler girl playing with dough, colorful modeling compound, sitting at white table in bright sunny room at home or kindergarten
Little preschooler girl playing with plasticine. Happy child, adorable creative toddler girl playing with dough, colorful modeling compound, sitting at white table in bright sunny room at home or kindergarten

The joy of doing this lies in the way atelierism can give the team a sense of knowledge and emotional connection to their working day. It doesn’t mean that each atelier is limited to only being in a certain space all day long, but it does enable them to hone their understanding and knowledge of a particular area by being the ‘energy’ for it.

The role can also take on a layer of research, the atelier asking other team members to share how childhood has explored the space, making observations on how these might be enriched.

To a degree there are already ateliers in your setting: the children. Their bodies and brains hum and buzz with the desire to create, invent, build and explore. The adult ateliers can begin to immerse in the areas to go on their own journey into childhood.

It’s this last sentence that I believe can be the most powerful if atelierism is something you think you would like to explore, because it can lead to a really crucial shift in focus from seeing our days as interacting with children.

When we play we are interacting with childhood itself; it is this which a team of ateliers can begin to unearth and adventure in. As it does so, in time, the atelierism of children can take more and more of a central role and, before you know it, a richness like no other can bloom. It’s then that the conditions of co-play and co-adventure take shape.

Adults and children inventing and playing together as equals, as ateliers of a common experience: joy.

Curious Questions: if you were to be an atelier in your setting, what would you choose? Can you see how a culture of atelierism might nourish you, your team and children?

Greg Bottrill is the author of “Can I Go Play Now”