Published 21.12.2022
by Kids’ Own

Reflections on Kids’ Own’s 25th Anniversary Conference Roundup

Kids’ Own recently celebrated an important milestone! The organisation turned 25 in 2022, and we celebrated with a special anniversary conference on Friday the 25th of November at the Model, Sligo. We were delighted to have Dr Bryonie Reid from Quarto Collective as conference rapporteur, and you can read her conference roundup and reflections on the day below.

 

Reflections on Kids’ Own’s 25th Anniversary Conference. 

Kids’ Own’s 25th anniversary was a day of stimulating presentation and discussion, and I offer my observations and reflections here. Of necessity, these provide only glimpses of rich and wide-ranging conversations, based on my own sense of the value of process, collaboration, creative practice, language, and children and young people to Kids’ Own.

Welcome and Introductions (Ciara Gallagher (CEO & Creative Director, Kids’ Own; Victoria Ryle and Dr Simon Spain, founders of Kids’ Own)

In opening the day’s proceedings, Creative Director Ciara Gallagher set a child-centred tone by emphasising that children are not voiceless. Kids’ Own does not give children their voices, but rather enables them to be heard by more people in more places. Kids’ Own projects always seek to see and listen children first, honouring what is already happening in and with and around them, and then building on that responsively and collaboratively.

 

Speaking via Zoom, Victoria Ryle and Simon Spain outlined the emergence of Kids’ Own from their work in literacy and printmaking. In 2003 Simon and Victoria handed the helm to Orla Kenny and went on to establish Kids’ Own Publishing in Australia. Orla died in 2018, but as Ciara noted, for those associate artists who worked closely with, knew and loved her, ‘Orla’s presence is never far away’. Successor Jo Holmwood was honoured too, particularly for sustaining Kids’ Own’s programme of ‘meaningful engagement with children’ throughout the difficult years of Covid restrictions.

Social Inclusion: Publishing Unheard and Seldom Heard Voices

Mary Branley (Kids’ Own Associate Writer), Francesca Hutchinson (Kids’ Own Associate Artist), Gina Miyagawa (Roma Education Worker, Cork STAR project), Rachel Coffey (Traveller Education Worker, Cork STAR project) and Dr Connie Nell (Community Development Worker, Cranmore Community Co-Op).  

Kids' Own 25th Anniversary Conference
Kids' Own 25th Anniversary Conference
Kids' Own 25th Anniversary Conference
Kids' Own 25th Anniversary Conference

Referring to an early book, Charlie Barley and All His Friends, associate writer Mary Branley explained that culturally specific literacy resources for children from Traveller communities did not exist. Listening to Traveller children talk, Mary noted, ‘my ear had picked up something culturally very different… not evident if you’re not listening’. The result was Charlie Barley, ‘a very simple intervention’ using Traveller rhymes, but highly valued within Traveller communities. At its launch in 2001, the venue was ‘packed’ with an audience of both Traveller and settled. Mary is clear that ‘children’s world is huge, childhood is a huge area to explore’, and Kids’ Own’s remit is to embrace all children in all their experiences, rather than to ‘get stuck in a disadvantage model’.

 

Gina Miyagawa and Rachel Coffey have been working alongside Kids’ Own associates Mary, artist Francesca Hutchinson and writer Danny Brennan, with young people from Cork’s Traveller and Roma communities, who, they explain, ‘really wanted to become more visible’. They recall participants’ excitement as they embarked on shaping the process, and pride in its eventual outcome. Trust in Mary,  and Francesca and Danny grew so quickly ‘it was like some kind of magic’. Mary commented in response, ‘you… show up as a human being first’, keeping the project role secondary.

 

Cultural Rights from Birth: Best Practice in Early Years

Dr Carmel Brennan (Maynooth University), Naomi Draper (Kids’ Own Associate Artist), Maree Hensey (Kids’ Own Associate Artist), and Rose Murphy (CEO Waterford Childcare Committee). 

Carmel Brennan discussed the impact of creative collaboration not only on children, but also on the adults involved, suggesting they are equally affected. She noted that while adults may bring opportunities to explore, children’s creativity exists and will work itself out independent of any project. What adults can facilitate is the context for a child to contribute their creativity to a shared process and, sometimes, an outcome. Rose Murphy agreed that children ‘will contribute if we create a safe space for them to do that’. She pointed out Ireland’s increasing diversity, and emphasised that adults must ensure that children’s ethnicity, culture, language, gender and/or sexuality do not prevent them from accessing creative projects and activities.

 

Kids’ Own associate artists Naomi Draper and Maree Hensey described some of their experiences of creative collaboration with young children. They approach the work quietly, with a disposition of ‘wonder and curiosity’, learning (as Carmel suggested) about themselves and their practice as the collaboration unfolds. As Naomi noted, Kids’ Own make sure artists have time and space to reflect on how their practice is being shaped by working with children, and offer artists the chance to mentor and collaborate with each other. Naomi explained, ‘the partnership really allowed me to be brave’, and Kids’ Own’s tailored support ‘enabled me to continue exploring’. For Maree, ‘they have allowed me to be the artist in the space’. She saw working with very young children as opening new ways of communicating and collaborating, where, pre-language, ‘there’s nothing being said, but a conversation happens… a language without words… [and a] journey with no end in sight’.

(Note: a parallel session entitled “Research with Children: Insights from recent Kids’ Own projects” also took place but is not included in this conference roundup.)

Children’s Rights, Children’s Voices: Who’s Listening?

Dr Amy Hanna – chair (University of Strathclyde),

Mary Branley (Kids’ Own Associate Writer), Francesca Hutchinson (Kids’ Own Associate Artist) Dr Bernadette Ní Áingléis (Kids’ Own Education Advisor) and Maeve Whittington (Sligo Leitrim CYPSC Co-Ordinator).

Amy Hanna began the conversation with the question of what it means to listen to children. Bernadette Ní Áingleis replied that ‘the response to voice is critical’, pointing out that sometimes listening must lead to action. Further, listening as a practice must be learned, ‘you have to work at it, it’s complex’. Mary Branley identified relationship with the adult as key, suggesting that children will speak to an adult they know will listen. That adult must be able to see what lies behind a question or a comment or even a behaviour. Mary stated, ‘unless you’re able to listen to what is being said to you, you’ll miss it’. Amy noted that listening can focus on what is not being said, and that the arts are particularly adept at receiving and using non-verbal communication. For Maeve Whittington, children must have safe spaces, and services they enjoy engaging with, in order to speak and be heard. Mary recognised that adults can be uncomfortable with certain subjects, ideas and words, and equally uncomfortable with silences. In her work, she strives to be respectful not only of children’s voices but of their timing, and explained, ‘I can invite… through my listening and my steadiness’ the introduction and exploration of any subject or any thought.

Arts Practice with Children: What Does Good Practice Look Like?

Seóna Ní Bhriain – chair (Head of YPCE, Arts Council)

Ann Donnelly (Kids’ Own Associate Artist), Vanya Lambrecht Ward (Kids’ Own Associate Artist), and Liz Coman (Assistant Arts Officer, Dublin City Council).  

Seóna Ní Bhriain asked panellists to identify the fundamentals of good practice, and they agreed there was some difficulty in describing these. For Ann Donnelly one fundamental was listening to children, through all the senses, not only hearing what they said, but reading their energy and engagement level. Another was observing and learning from fellow artists in their work. For Vanya Lambrecht Ward it was to make space for children to take ownership of the process and lead it. As she put it, ‘magic can happen when you let go’. She aims to ‘show something’ of her own practice and motivation, and allow the rest to ‘flow from there’. Liz Coman agreed that letting go of leadership was crucial, and pointed to relationship between artist and children as a further fundamental. Kids’ Own provide funded time for this to be built, ‘allowing the artist and the children really take each other on’. In good practice, she went on to suggest, there is no longer a barrier between the artist’s work and the artist’s work with children. In discussing how to create the space for good practice to happen, the panellists identified taking time to establish trust, which underpins meaningful, in-depth collaboration.

Youth Panel Discussion (Mary Branley, Kevin Óg, Robin Óg, Philomena and Conor)

Mary Branley led an informal session with some young participants in Kids’ Own projects. Hannah had sent some thoughts by text, noting that Kids’ Own offer ‘a space where we are allowed to be creative’, largely unavailable in schools. She described the energy, excitement and joy the writers’ group she is part of take in each other’s work and summed up Kids’ Own as ‘an organisation that’s such a comfort to teens’. Philomena explained that she was involved in creating a book about fostering children, her first such experience. As a Traveller, she felt that her participation would encourage others from her community to take similar opportunities where possible. Sometimes, one voice could stand for many. Talking through ideas for developing the arts for and with children, Robin Óg suggested the establishment of regional children’s art galleries, and Kevin Óg an online gallery, with children contributing not only artwork, but helping to curate and manage the spaces (physical or virtual) too. All panellists wanted Kids’ Own’s work to be more visible in their schools and communities.

Kids' Own 25th Anniversary Conference
Kids' Own 25th Anniversary Conference
Kids' Own 25th Anniversary Conference

Reflections (Bryonie Reid)

From all of this and much more, including the audience’s expert and insightful queries and contributions, I put together reflections on five themes, and on Kids’ Own itself.

process and outcome

The space made for process in all Kids’ Own projects is key to their outworking. Artists – whether of image, sound, words or performance – know and trust in the worth of process, and make sure that in their collaboration with children and young people there is no premature jump to outcome. Open-ended process allows exploration, experimentation and the capacity to move from ‘failure’ to fresh ideas and deeper understanding. Listening to presentations and discussion during the conference, however, I gained a new appreciation for outcome. Educators, community workers, Kids’ Own associates and young people themselves spoke of the pride taken in a publication, the sense that what they said and what they did has value in the wider world. The books were spoken of as record and legacy, tangible and lasting, expanding visibility and audibility.

collaboration

Collaboration too is a fundamental feature of Kids’ Own’s work. It is multilayered, taking place between children and artists (of all forms), artists and artists, artists and educators, educators and children, and artists and Kids’ Own. It is reciprocal. In each of these collaborations, people meet as peers and partners in a process, with a mutual give-and-take dynamic. And it is pitched at different levels. Some collaborations go deep and last a long time. Others shape themselves around tighter limits on time and scope. Everyone involved in a Kids’ Own project speaks of collaboration as a fertile empowering, though challenging practice. It is not about erasing differences, but rather about staying with and developing what emerges in and through differences.

practice

Every associate artist speaks of how sensitively their practice is handled and understood by Kids’ Own. This approach is underpinned by the knowledge that the integrity and depth of any project arises from the artist bringing their authentic practice to share with their collaborative partners, children or adult. For children, especially, trust in the artist is fostered by the fact that, as Maree Hensey points out, ‘I’m not performing’. In being allowed – encouraged – to base their work with Kids’ Own on their own practice, the artist is nourished and nurtured as an artist, too.

language

The uses and meanings of language were raised in several contexts during the day. One attendee referred to a distinctive Kids’ Own vocabulary, and several words immediately came to mind: space, process, practice, listening, agency, exploration. However, language itself is integral to Kids’ Own’s work. Organisation and associates are always listening to the language of children and young people, whether verbal, aural, visual or physical. That language is recorded and then disseminated through Kids’ Own projects, thereby reinforcing its value for those who use it, and finding new receivers too. Sometimes this language is culturally and ethnically specific, and endangered (like Traveller language Cant), and sometimes specific to generation and/or community. Everyone involved in Kids’ Own is aware of both the power and the limitations of language.

children and young people

Children and young people are the reason for all of Kids’ Own’s work. In Kids’ Own projects, they are given agency and ownership, and the space to co-shape a collaborative practice with adults. Kids’ Own’s ethos with children and young people is based on the expectation that creativity and distinctive voices are always-already present in any given group. Associates’ role is to make space for, be guided by, honour and amplify these. Because the artist is neither parent nor teacher, they are able to occupy a productively oblique position in relation to the children and young people they work with, not quite a peer, but also not an authority figure. In this relationship individual children and young people can be heard and seen differently.

Kids’ Own

When Kids’ Own gets funding it can buy artists’ time. This allows Kids’ Own and artists to make spaces in which artists and children, young people and educators can meet, get to know each other, develop work together and learn from, encourage and grow each other’s ideas and practices. Over 25 years, Kids’ Own has cultivated a deep understanding of what artists bring to this work, and what they need to do it well. Kids’ Own is always learning what children and young people bring to this work, and what they need, in turn, to participate and benefit. The organisation makes the case, project by project, for the profound value of the collaboration between artists and children and young people, and leads a continual process of reflection, evaluation, adaptation, evolution and enrichment for all involved. Kids’ Own takes artists seriously, and takes children and young people seriously, while allowing for both to have fun and take joy in what they do together.

Kids' Own 25th Anniversary Conference
Kids' Own 25th Anniversary Conference
Kids' Own 25th Anniversary Conference
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