Theatre for the very, very young.

I’ve come to Theatre Direct this fall as an associate artist, a position made possible through Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program, funded by the Ontario Arts Council. I’m here to work on some exciting new initiatives, and was thrilled to arrive just in time to help welcome visiting UK artist Rhona Matheson. Rhona is the head of Starcatchers, an Edinburgh based organization that specializes in theatre for children 0 – 5 years old.

Yes, that’s right. Theatre for infants and toddlers.

90% of a child’s brain is developed in the first three years. With this in mind, Starcatchers focuses on theatre for the very, very young. Actually, they start with pre-birth theatre projects, working with expectant mothers on creative engagement. “If a mother is creatively involved she will be less stressed. That means the baby in her womb will be less stressed. So already the baby is benefiting from the arts,” says Rhona with her broad smile.

The Scottish government has a stated aim to be the “best place to grow up. A nation which values play as a life-enhancing daily experience for all of our children and young people…” The document “Play Strategy for Scotland” is based on cutting edge research into the importance of play for the developing brain.

“Play creates a brain that has increased flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life.” (from “Play for a Change” by Stuart Lester & Wendy Russel, 2008)

“Play” is considered a basic human right, as is the right to enjoy art. Article 31 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child states: Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities. Starcatchers works from that basic right, the right to play and to enjoy artistic activities. In fact, who better than artists to create inspiring works that use play? And with 700 new neural connections being built per second in the first year of life, offering artistic experiences for babies has become a mission for Rhona.

Theatre for babies and toddlers is not just for the children. Early Years theatre is, by its very nature, holistic – babies, caregivers, grandparents, teachers, childcare professionals, family and friends enjoy it all at the same time. Starcatchers has done extensive documentation of their innovative performances, showing that these experiences strengthen the bond between caregivers and children, encourage social development and enhance the quality of peer and sibling relationships. So when Rhona’s artists create a piece, it has to be something that appeals, quite literally, to all ages.

While theatre for Early Years is a well-respected field internationally, dedicating arts experiences for babies and toddlers is almost unknown in Canada. Rhona’s visit to Toronto was an opportunity for Theatre Direct excite and engage local theatre artists, educational leaders and policy makers in the idea of developing and providing playful artistic experiences for babies and toddlers.

One of the highlights of Rhona’s visit was a trip to the new Fraser Mustard Academy, a school entirely dedicated to Junior and Senior kindergarten children. The school is an outgrowth of Thorncliffe Park School, the largest elementary/junior school in North America. Housing 2000 students, Thorncliffe Park needed to expand and built an addition designed around the needs of children 3 – 6 years old. They opened their doors to 700 children this September. They’re still under construction, but the passion and enthusiasm for young children is everywhere in evidence.

Fraser Mustard Academy is dedicated to respecting the child, and everything is built for their perspective. There are large open spaces for physical activity, dance, and even riding tricycles. You can see the inner workings of the building. Pipes, tubes and electrical wires are left visible because “we want kids to see how things work,” says principal Catherine Ure.

“Scientific evidence demonstrates that neural pathways in the brains of children are built through the exploration, thinking, problem solving and language expression that occur during play.” (Ontario Early Years Policy Framework 2013)

Theatre Direct well understands the vital role of creativity in play-based learning. The company is partnering with the Fraser Mustard Academy to offer a series of artists’ residencies. The Firefly Project will take creative drama and story telling into all of the 24 kindergarten classes over the course of the year.

With new works in development for babies, toddlers and 3 – 5 year olds, it is a really exciting time to be at Theatre Direct. Just as young brains are developing, Theatre Direct will be there with inspiring and creative sounds, colours, movements, textures and wonder.

Next May, Theatre Direct is launching The Wee Festival, the first festival of work for the very young in English Canada. It promises to be a joyful and playful time for all.