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Early years learning in galleries

When: Tuesday 29 May 2018
Where: Scottish National Portrait Gallery


This seminar was an opportunity to hear about and share practice around how galleries are using a range of approaches to engage early years children, in both family and childcare/nursery settings. The day was jointly led by Engage Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland learning team.


Who was it for?
Key questions for the day


Locating early years pedagogy in Scotland today - Jane Whinnett
Early years learning at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester - Lucy Turner
Early years programmes at Tramway, Glasgow - Holly Rumble
Why is it not white? - Carol Dunbar
Starcatchers - Heather Armstrong
BALTIC’s approach to early years learning - Rachael Rickwood

Contributor biographies

Heather Armstrong
Carol Dunbar
Rachael Rickwood
Holly Rumble
Lucy Turner
Jane Whinnett

Participant feedback

Links and further resources


Who was it for?

Educators at arts and heritage organisations, artists, local authority officers, and anyone interested in developing meaningful, purposeful and sustainable creative approaches to engaging with children in the early years.

The seminar was programmed by Liz Conacher, Schools Learning Coordinator at the National Galleries of Scotland; Anna Murray, Learning Programme Coordinator (Families and Early Years), National Galleries of Scotland; and Sarah Yearsley, Engage Scotland Coordinator. Liz, Sarah and Anna started planning the event in autumn of 2017 and the event should have taken place in early March 2018, but had to be rescheduled due to bad weather.

The seminar offered a mix of activities, including:

  • Presentations
  • Case studies
  • Practical gallery activity session
  • Small group and whole group discussion
  • Networking opportunities
  • Gallery tour


Key questions for the day were:


  • What early years work do you do at the moment?
  • What works well?
  • What doesn’t work so well?
  • What do you think are the key factors for success?
  • What would you like to do more of/differently?
  • Where do you look for inspiration/who’s doing exciting/innovative work? Doesn’t have to be in the visual arts or cultural sector
  • How do you make sure your early years programme is inclusive, accessible and reflects your local communities?



Locating early years pedagogy in Scotland today
Jane Whinnett, Headteacher at Hope Cottage & Balgreen Nurseries, Edinburgh

Jane Whinnett set the scene for the day by sharing her thoughts about learning theories and their applications in early years learning settings. She contrasted international approaches to early years learning from her own research visits to India, China and Denmark alongside historical approaches developed by Robert Owen at New Lanark and the McMillan sisters in Deptford and Bradford.

Jane described Froebel as the biggest influence on her own pedagogy, using a principle-based approach. Jane also described other popular and well known pedagogical approaches to early years learning such as Montessori where there is a focus on a prepared environment for children with structured materials. Montessori raised the professionalism of early years work. In this approach it is the adult who decides upon structures for the children.

Reggio Emilia is another well-known pedagogy where children are empowered and engaged. There is a strong aesthetic element to Reggio with the involvement of an ‘atelierista’, a teacher with an arts background. The context of Reggio is not for everyone and it requires a high level of parental commitment. There is an element of brand control behind the Reggio approach.

In Scotland we have more freedom to develop our approaches to early years learning. In relation to her approach to early years learning Jane talked about:

  • The values that underpin her practice
  • Childhood being what you are about now
  • The need to respect and include all children, particularly when working with children with lots of different cultural identities
  • Uniqueness of every child
  • We can’t compartmentalise learning into subject areas
  • The Froebel framework offers support to the practitioner to carry out their own ideas
  • Children need to have rich experiences out in the world
  • Loose Parts and Froebel’s Occupations
  • Sir Harry Burns (former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland) talking about people feeling a lack of hope and of control in their lives and the impact on their health and wellbeing.
  • Children without access to play
  • How can we encourage parents and families to come to galleries
  • Getting parents to stand back



Early years learning at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester - Lucy Turner, Early Years Coordinator, The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

Lucy shared the extensive programme of activity for under 5s at the Whitworth including Art Baby, a programme specifically designed for non-walking babies and their parents/carers and the Early Years Atelier, a Reggio Emilia inspired space where babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers can get messy, play creatively and follow their own interests. As well as the newly developed Forest School inspired Toddler Outdoor Art Club workshops that take place in the park come rain or shine.

Lucy also shared her top 10 tips for working with this audience. The Whitworth offers a programme for babies and values the early years within the gallery.

The Whitworth dedicates Mondays to early years audiences, running baby and toddler programmes and ensuring that the gallery is geared towards them on that day – setting up a buggy park for example. They also manage their audiences by telling other visitors to come on other days.

Art Baby
always takes place in gallery spaces and is run without a structured beginning and end to the session. They offer 6 rugs within the galleries with a selection of objects. There’s no led element and it encourages very active learning.

Music Baby – musicians move around the gallery and engage with the babies

Language Baby – sessions with a storyteller.

These sessions are free and usually oversubscribed. The gallery operates a booking system which even though the sessions are free can act as a barrier to access. So they now do drop in sessions in the afternoon.

The Early Years Atelier – aimed at under 5s. A Reggio Emilia inspired space which is child-led and blurs the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. Drop in is from 10am – 3pm. It’s a laboratory for play. Each atelier session is inspired by an artwork. They develop a research question for the atelier. The atelierista keeps a diary of activity. In the atelier they use a lot of paint. They set things up to look beautiful, they don’t dumb down. The atelierista doesn’t teach. People wanted a more flexible child-led session.

Toddler Outdoor Art Club – families wanted activity at weekend, for full time working mums for example. So they have created the Toddlers Outdoor Art Club, working with Forest Schools Practitioners and artists. Activities include rain painting and snow painting.

Art Hampers are available in the gallery so that there is something available all the time. It’s a pick and mix of craft materials with a picnic blanket to use in the galleries.

Lucy’s role straddles formal and informal learning. She facilitates an early years network which meets once a term to share ideas.




Early years programmes at Tramway, Glasgow - Holly Rumble, Public Engagement Coordinator, Tramway.


  • TRYOUT: drop-in creative workshops for all ages, which respond to the contemporary visual art programme.
  • Family Days: expanded multi-artform events which respond to the visual art and performance programme, and which aim to develop confidence in the venue as a safe and engaging space for young children. This programme is designed to support the whole family to attend, with activities tailored to each age group.
  • Tramweans: a new programme for 3-5 year olds exploring contemporary performance.


The main focus of the presentation was on the nursery school workshops Holly has delivered over the last two and a half years. Tramway is now in a position where every available nursery session is fully booked. Some of the children who visited in previous years are now in the local primary school (where Tramway is delivering a school-wide project) and they are still able to articulate their experiences of those visits. Tramway is aiming to build a strong progression route for local children, so that contemporary art becomes a regular part of their lives.

In 2014 Pollokshields East was the neighbourhood with the highest percentage of primary school pupils with a Minority Ethnic background (82%) in Glasgow (Glasgow Education Services, Glasgow City Council). Tramway is committed to be relevant and welcoming for these children, so that some may consider a future career in the arts and increase the representation of people from minority ethnic backgrounds in the sector.

This presentation included examples of how Holly has designed nursery workshops to explore the ideas and materials in the gallery programme, including methods for engaging children with English as an additional language.

Holly spoke about how Tramway want to be relevant to people walking past the door. Tramway are interested in how their early years sessions can be part of a strong progression route and start to change the representation of black and minority ethnic people in the sector - family involvement is key.

The TRY OUT programme responds to the gallery’s contemporary art programme. All the activities are led by professional artists. They have had family days where they have worked with 1500 people in 4 hours.


Download Holly's presentation (72MB file with 2 video clips)

Why is it not white? - Carol Dunbar, Education Officer, The Pier Arts Centre, Stromness

'In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.'

Simon Nicholson, Theory of Loose Parts, 1972

The Pier Arts Centre (PAC) is currently developing a series of workshops based around Simon Nicholson’s 1972 Theory of Loose Parts with Orkney’s early years’ practitioners that focusses on the extraordinary capacity of the very young to construct thoughts, ideas, questions and answers.

Through the project they want to discover ways in which they can retain these faculties along with the enthusiasm that accompanies them, for future, ongoing and lifelong learning.

PAC want to find out if they can gather valuable, qualitative data and establish methods of working with young children that have the potential to impact significantly on their overall learning through continuing creative engagement as they progress through formal learning.

A key aspect of the project is for the children to engage with selected works from the Pier Arts Centre permanent collection of 20th and 21st century modernist art, which along with the exploration, sorting, cataloguing and utilisation of materials enables them to investigate their research ‘brief’.

Carol talked about how PAC want to offer some direction for parents visiting the gallery with young children. They are developing an approach based upon Loose Parts Play. Carol brought brown paper bags filled with resources which had been assembled by the children she has been working with.

Download Carol's presentation (29MB)

View Carol's presentation notes

Starcatchers, Heather Armstrong, Creative Skills Programme Manager, Starcatchers

Starcatchers is Scotland’s National Arts and Early Years organisation.  In her presentation, Heather shared some insights into the work of Starcatchers, including their partnership work with the National Galleries on “Wee Wanders” and “Toddle Tours”, the importance of Wonder in the lives of young children, and why equity of access to the arts is so important.

Heather brought an interesting slant to our discussions with her experience in working in the performing arts sector. Starcatchers make theatre for under 3s and work with under 5s. They have a strong research base and make work that is developmentally appropriate for the age of children they are working with.

Art is at the heart of their work and they have high artistic standards for their work with children and young people. They work mainly in theatre, music and the visual arts. They deliver programmes of community engagement, they work with young mums and kinship carers. They are playful when bringing in an artistic element.

Their approach is to go through the creative process together with participants. Babies and young children are seen as co-collaborators. Young people as artists. Equity of access is important and they feel that everyone should have the chance to experience their work so will often go to their audience’s space rather than just expect the audience to come to them. Wonder is important within their work. Starcatchers also train early years practitioners across Scotland.

BALTIC’s approach to early years learning - Rachael Rickwood, Assistant Producer (Children and Young People) BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Rachael talked about BALTIC’s previous early years offer and why and howthey are changing it and what that process has been like. She also briefly talkedabout their EYFS work in community settings and schools.

They created a sensory room within the gallery and the profile built very quickly. They have delivered Toddler Time sessions in community settings.

Early years network in North East of England.

Play Space – with artists across art forms.

Download Rachael's presentation (3MB)

Contributor biographies:

Heather Armstrong

Heather joined Starcatchers after eight years working with young people in Glasgow in some of the most deprived communities in Europe. She believes passionately in the power of the arts to transform lives and tackle inequalities and working with our youngest members of society seems to be the best place to start. As Creative Skills Manager at Starcatchers, a big part of her role is helping people understand how the arts and creativity support child development, deliver Scottish Government outcomes, and make the world a better place. 

Carol Dunbar

Carol Dunbar is part of the senior management team of the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney with responsibility for ensuring the delivery of a high quality and inclusive education and learning programme, which currently attracts a wide audience of participants ranging from pre-school to post-doctoral.

She has many years’ experience of working in arts education, including community, schools and both FE and HE provision. She has worked at the Pier Arts Centre since 2005 developing educational connections to Orkney’s scattered community, its network of schools and with education institutions both within Orkney as part of the University of the Highlands & Islands and with Scottish and International art schools.

She studied at Edinburgh College of Art, completing her Post Graduate Studies in 1979. She has been a board and panel member of a number of local and national arts organisations, and is currently a board member of Engage and Chair of Soulisquoy Printmakers.

Rachael Rickwood

Rachael joined BALTIC in 2015 as Young People Programme Assistant, working specifically with 14-19 year olds through their ArtMix programme. Before BALTIC Rachael worked as a secondary school art teacher. In 2017 her role changed to Assistant Producer (Children and Young People) and she has since been working on developing the ways BALTIC works with children and young people outside of formal education settings.

Holly Rumble

Holly Rumble is the Public Engagement Coordinator for Tramway in Glasgow. She joined Tramway in 2015 to deliver the learning programme for Turner Prize 2015 and has since developed a programme of contemporary art activity for young children and their families. In 2017, she was awarded a Marsh Award for Excellence in Gallery Education.

As a practicing artist, Holly has presented work across the UK, and internationally, in Finland, Japan, and Hong Kong. Holly graduated from Wimbledon School of Art with a BA in Fine Art, and from Norwich University of the Arts with an MA in Animation and Sound Design.

Lucy Turner

Lucy Turner is the Early Years Coordinator at the Whitworth, Manchester. In 2015 the Whitworth reopened after a £15 million redevelopment and in its opening year won Museum of the Year.

Lucy has worked at the Whitworth for over 5 years and in that time has built up an extensive programme of activity for under 5s and their parents/ carers.

Previously Lucy has worked at BALTIC centre for Contemporary Art as School & Colleges Programmer and as Learning Officer at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.

Lucy studied Fine Art: Sculpture & Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art and has an MA in Fine Art from Manchester School of Art.

Jane Whinnett

Jane Whinnett is head teacher of two local authority nursery schools in Edinburgh. After graduating with a degree in English Language and Literature, she trained as a primary school teacher, later specialising in early years. She has worked in rural and inner-city schools. She has extensive experience of working with young children. She is committed to continuous professional development for all staff working with young children, believing that this is the way to provide high quality experiences for all children. She has supported this through the local authority, initiating innovative initial training for Early Years Practitioners as well those aspiring to leadership roles.

While completing a Diploma in Early Education, she met a Froebelian. After completing a certificate at University of Roehampton, she collaborated with five other nursery heads in Edinburgh to form the Edinburgh Froebel Network to organise conferences to promote practice based on Froebelian principles. They later established a course in Froebel in Childhood Practice at University of Edinburgh. The course is now being delivered for 11 local authorities across Scotland. Jane is a Trustee of the Froebel Trust and chairs the Education Subcommittee.

Having travelled to see practice in the early years internationally, she is well placed to talk about early years pedagogy. Most recently she has been developing Wee Builders with the Education Staff from National Galleries of Scotland.



During the day we collected participants’ feedback on the following questions:


What role should adults play in the learner’s experience?

  • Collaborators
  • Get involved! Don’t hide in the café or behind your phone.
  • Helping when needed
  • Work and play together
  • They should share in the experience and allow the learner to lead without being restrictive
  • They should set up invitations
  • Structured guidance, observing safely, encouraging play, freedom rule, breaking in to safe creative context.
  • Learning together
  • Share in the experience
  • They should play alongside
  • Accepting


Where do you look for inspiration? Who’s doing exciting early years work?

  • Science centres
  • Every day objects. Life!
  • For inspiration I look to:
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Games
  • Stories
  • Pester and Rossi
  • Inspired by child visitors to our gallery
  • Learn and do more
  • My children


Think about materials. What do you like/love/loathe? Any surprises?

  • Scale & size
  • Variety of shapes
  • Freedom
  • Neutral colours
  • Might encourage individual interaction rather than teamwork
  • Great noises but too loud in gallery spaces?
  • Risky/heavy handling materials
  • Structure
  • Recycled material
  • Love ‘real’ materials
  • Loathe ‘safe’ materials


How do you evaluate your early years activities?

  • Through observations and documenting these observations
  • Attendance
  • Return visitors
  • Collecting comments from children and parents
  • Observing discussions with participants


What can we (galleries, art educators) offer that nurseries can’t, and vice versa?

  • Smells and sounds
  • A chance for different children to shine – surprises
  • New thoughts
  • Galleries allow the whole family to learn and engage together
  • The buildings, environments, smells, green spaces
  • New experiences and environments
  • Stimulus from artworks – new ideas, new materials
  • A place where children can enter with their parents/carers and be on equal terms
  • Putting art/creativity first
  • Sharing different approaches
  • A big open space in the middle of the floor!
  • Artists to work with
  • Expert knowledge about different topics (arts, materials, methods)
  • Time, space, materials, facilities



Links and resources:

It's all mediating: Outlining and Incorporating the roles of Curating and Education in the Exhibition context 


Sally Tallant, Integrated Programming: www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/11/experiments-in-integrated-programming


Publication: www.amazon.co.uk/its-all-mediating-incorporating-exhibition/dp/1443847755 





Prepared by Sarah Yearsley, Engage Scotland Coordinator, July 20

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