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It may seem unthinkable to bring a baby to watch a performance. After all, one might have doubts about whether a three-month-old can focus, if a 12-month-old can understand the story, or if a three-year-old can listen attentively.
So when you tell parents about works created for babies, they will naturally go, "Huh?". They may wonder if such content can be meaningful and accessible for the very young ones.
The fact is, an increasing number of productions in Singapore and around the world now cater to babies three and under, and are created by artistic directors who have done extensive research on the benefits to these tots.
From the use of a few bold colours for costumes and sets, to movements choreographed to capture the attention of babies, much art and science is behind the creation of these shows to give babies an enjoyable experience.
Productions for babies are multi-sensory experiences, designed to suit the milestones in the first three years of a child’s life.
While babies progress to be able to see a full spectrum of colours after a few months, early-years productions intentionally minimise the use of colours to help children focus, said Barbara Małecka, a set designer from Children’s Art Centre Poznan from Poland. The company produces Blisko, a dance-theatre show that celebrates the relationship between nature and family, created for babies from six months to three years of age. She says,
In addition, babies start to roll over, sit and crawl from four months. They also learn about the world around them through touch. The productions are mindful of these milestones and allow for their young audiences to move around and explore.
In Blisko, children are allowed to touch the set pieces and hold and play with props that are handed out towards the end of the performance.
A baby who has not started speaking may not look like he is participating in the show. But he is actually constantly making sense of the world and communicating through sounds, gestures and behaviour.
To make sense to the little bubs, actors communicate using their language – one which is non-verbal. Movements are a natural way in which babies communicate. In fact, Blisko is anchored around dance and movement and the children are also invited to join in a communal dance.
Andrea Buzzetti, who performs in Upside Down, a production by La Baracca in Italy, said he aims to tell young children a story through the language of the theatre, communicating using his expressions and movements. The production welcomes tots from 12 months and above.
He and his co-actor, Carlotta Zini, also use simple drawings to tell the story. Upside Down for instance, is about two strangers brought together by a missing cat. Buzzetti says,
From the lighting to the audience size, from the set to the choice of music, the production teams have put in special effort to prepare for these shows.
In Blisko, the audience size is kept to 60 with everyone sitting in a circle, to create an intimate and safe arena in which they can watch the performance. Set designers in Upside Down utilise set pieces that move and change seamlessly with the storyline to engage the audience.
Lighting is also a critical element in the shows, to create a cozy and calm space for babies.
Music selection is another important aspect when it comes to engaging babies. Blisko uses songs by Polish contemporary jazz composer Wacław Zimpel, which has pieces with recurring rhythms, while Upside Down features a Louis Armstrong classic, If I Could be With You, creating a relaxed and soothing setting for babies.
Debunking the myth that “babies don't know anything”, Natalie Tse, who is a research assistant with the visual and performing arts academic group at the National Institute of Education, said babies make sense of the world through their five senses.
The more babies are engaged, the more neurons are fired in their brains and that's how they develop cognitively, she said. “While babies may not ‘look’ like they are paying attention, the information is definitely getting to them in one way or another.”
She added that early exposure also helps babies be receptive towards diversity and help them develop a better sense of empathy.
Ruby Lim-Yang, ACT 3 International’s artistic director, agreed that babies have the ability to contextualise, interpret, and translate at their level of cognitive development what they see, hear and feel. ACT 3 International has had experience presenting a babies and early-years theatre festival, Act3i Festival for Children.
Rather than see it as an experience only for the baby, parents should view these performances as a way of spending quality time with their child, to strengthen the relationship and get to know each other better.
Rachel Lim, Esplanade producer and lead programmer for Octoburst! – A Children’s Festival on introducing performances for children six months to three years for the first time ever at the festival, said,
Jane Ng is a former journalist who covered lifestyle, family and education stories. She currently writes a parenting column for The Straits Times and does consulting and writing work for private and government organisations.