Late last year (2020), Esplanade’s March On team sent us an invitation to work together for the inaugural March On children’s festival, a new multi-disciplinary and participatory arts festival for children. The team wanted deeper conversations with children, noting that “as adults programming arts for young audiences, we can do better at listening, responding to and including the voices of children".
Fast forward a few months later, and we’ve (Gua Khee and Faye, together with the March On team) since conceptualised and piloted SEEDLINGS as a programme that brings together a group of enthusiastic and arts-loving children aged 7 to 12 years, and of diverse experiences and abilities, to engage and respond to the children’s programming at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. This ranged from dialogues with the adult creators of various productions, to inviting the children themselves to come up with concepts for arts festivals. With SEEDLINGS, Esplanade seeks to further develop children-centred artistic experiences within the March On festival and at the national performing arts centre.
As a pilot programme, there were definitely certain aspects that we can improve on in future—at the same time, there were aspects about our planning and implementation that feel worthwhile to articulate and share. In this reflection article, we hope to speak to both, and contribute to conversations about the centering of children’s voices in arts programming.
In this pilot run of SEEDLINGS, which was intended to coincide with the inaugural March On festival (9–14 March 2021), eight children between 7 and 11 years of age participated in a series of nine sessions between February and March 2021. In these sessions, we played games and made a few artworks to get to know each other, attended some programmes in the festival, and met a March On programmer and various artists involved in the performances and installation.
The children met Dr Masayo Ave over the computer, and responded to a variety of sounds by arranging the colourful shapes into faces—a glimpse into how Wendy Chua of Forest & Whale and Dr Masayo co-created the public art installation Many Many Extraordinary Stories with other children in an earlier art and design workshop.
Playwright Amanda Chong and composer Julian Wong from The Feelings Farm spoke about the challenges and joys of their artistic collaboration, and took the children through the process of making movement and music relating to the feeling of sadness.
After watching The Feelings Farm, the children got to meet director Edith Podesta to ask questions about the work. The conversation was rich, covering topics such as the labour involved in making a multidisciplinary performance like this, directing with the constraints of COVID-19 safe management measures, and content warnings required (or not) for the usage of strobe lights.
There were also specially designed workshops where the children interacted with ideas behind the festival programming. March On programmer Sofia Begum took them through Esplanade’s considerations when putting together a festival, using the process of planning a menu as a reference. Eventually, the children came up with their own concepts for children’s arts festivals, such as Ashvika’s Fun in the Arts Festival, where children can do whatever they want, as long as they follow rules about not being violent, not littering and not causing harm. Ellie’s The Little Children Festival will be one where older children programme for younger children aged six years and below, while Riya’s Festival Club is an arts festival in a clubhouse that is open to people aged one to 43 years. Le Xi’s Music + Animals Festival brings her two loves together for an immersive experience in the forest.
It was a pleasure witnessing the children’s insights and curiosities. Hao Yang, who conceptualised a digital festival with fart-themed video installations (Fart-Farty), was conscious and specific about his target audience being other “children who want to feel hilarious.” Another child asked if a free festival meant the festival would be of low quality. A lively discussion followed, with questions about who pays for the arts and in particular, the free programmes at the March On festival.
As part of SEEDLINGS, each child was also given a blank notebook and a set of coloured pencils as journal materials. In it, they drew, wrote questions, and took notes. For example, when attending The Rattle King, a puppetry performance featuring a 4.5m-tall puppet, both during the performance and also after leaving the performance venue, the children wrote down their many questions about the performance, including: Did they make up a new language? Why is the Rattle King so upset? Through these thoughts and drawings on the notebooks, we were then able to later process the festival experiences together.
To wrap up this pilot edition of the programme, we held a public sharing on the last day of March On. Right before the sharing, the children borrowed phrases from The Feelings Farm performance they had watched the previous day to describe their mixed feelings of worry (“web of worry”), embarrassment (“elephant of embarrassment”) or joy (“jungle of joy”) at having to start the sharing. As facilitators, we felt the same, and were glad for the children’s clear articulation of their emotions. We might have added “awkward aardvark” for the emotions relating to the strangeness of hosting such an event amidst COVID-19 safe measures—measures that instilled formality into the typically laid back feel of a casual sharing session, requiring us to wipe the mics down after each child had spoken into the microphone.
During this public sharing—and indeed, throughout the nine sessions of the pilot—the children were very thoughtful, detailed and honest about their thoughts and experiences of SEEDLINGS as well as of the March On festival programmes they experienced. There were also ideas that surfaced from the attendees at this sharing about what could happen at future iterations of SEEDLINGS, as well as at the next March On or other children’s programming at Esplanade.
From our conversations with the March On team, it was clearly important to all of us that we centre children’s thoughts and feelings in SEEDLINGS. However, what was less clear was whether we had a common understanding of what being ‘children-centred’ and caring for their wellbeing concretely looks and/or feels like. In the initial stages of planning, it also seemed possible that various staff from Esplanade would be co-facilitators in the programme, further highlighting the need to align understanding across everyone involved in the programme.
In response, we proposed a three-hour ‘care document workshop’, that would also be open to Esplanade staff outside of 2021’s March On organising team. The intention of this workshop was to surface and collate existing care practices, as well as to articulate and/or refine practices specific to engaging with children, so as to develop a ‘care document’ for SEEDLINGS that outlines collective commitments to ensure the children’s health, safety and wellbeing.
Beyond looking at existing care practices within Esplanade, we also shared some reference materials from other agencies and organisations, and facilitated discussion and collaborative writing amongst the participants. Subsequently, after the workshop, we then tidied up the writing and arrived at the following six key commitments:
During this ‘care document workshop’, various participants highlighted the desire for and importance of children co-developing ‘house rules’ for the programme, and to clearly and respectfully communicate expectations to the children. This was eventually framed as a group agreements exercise, in which we as facilitators provided the social goals for the agreements, and the scenarios we will need agreements for, such as when we meet guest artists, or watch performances.
The agreements were then collated from the children’s own suggestions, which included waiting for each other to finish speaking in a discussion, asking “get to know you” questions to greet the guest artists and being quiet during performances. To our delight, the children also raised “have fun” as a group agreement. Thereafter, they designed posters for these agreements, to serve as visual reminders. The process of making these agreements helped the children be more aware of the group needs and build camaraderie. For instance, one child suggested over-the-top consequences for breaking the agreements, such as paying exorbitant fines (one thousand gazillion squillion dollars!) and extreme physical tasks, leading to equal parts horror and laughter amongst the others.
On the whole, the children seemed to have enjoyed their time in SEEDLINGS, particularly the experience of meeting the artists and hearing and experiencing parts of the creation process. For instance, one of the children shared that “the best part [of SEEDLINGS] was [the] making of the ‘faces’”, an activity they did as part of Dr Masayo Ave and Wendy Chua’s sharing session about how they had engaged with children to create the public arts installation Many Many Extraordinary Stories. This was echoed by parents in a feedback session we had with them at the end of SEEDLINGS, with a parent sharing fondly about how excited their child had been the entire day after Amanda Chong and Julian Wong’s session, for instance.
It had also been important to us that there was a strong social and relational aspect to SEEDLINGS, and so it was quite lovely to hear a child saying during the public sharing that they felt that “everyone in the SEEDLINGS programme has made quite strong bonds with each other so we want to continue to be friends with each other, [and to] keep in touch”. Clearly, the children do seem to recognise and appreciate the new relationships that have been forged through the programme.
During SEEDLINGS, we provided cameras that the children could use to document the sessions, and we had always emphasised the need to check for consent when taking photos. One parent observed their child holding back before taking a photo, and when asked about it, the child replied that they needed to seek consent first.
At the same time, there were some aspects about the programme that still need work. One key aspect is how the open call was framed. When we asked the children how they felt about SEEDLINGS, one child expressed having the impression they were selected for their drawing skills, and had thought there would be more opportunities during SEEDLINGS to draw or do other kinds of artmaking. Some parents also had the perception that the open call was a talent selection process—one parent expressed sending in an “audition video” in response to the open call’s invitation to send in an introduction video. When asked, some parents spoke about how the limited capacity of the programme (maximum eight children) did make the open call feel somewhat like a talent competition.
For future iterations, it would be important to emphasise our focus on selecting for diversity across age, backgrounds, access needs and familiarity with the arts, rather than for artmaking skills per se. In retrospect, we could also have provided more alternative programmes for children who weren’t selected.
Another key aspect for further work is the need for the programme to increase engagement with parents and families. Some parents highlighted that they were not familiar with the goings-on of the sessions as this was a drop-off programme. They were very appreciative of the public sharing at the end of SEEDLINGS, during which we showed photos and videos of the sessions, and heard from the children about their feelings with regard to the activities and programme. One parent also noted that they were very glad for The Feelings Farm programme booklet their child brought home, as that was something concrete they were able to use to ask about their child’s experience that day.
From a quick brainstorming with the parents, suggestions for future iterations included: sending out a brief summary of what had happened after every session, inviting children to bring home materials they had worked on (as opposed to leaving it with us), as well as sharing photos and videos where appropriate and helpful!
Our post-mortem discussions pointed to some unresolved questions from our initial discussions, and so we leave them here, as a reminder to ourselves, and also as food for thought for anyone involved in people-centred programmes - regardless of the programming team’s willingness and desire to have deep conversations with children and to have the children’s voice eventually inform decision-making at Esplanade, to what extent is the institution ready to support that process? For instance, how much resources (time, manpower etc.) can realistically be committed to enable this, given existing expectations and operational needs? There is a certain level of disruption and adjustment when we recalibrate the power dynamics while working with children—how prepared are we institutionally and individually?
That is, even as we recognise the potential to do better, the team (us and the March On programmers) is committed to continuing SEEDLINGS in some shape and form, be it through further activities with this first batch of young SEEDLINGS, or through future iterations of the programme. The children and their families are clearly keen to continue, and we too are excited to keep learning and growing with SEEDLINGS!
Created by: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Chong Gua Khee & Faye Lim (Derring-Do Dance)
Supported by: Neo Jialing
Videography by: Gladys Ng
Participants: Ashvika, Rachel, Ellie, Travis, Hao Yang, Le Xi, Gleb, Riya
A huge thank you as well to the families of the children, the guest artists and presenters, and everyone else who helped in one way or another to make SEEDLINGS possible!
Chong Gua Khee / 张月崎 is deeply interested in opening up space and time for emergent, intimate and joyful conversations, and in her work she seeks to invite others to collectively play with and discover ways of better caring for ourselves, one another, and the worlds we live in. This often manifests in the form of performances or workshops, for which Gua Khee takes on directorial or dramaturgical/facilitative roles, but can also translate as research/writing or organising work.
Faye Lim (Derring-Do Dance) makes, mothers, dances, choreographs, facilitates, improvises, and performs. Her artistic practice is rooted in movement improvisation and in the examination of how power, agency and care affect the ways one experiences freedom while dancing. As co-director of Derring-Do Dance, she designs dance and public health programmes and projects for diverse demographics and provides consultancy services and advocacy in the areas of children’s arts engagement and education, body safety and sexuality education.