'Arts for the Very Young – A Bologna Case Study' (Tony Mack, Australia)

Arts for the Very Young – A Bologna Case Study

…La Baracca’s work radiates internationally. This company has been a flagship theatre in moving the whole field of theatre for the very young forward. The company co-operates with other practitioners all over Europe, and has organized the first festival of early childhood theatre.”

ASSITEJ International Award for Excellence 2008

Just what is involved in developing world’s best arts practice in a city or region? Does it tend to be the work of one person or organisation, or is it more the culmination of a communal “ecosystem” that ensures quality in every process of a cultural experience?

In this case study on arts for the very young in Bologna, Italy, I want to look behind the productions of ASSITEJ Award winning company La Baracca to see the context of their work. As with the renowned approach to early childhood education of the city of Reggio Emilia, 60 kilometres from Bologna and also a part of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, I believe that the drive to create wonderful arts experiences for the very young comes from a diverse group of people and organisations in Bologna and the Emilia Romagna region.

This case study attempts to map the cultural and educational ‘ecosystem’ that has produced La Baracca and its internationally acclaimed work, and to give firsthand ‘snapshots’ of that work in action.

La Baracca and Testoni Ragazzi

La Baracca is a theatre company founded in Bologna in 1976. It has been working in the field of theatre for children and young people for more than 30 years, and a leader in theatre for the very young since 1987. The company is a cooperative, and while many people around the world would recognise the leadership of the brother/sister partnership of Roberto and Valeria Frabetti, there are a number of fine artists working with the company, such as Artistic Co-Director Bruno Cappagli.

It is based at Testoni Ragazzi (which it manages by agreement with the Municipality of Bologna), a theatre centre on Via Matteoti just north of the city centre of Bologna, and a short walk from Bologna Central Station. Testoni Ragazzi, Teatro Stabile d'innovazione per ragazzi e giovani, is dedicated to the culture of children and young people and a meeting point for arts and theory, from theatre to visual arts, music and multimedia activities.

The centre has three venues – a 500 seat and 100 seat theatre and a workshop/rehearsal space – and there are other spaces in the centre used mainly for exhibitions and art installations. The backbone of Teatro Testoni’s activity is its theatre program, about two hundred performances on offer each year to schools on week days and to families over the weekend. In addition to La Baracca productions, shows from Italian and international companies are programmed. Testoni Ragazzi is also a centre of intense workshop and research activity, with a workshop program that caters to children, teenagers, young people and adults, teachers and educationalists.

From 1987 on, La Baracca has run “Theatre and Nursery School”, a theatre-based project for children under three years. Their research in this area, together with their work the 3-6 age group, has led to the creation of the biennial festival Visioni di futuro, visioni di teatro(Visions of Future, Visions of Theatre).

Snapshot 1 – I colori dell'acqua performance

In one of the venues of Testoni Ragazzi, I watch a performance of I colori dell'acqua (The Colours of Water) unfold. Developed with the collaboration of Bologna’s Scuole dell’Infanzia (nursery schools) teachers, it premiered in 2003 at the Belgian festival La culture et les petit-touts.

The two performers, Valeria Frabetti and Andrea Buzzetti, create a playful, earthy performance set in a hidden garden after rain. They play with the fruit, leaves and plants, using them to colour clear glass jars of water with the colours of the rainbow.

At the end of the performance, the children move on to the stage with their carers and immediately start experimenting with placing items in the jars of water. The carers – teachers and parents – are relaxed and offer suggestions and marvel at the results. The children are engaged thoroughly, responding according to their personalities – some try different approaches with the earnestness of research scientists, while others laugh with delight at the feel of the water on their skin or the textures of the fruit.

Services for Children 0-6 in Bologna

The Emilia Romagna region offers one of the widest ranges of educational and cultural services for children in Italy. According to Marina Manferrari, a prominent manager and regional advisor in education whose work with La Baracca gave rise to the “Theatre and Nursery School” project, the region has a deep commitment to children:

“We believe that respect and attention to childhood, the acknowledgement of children’s needs and potentialities, the visibility of scientific research, the scope of childhood policies, the organisational and pedagogical models of educational services, the training activities for educators and teachers, team work, pedagogical co-ordination and the participation of parents and citizens in the management of services (and these are all basic aspects of the education system in Emilia Romagna) are amongst the most significant indicators for the quality of a social system.”

Within Bologna, with a population of 370,000 inhabitants and divided into nine districts, the services for children aged 0-6 include:

  • 87 Nidi d’Infanzia (crèches), of which 54 are run by the Municipality of Bologna
  • 118 Scuole dell’Infanzia (nursery schools), of which 69 are run by the Municipality of Bologna
  • 4 Spazi bambino, or spaces dedicated to young children
  • 11 centres for children and parents
  • 7 Piccoli gruppi educativi, or “little educational groups”
  • 8 Servizi educativi territoriali, or “regional education services”.

The Nidi d’Infanzia and Scuole dell’Infanzia

The Nidi d’Infanzia (literally, “infancy nests”, and interchangeable in English with the more common term “crèches”) are educational services for children aged 0–3 years. The 1971 law that governs them ratified the involvement of the state in early childhood education, “thus acknowledging the social value of motherhood and the right of every child to access Nidi” (Manferrari).

Their basic structure is that of a Junior (3–12 months), Intermediate (12–24 months) and Senior section (24–36 months). Characteristics of the educational model for Nidi are set down in the crèche regulations approved by the Municipality of Bologna in 1993. Key words are:

  • entirety, as an idea of the development of the child where affections, knowledge and exercise evolve together;
  • play, recognised as the main way children express themselves, gain knowledge and act upon reality;
  • project development, to allow educators to achieve a shared working method, characterised by common thoughts and intentions;
  • relation, because children grow and learn thanks to the quality of their relationships, and attention to relations is at the heart of the educational work…;
  • flexibility, as a relational and organisational ability of the educators to adapt their actions to the rhythms and needs of the children, through observation and a cooperative, communicative style;
  • difference, in its broadest meaning of difference of culture, sex and evolution paths involving skills and competencies.”

The Scuole dell’Infanzia (literally, “childhood schools”) are educational services for children aged 3–6 years. They were once called “Scuole materne” (mothering schools) and cover the years that children in Australia in most States would attend kindergarten, reception and year one. Each class comprises approximately 25 children and is taught by two teachers, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, over a day that usually stretches from 8am to 4.30pm.

As the first step in the primary school system, the Scuole dell’Infanzia are not compulsory but 96% of Italian children do attend. According to Manferrari, “They have their own didactic and pedagogical autonomy and their aim is to promote the development of the children’s identity, autonomy, competence and social skills, in continuity with the Nidi d’Infanzia and primary schools.”

The curricular and educational approaches in both the Nidi d’Infanzia and Scuole dell’Infanzia have developed from a constant, community-wide debate dating back to the post-WWII years in the region. Major influences have included Rosa and Carolina Agazzi (the Agazzi method), Maria Montessori (the Montessori method), Bruno Ciari (the Movement for Educational Cooperation) and Loris Malaguzzi (the Reggio Emilia method, with its need to explore the “one hundred languages of children”).

While differing in approaches, each of these educational philosophies does emphasise the importance of play and creativity in the educational process. As stated in the Ministry of Education’s 2007 paper on curriculum regulations, “Children tend to express their emotions and their thoughts with imagination and creativity: art gives this tendency an orientation, educates towards aesthetic appreciation and pleasure for beauty.” Elsewhere in this document, schools are encouraged to “embrace and use the visual, body and sound language that are most accessible to children in the most conscious way…”

Consequently, arts and culture for children can be seen as central to the education of children in Bologna and the wider region of Emilia Romagna – as a means of communication, as a means to stimulate developmental processes and for the sake of art itself, and the benefits it brings humans of all ages.

Snapshot 2 – A movement exercise

I am in the staffroom of a nido d’infanzia (crèche) watching a dancer in a black leotard prepare for a movement workshop with two-year old children. She is in ‘the zone’, stretching and mentally preparing herself for the work ahead, and she has that intense inner focus of someone about to perform.

We enter a bare room and I sit in the corner. Sitting next to the dancer, a teacher tells a story to the 12 children surrounding her and the dancer starts to dance it, inviting the children to become animals, run from thunder, go on a journey and finally return home to sleep. The children respond to her intensity and their ‘acting’ is truthful and natural, responding to the unfolding story and the directions she gives. It’s a gem of a performance and utterly respectful of the children, supporting and nurturing them whilst bold and artistic.

Afterwards I go to leave and walk past one of the childcare workers feeding lunch to the babies. I realise it’s the dancer. She’s not actually a professional dancer, but works at the crèche.

Training for Teachers and Childcare Workers

One thing that is immediately apparent in watching an artistic experience unfold in either a nido d’infanzia or scuola dell’infanzia associated with La Baracca is the commitment of teachers and childcare workers to the role of art in the lives of children. In examining the training of teachers and childcare workers, I suspect it is their continuing education opportunities (such as within the Theatre and Nursery project) rather than their basic professional training that has reinforced the value and benefits of the arts.

The push for university training for all teachers has occurred since the 1970s. Many staff working in Nidi, for example, were paramedics with only a high school diploma and certificates from specific short training courses. Since 2003 a four-year degree qualification has been compulsory to work in a scuola dell’infanzia or primary school. Within the University of Bologna Degree Course in Primary Education there are arts subjects that offer interdisciplinary approaches, and it would seem that arts knowledge and expertise is now being embedded more successfully in the basic professional training of teachers.

The question remains, however… If this work has only begun in earnest in this decade, then how is it that Bologna’s reputation in the area of arts for the very young stretches back over 30 years?

The answer, perhaps, lies in the continuing education opportunities provided for teachers and childcare workers. According to Manferrari:

“Over the past few years, constant professional updating and continuous professional training have been fostering the creation of events and experiences…Along with lessons and conferences, action-research workshops have also taken place aimed at positively influencing educational practice. The aim was, and is, to turn school into a culturally creative environment and to make teachers fond of research, to make them carry out ‘experiments’ and invest their energies in their work, combining professional skills with reflection upon didactic practice.”

Theatre and the Nursery project

The Theatre and the Nursery project and Visioni di futuro, visioni di teatro festival complete the arts and education “ecosystem” in Bologna, connecting the experiences, research and education of local children, teachers and childcare workers with a global community.

As mentioned, the Theatre and the Nursery project began in 1987 and is an ongoing experimental research project. There are three main activities:

  • shows for children
  • theatre workshops for educators
  • theatre workshops for children.

For La Baracca’s Roberto Frabetti, “The starting point for the research was the idea for a show, specifically devised for children of this age group, with the primary aim of understanding whether it was possible and what meaning it could have”. Over the years the company has created shows with a diverse range of forms but “they all shared the central presence of the actors and their relationship with the children”. The shows are performed in both nidi (créches) and in the theatre.

The theatrical workshops with educators have been a part of the project from the beginning, with the view of both Manferrari and Frabetti being that “work on communication could not be kept separate from a self-research path by educators”. Workshops are ongoing and attendance is free. Several educators have taken part for years, and workshops have developed from a pure training focus – “where educators can rediscover ‘atrophied’ parts of themselves, tune in to themselves more deeply and learn to ‘feel’ the children with an intensified sensibility” – to become theatrical spaces where workshops for children could be designed.

The theatre workshops for children tend to have a clear, if flexible, structure. First, adults show a short performance then children are invited to join in the theatrical game, where they “explore, touch and immediately re-develop what they have just received”. Adults respond to the individual needs of children, remaining close or standing back, observing and making suggestions and encouraging a lively and engaged theatrical communication.

Visioni di futuro, visioni di teatro

The Visioni di futuro, visioni di teatro festival is the central means by which the practice taking place at La Baracca and within Bologna ‘radiates’ out to the wider European community and, in the last few years, the global community of practitioners of theatre for young audiences. Together with organisations like the European Small Size network and its publications, a critical mass of theory and practice is created that continues to influence dozens of countries.

Taking place annually at Testoni Ragazzi in late February and early March, Visioni di futuro, visioni di teatro has become one of the major international gatherings for practitioners and educators interested in arts for the very young. In 2009 it featured 53 performances by 10 Italian and 9 European companies, an international forum, more than 20 workshops for artists and educators, a meeting of the European Small Size network, previews, laboratories and various presentations from Argentina, Austria, Denmark and Israel.

Visitors come not only to see the shows, but also to learn more about the approach of the Municipality of Bologna to arts for children – one week-long workshop, A Possible Theatre, takes participants into the creches, nursery schools and education department of Bologna.

Snapshot 3 – Spreading the word

The actors from Bucharest’s Theatre Ion Creangă are nervous. Not only are they in Bologna performing Romania’s first show for the very young, Seminte (Seeds), they are performing it to an audience of Europe’s leading practitioners and researchers in theatre for the very young

Seminte is directed by La Baracca’s Valeria Frabetti and supported by the Small Size network. It’s about seeds – seeds that become trees, plants and flowers, but only if you are patient enough to wait. It’s a gentle performance that holds its audience, and a promising start for Romania’s theatre for the very young.

Afterwards the actors and Theatre Ion Creangă’s dramaturg, Daniela Miscov, mix with the audience. They listen attentively to supportive criticism and laugh with their peers as stories of past performances are shared. They glow with pride and a new-found confidence and can’t wait to get back to their country to perform – this time as members of a global community of artists.

La Baracca’s influence radiates to yet another country.

Tony Mack