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Autumn 2007

Early childhood education & care

Poetry and music as colours of the world

Robert Brown and Jan Deans explore how the arts can engage young children in enjoyable, playful and authentic explorations of the world and their place in it.

During the early years, children naturally learn about their world through play and experiential processing and they thrive on active inquiry centred on the investigation of real and imagined worlds. It is at this time that the arts provide significant support for the preferred learning styles of young children, and in doing so stimulate cognitive competence, social interaction and the enhancement of individual wellbeing. The arts as symbolic languages provide unique forms of ‘meaning making’ that provide opportunities for children to order, affirm, communicate and celebrate their perceptions, thoughts and feelings.

Holistic and interdisciplinary learning, long understood as central to early years education, has gained support in all levels of education through explicit recognition in state curriculum standards throughout Australia. Schools now strive to meaningfully balance the lifelong learning needs of children and young adults, including the development of positive values, personal and social skills, cross-curriculum skills, and discipline-based knowledge. In this educational climate, the arts provide significant ways of knowing that support integrated, student-centred and authentic learning (Hunter, 2005).

There is currently considerable scholarly support that links student ‘engagement’ with arts practices that encourage student motivation, active participation, heightened awareness and animation, deep thinking strategies and expressions of enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity and emotional connection. Engagement with the arts is considered in terms of ‘flow’ or optimal experience and as an attitude, or way of seeing the world. Through arts participation, children not only acquire arts knowledge and skills but also develop personal and social capacities, positive attitudes to learning, enhanced literacy and numeracy outcomes and improve a range of generic competencies, including problem-solving and communication skills (Hunter, 2005).

The following case study presents the experience of children and teachers participating in a long-day care and education program undertaken at The University of Melbourne’s Early Learning Centre. It exemplifies a project that was designed to engage children aged four to five in a holistic and interdisciplinary arts and language inquiry.

The project entitled ‘Poetry and Music as Colours of the World’ responded to a call for submissions by the L’Età Verde Association, an organisation based in Rome, committed to international research and projects that contribute to inter-cultural understanding and environmental safeguard. This interdisciplinary arts-centred project involved three groups of children, and generalist and specialist teachers who worked together over two months, investigating the elements of the earth: earth, air, fire and water. This adult-initiated topic was suitably broad and open-ended lending itself to an emergent curriculum design that accommodated both children and teacher interests. The intent of the project was to engage children in learning that was relevant, active and experiential, with the arts, language, and environmental education being central to the curriculum design. To stimulate interest in the project, children were taken on an excursion to a nearby river environment in inner-city Melbourne. This experience was documented through digital photographs of natural features such as the geological layers of a cliff form and cloud formations, audio recordings of environmental sounds such as water flow and bird sounds, and through children’s drawings developed in situ (see Figure 1). The river walk and related documentation, which was viewed as field notes that could be read and re-read, provided the stimulus for a range of arts-centred indoor and outdoor activities that focused on the earth’s elements.

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Figure 1. Drawing by the Yarra River in Abbotsford, Victoria

Once areas of inquiry were decided, the teachers guided the children’s investigations by raising ‘points of conjecture’ and encouraging children to become ‘perspective takers’ and ‘co-constructors’ of knowledge. For example, after observing the cliff face the teacher further stimulated learning about the earth’s layers through reference to a teacher-constructed earth model (see Figure 2) and examples of indigenous artwork by Narputta Nangala that exemplified a topographic landscape.

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Figure 2. Responding to a model of the layers of the earth

These experiences encouraged the children to reflect not only on the composition of the earth from a realistic perspective, but to also think about how forms and layers represent history and environmental change. In the course of the creation of their artworks the children were required to perceive the structural essence of what they were drawing and to creatively represent that essence within the limits and possibilities of the mediums provided. Other sensory rich experiences linked to the earth theme included creating mountain and rock forms as part of a drama experience (see Figure 3).

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Figure 3. ‘My body is a rock, bumpy and a mountain’, Joshua, aged five

As part of the project, teachers and children sought out everyday (rather than novel) explorations that were ‘unpacked’ and ‘de-familiarised’. Such relevant and concrete experiences naturally encouraged child engagement. One real-life activity included tracking and documenting the growth of sunflowers planted in the playground garden. The opportunity to observe and touch the flowers stimulated discussion about the sun and its life-giving properties and this inquiry was extended further through colour explorations and paintings and collages of the sun and sunflowers (see Figure 4).

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Figure 4. Children painting sunflowers

Rich language was also stimulated through children’s drama and movement interpretations of the growth of the sunflower and songs related to the theme. A creative outcome of this work was the development of Haiku style poetry that communicated the essence of the children’s aesthetic responses to the topic.

The sun is hot
Tss tss tss
The sun is fire
It burns you
It moves because sometimes I see it nowhere
You can’t touch it!

(Elise, aged four)

Teachers collaborated to generate links between the generalist and specialist programs, and a focus on interdisciplinary learning enabled the children to make connections and also facilitated knowledge sharing among teachers; a ripple effect was created that stimulated emergent curriculum. For example, in response to the audio recordings collected during the river walk, four sounds emerged as significant to the children: water, birds, leaves and cars passing over a bridge. Questions put forth by the teachers such as ‘How do those sounds happen’ and ‘Where did the sound come from—nearby or far away?’ stimulated a deeper investigation back in the classroom, where small groups of children each explored one significant sound and went about finding a variety of materials, including music instruments, to use in experiments that replicated their chosen sound (see Figure 5). For example, one child reflected on the sound of water rushing over stones in the river by using the sounds, ‘sssss … whoosh … shhhh’ and interest was later facilitated by the teacher through the provision of a tub of water filled with stones that was playfully moved sideways to create a music scape which other children added to through the use of tambours, tambourines and shakers. This interest in water sounds was further extended through visual arts experiences that centred on creating rhythmic ink and brush paintings in response to photographs of water reflections observed during the river walk. The topic of rain and weather naturally emerged and this led to activities such as exploration of body activities that represented the wind and rain. Children also created artworks in response to a Georgia O’Keefe cloud painting and video footage of cloud movement and change.

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Figure 5 Interpreting environmental sounds using musical instruments

The Poetry and Music as Colours of the World project encouraged children to inquire, observe, discuss, act, respond, create and reflect through diverse arts experiences that supported embodied learning, or learning through practical interaction with others, environments and materials. Central to this project was a belief that children learn through real-world experiences linked to children’s interests. As the traditional Chinese proverb that states:

I hear, but I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.
For further information about this program please contact:

The University of Melbourne, Early Learning


Hunter, M (2005). Education and the Arts Research Overview, Australia Council for the Arts, Surry Hills, Sydney.

L’Età Verde Association,

author picture Robert Brown is an early years arts lecturer and project manager at the University of Melbourne’s Early Learning Centre.
author picture Jan Deans is a senior lecturer and director of the University of Melbourne’s Early Learning Centre.