How the arts equip children for life

7 September 2021

Why do children need the arts? AWESOME Festival director Jenny Simpson says the arts are fundamental to the development of children, help teenagers stay sane and keep on giving for adults too.

Jenny Simpson is an expert at engaging children and families with the best of the arts. She has been at the helm of AWESOME Arts since 2007 and has experienced first-hand how the arts can equip children with the essentials for life.

“In the early years, children’s learning and development is largely learned through creative play and using their imagination,” Simpson explains. “We underestimate the imagination, but it’s actually the muscle we exercise every time we solve a problem. And that’s (I think) why the cultural industries are so good at problem solving.”

Creativity is also critical for a child’s learning and development. For example, a lot of language development comes through observing facial expressions so it’s crucial children are regularly exposed to nonverbal cues and facial expressions (as distinct from two-dimensional television and cartoon characters).

A woman in a pink shirt with bright glasses and necklace
AWESOME Festival Artistic Director Jenny Simpson has been turning to music as her solace since she was a chid. Photo supplied

Simpson says the arts are also important for equipping older children who are starting to make their own choices.

Simpson turned to music as her solace during her teenage years. They were a particularly difficult time because her mother died when she was 14. She remembers playing the guitar endlessly on her own. As an adult she still draws on music-making to help; the day Donald Trump was elected she grabbed her guitar and headed down south for the weekend.

“I sat in a shack in a farmhouse and played my guitar nonstop for three days, because I was just so distressed at the state of the world. My default is always music to help me process my emotions. And I know for other people that might be sport, or that might be photography, or drawing or writing poetry. A creative outlet is actually a really good outlet.”

Simpson is gearing up for the annual AWESOME International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things which runs 27 September to 2 October. Her vision as artistic director is to give children the biggest tasting plate of the arts at subsidised prices so everyone can access high quality performances.

“I just want children to have something that they’re passionate about, that they can dive into when life gets a bit tough. Because that’s what kept me on the rails when my mother died and I found myself alone in the world.”

Simpson says the 2021 Festival has something for everyone, whether young or old, shy or hands on. She shares her top recommendations below:

Young children aged 4 – 7

  • Hiccup by Windmill Theatre: “It’s about a koala that has the hiccups! An emu and the quokka go on a journey to help the koala fix his hiccups and it’s also a journey about friendship and kindness. This show has high production values, it’s very beautiful.”
  • Blinky Bill is on the Loose by Kobugs Theatre Company: “The storytelling is gentle and humorous and yet has deeper themes around looking after the environment. The characters are so lovable and the way that their relationships with each other play out make for a playful and delightful experience. Blinky Bill is an iconic character in Australian literature and I am sure that there will be lots of parents and grandparents who will want to share their own precious memories of these stories with the younger generation.”

Older children ages 7 – 12

  • Let’s Get Lit(erate) Gameshow: “This is for kids who love books. Luke Joseph Ryan is the host and there are local authors and improv performers pitted on teams, with a child on each team. It’s a very interactive, it’s educational, it’ll be a very lively show.”
  • ARCO by WA Youth Theatre Company: “This is the story of a young man called Adam Kelly who describes himself as an autistic gentleman. He is funny, achingly beautiful and serious – this show has everything, it is a really big experience.  It gives you a window into a really different perspective and it interrogates difference in such a positive way. It’s not specifically for an autistic audience, it’s a general public show.”

Whole family

  • Koolbardi wer Wardong with West Australian Opera. “This is the world premiere of the first opera in Noongar language, written by Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse. There’s been a real movement towards knowing our First Nations’ language. Children from a very young age are hearing Noongar words in schools. We need to be surrounded by it, in all ways, and I really love the fact that there’s an opera in Noongar telling a local story about a crow and a magpie.”
  • Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood with Wind Quintet Plus. “It is not often that children get the opportunity to experience classical music of the calibre performed by Wind Quintet Plus and the combination with Roald Dahl’s dark and provocative storytelling will have kids on the edges of the seats. Children aged around 7 and older love a good scare and the tension created by the music is electrifying.”

Getting hands-on

  • Christopher Hummel, Artist in Residence, Studio Underground. “Chris is autistic, and is an award winning artist. He paints trains and his favourite is the Midland A series train. The interesting thing about Chris is he travels virtually, in his mind. He dives into places on google. He will be painting and exhibiting in the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre during the festival, and we’re inviting everyone to make their own postcard of their virtual holiday.”
  • Ask Me Anything in collaboration with the State Library of WA’s Disrupted Festival of Ideas. “We decided to bring in the big guns (Patrick Gorman MP, Deputy Lord Mayor Sandy Anghie, Science Professor Peter Klinken, and Australian of the Year Professor Helen Milroy) and get the kids in front of them. We are sure children will come up with all sorts of big questions about science, climate change…”

Something spontaneous

  • Watch out for the Giovanni Consort doing flash concerts at the State Library around lunchtime.
  • Story Circles will be happening outside WA Museum Boola Bardip. A variety of artists will be sharing from their culture. People wandering by can gather and sit in a circle to hear a story, or a song, or watch a dance.

The AWESOME Festival will run from 28 September to 2 October 2021.

Pictured top: A scene from the children’s musical comedy “Hiccup” which will be on at AWESOME Festival. Photo: Thomas McCammon

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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