Quality principle number 3: 'Being exciting, inspiring and engaging'

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The wording of this principle implies not only a deliberate distinction between the three elements (excite, inspire, engage) but also a degree of serial progression through these three forms of experience.

To ‘excite’ a young person is to provide them with an experience which is likely to be highly enjoyable and thought-provoking, possibly frightening or even disturbing, but invariably positive and life-enhancing.

To ‘inspire’ is to go further – to suggest new ideas or discoveries and to provoke an urge to take some form of action or decision arising from them.

To ‘engage’, finally, is to provide some of the tools and structures with which the young person can make choices about the kind of possible actions and decisions which the process of inspiration has opened up for them.

How might a work of art, a production, performance or exhibition (or a participatory workshop or a series of classes) be shaped in order to maximise the chances of taking a young person through this progression of experience?

Excitement requires an appeal both to the senses (particularly sight and sound, though sometimes to other senses as well, such as touch or even smell) and to the intellect and imagination. The work or activity will need to be original and inventive, but not so alien to the young person’s frame of reference and experience as to leave them simply confused or frustrated.

It will need to take them sufficiently beyond their comfort zone in order to surprise and delight them with possibilities of which they had previously been unaware (possibilities of how a piece of music or a painting can make them feel, of how close to their own experience that of a dramatic character can be, of how their whole body can resonate with the kind of thrill suggested by a romantic pas de deux or a frenetic piece of contemporary dance). Most importantly of all, it will need to generate a sense of energy and ‘buzz’ which goes beyond simple enjoyment or interest.

Inspiration requires a greater richness and depth of content than the sensual appeal needed for excitement. The ideas and emotions expressed within a work need to connect meaningfully with the young person’s own personal experience and to offer the possibility of future pathways which help to interpret and navigate that experience and to shape it in a way which affects future actions and behaviour.

Excitement and, to an even greater degree, inspiration can also be triggered by active participatory work on the part of children and young people – whether as a creative response to work they have seen/heard or within a standalone workshop context. Discovering that one’s own thoughts and feelings can find rich expression by making a drawing or taking part in a piece of drama improvisation can be truly thrilling, but also inspire all kinds of possibilities for the future.

True engagement goes beyond both these elements. It requires of someone the positive choice to take action in particular ways – a commitment to alter behaviour and attitude. This may take the form of a resolution to learn to play a musical instrument, join a youth theatre or go to the cinema more often and see a wider range of films.

Work which genuinely engages children and young people needs not only quality of content and experience, but also quality of context. It needs to take place in a space and setting where the person feels comfortable and confident, but also challenged and stretched. It needs to be mediated by artists/educators who provide a supportive structure around the experience which helps the young person to make sense of it and of their own response to it – and who can offer pathways and opportunities which empower the young person to form their own choices about future action and involvement.

The potential benefits of the above model go far beyond the enrolment of young people into creative practice and appreciation. They serve to elevate a whole range of skills and aptitudes which can influence every aspect of a person’s education and future life – skills of communication, empathy, self-confidence and critical thinking, and an appetite for learning and for new experience which can be lifelong.

This post was written by Jeremy Newton, CEO of the Prince's Foundation for Children & the Arts.

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