The ORIM blog

The arts and early childhood education

Cathy Nutbrown
Professor of Education, School of Education, the University of Sheffield

June 2020

Young child creating art with paint

Young children’s response to the world is primarily sensory and aesthetic, and so early years curriculum should give due attention to the arts.

In March 2018, I made a short film about the importance of the arts in young children’s lives – writing now, in June 2020, when the arts have suffered by the COVID-19 enforced closures of early years settings to most children, and of galleries, theatres, and almost all creative spaces, I am reminded again of how vitally important the arts are in children’s lives, their learning and well-being.

In this blog I’m revisiting some ideas about the arts and how the ORIM Arts framework can be useful in young children’s learning.

Three permeating ideas about the arts and the early years of life and learning

Human beings need the arts for holistic development

Viewing the species Homo sapiens as it evolves and expresses a behaviour of art is a way of understanding ourselves and the modern condition humaine.

Dissanayake (1990, xi)

Human beings create – we can see this in cave paintings and other artefacts through the centuries. Having the arts in our lives makes a difference and enriches our lives.

Dissanayake puts forward the idea that we all need to be ‘swaddled’ in the arts. This notion is described by Clough (2002) as ‘aesthetic attending’:

Aesthetic attending to something is not a special or a marginal case peculiar to (self-conscious) artists, but one which can be systematically developed... Only because it is the very foundation of intelligence.

Clough (2002, 85)

So, as human beings carry aesthetic attending through their lives. Education for young children must provide a place for the arts.

There have been many attempts to integrate the arts with other areas of learning in the early years

In terms of the arts in early years curricula we can refer to Elliot Eisner (2004, 1) who said:

The arts and artistry as sources of improved educational practice are considered, at best, a fall-back position, a court of last resort, something you retreat to when there is no science to provide guidance.

Babies are sensory beings and attend aesthetically to the objects and people they encounter in their early investigations. People like nice things – we seek them out – because they please our senses and make us feel good. Eisner offers a vision of how a pedagogy of the arts can inform education and at the heart of his thinking is the need for creative relationships with their basis in the arts.

The arts are key to children’s curricula – they need the arts to help them learn central lessons – how to communicate ideas, collaborate with others, persist with a problem and create things which please them and others. This idea of the arts in community with others is not new and we can find it in the history of early childhood where many pioneers saw the importance of rhyme, verse, song, dance and story have long since had an important place.

Helping young children to develop the aesthetic is a crucial part of their humanity and the place of these things is every bit as important as learning to read.

A more robust and clearly articulated conceptualisation of arts-based learning in the early years is needed

The concept of arts-based learning needs greater clarity. How do early years educators conceptualise the arts for young children? Is it a case of arts for arts sake or arts as a means of representing a ‘self’, or art as integral tools of pedagogy, or the means of addressing a concern?

There is no need to choose – all can be drawn upon in early childhood education and legitimate parts of teaching and learning.

The ORIM Arts framework

ORIM Arts framework

The ORIM framework was first developed, and is widely used, for working with parents around early literacy, but it has also been used with different foci. The ORIM Arts framework helps to conceptualise ways of working with young children in relation to the arts and was developed with practitioners and Darts, in Doncaster.

Strands of development in the arts

  • Materials and experiences

  • Imagination

  • Skills

  • Talk about the arts

The ORIM Arts framework supports work to:

  • Provide children with opportunities to ‘create qualitative relationships’ as they engage in arts processes.

  • Allow children to explore, so encouraging ‘openness to uncertainty’.

  • Demonstrate how ‘form and content’ in the children’s explorations and products were ‘inextricably linked’.

Using the framework practitioners in the Daring Discoveries project (Nutbrown and Jones 2006) can:

  • Show how the children’s cognition was not limited to the ‘language with which it can be described’ – even though some children were very young, their thinking was not constrained to the vocabulary they had.

  • Show the ‘relationship between thinking and materials’ – in that the materials supported further thinking.

  • Provide examples of children’s ‘motives for engagement’ as they became involved in arts experiences and processes.

When using the ORIM Arts framework we can ask:

  • To what extent are we providing opportunities to engage in arts experiences?

  • How can we show recognition of children’s efforts and achievements?

  • How can we enhance interaction with children around the arts ?

  • How can we ensure early years practitioners have time and space to be models, themselves, of users and makers of art?

In revisiting my thinking about the central and essential place of the arts in young children’s lives, I’m continuing to think about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 31 which states:

That every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

And with places to enjoy the arts, and make art presently closed means a loss of so many experiences. Physical distancing limits social interaction and inhibition of human touch interrupts the development of relationships. The limitations on children’s creative encounters for collaborative sharing and discussion of materials, performances, and music making mean a danger of constraining fertile young imaginations.

So, it is important to be mindful that, as children return to their early years settings or to school, the arts are also part of ‘the basics’ alongside literacy and maths. Worrying about ‘lost learning’ must include worrying about lost opportunities to experience the aesthetic and it’s important to provide rich opportunities as soon as we can.

Young children need greater recognition of their efforts in the arts and more adult models or users and makers of art. The ORIM Arts framework can be used as a guide to structure and plan work and to evaluate the effectiveness of arts based learning with young children.

Where arts-based approaches to learning are derived from research, and refined through embedded practice, children are able to learn in ways which are naturally suited to their human condition and therefore better equipped to take part in cultural and artistic elements of life as identified in the United National Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As early educators and governments begin to work towards the future, a mindfulness of the centrality of the arts is much needed.

This blog is based on two sources:

Nutbrown, C. and Jones, H (2006) Daring Discoveries: arts-based learning in the early years published by Darts, Doncaster. Available online (PDF, 6.8MB). Email for information.

Nutbrown, C. (2011) Conceptualising arts-based learning in the early years, Research Papers in Education. doi:10.1080/02671522.2011.580365


Eisner, E.W. (2002) The arts and the creation of the mind. New Haven, CD: Yale University Press.

Hannon, P. (1995) Literacy, home and school: research and practice in teaching literacy with parents. London: Falmer Press.

Hannon, P. and Nutbrown, C. (1997) Teachers’ use of a conceptual framework for early literacy education with parents. Teacher Development 1(3), pp. 405–20.

Nutbrown, C., Hannon, P. and S. Collier. (1996) Early literacy education with parents: a framework for practice. Sheffield: The REAL Project/University of Sheffield, Sheffield University Television.

Nutbrown, C., Hannon, P. and Morgan, A. (2005) Early literacy work with families: policy, practice and research. London: Sage.

Nutbrown, C. and Jones, H. (2006) Daring Discoveries: arts-based learning in the early years. Doncaster: Creative Partnerships/Darts.

Nutbrown, C. (2013) Conceptualising arts-based learning in the early years, Research Papers in Education, 28(2), pp. 239-263. doi: 10.1080/02671522.2011.580365

United Nations (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child. New York: United Nations.

Copyright © 2020 Cathy Nutbrown, the University of Sheffield