Session One: Fingers and Thumbs, Taking a look at Dexterity

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Artist: Helen Barry

Teacher: Bríd McGovern

Class: Junior Infants (4&5yrs)

School: Our Lady Of Mercy School Convent

Art equips us with the skills to deal with life. Art is not what we make or do with our hands or our bodies: art provides us with the freedom to think for ourselves.                                                              Helen Barry 2017

It is particularly apt that our first session looks at Dexterity as it coincides with a publication from Creative Ireland that details my outlook and approach to working with children from 0 to 18 years. I strongly believe that the arts support personal and social growth on many different levels. When I embark on a new collaboration it is essential to plan with the teacher and the children. Every class/group offers its own dynamic and each school presents a new context. I also learn as we build a journey together. Before we embark I need to observe and listen. (A full statement can be read on page 31 through the link below)

Prior to our first session I had popped into the school to say hello to the children and take at look at the school building. The architecture of the schools reminds me a little of walking through a dolls house. It is spacious without being overwhelming. I know for the first few sessions together I will bring ideas into the classroom and use previously tested projects. This will enable me to get to know the children and the teacher and for them to get to know me. As each class has their own dynamic so too will each group present different levels of dexterity. I invited the children to draw, cut, push through and follow a series of instructions. The activity also asked the children to work with another child, take turns, observe, describe things and invent something. Initially I need to understand the skill set of the children and their ability to take an abstract concept and develop it in their imagination. I find children in the lower stream of primary school grab an abstract concept far more eagerly than older children. I also need to pace my own language to one that best suits the particular group.

I brought with me lots of different coloured and textured paper including handmade made papers, card and tissue paper. The children drew around their hand and cut it out. They needed to ask the assistance of the child sitting next to them to draw around the other hand. I decided to jump straight into building an installation that would alter the look of the classroom and show the children something less traditional in art terms. Each child threaded their paper hands onto a very long piece of fishing gut, separating them with pastel coloured straws. During the lunch break I installed a fishing gut grid system from the ceiling that we shall use over the coming weeks. The first pieces attached are the pieces made in our first session together.

In the week prior to the first session with the children I had set the children a task to observe birds, how they fly, how they move, how they walk etc. I reminded the children as they went out on lunch break. On their return we took some time to describe and show some of the movements they had observed. We spoke about how birds move together in flocks. In the distance their detail cannot be seen but we recognize their V like shape moving in the sky. To further explore this image I gave the children small pieces of coloured sticky contact paper. The children cut 3 or 4 V shapes that the teacher and I stuck directly onto the window to create a flock of birds. Whilst we did this the children watched two short films, one on ‘murmuration’ and the other a excerpt from ‘Swan Lake’ showing the dancers bird-like movements.




Session 4 Dalkey School Project Senior Infants: Re-Framing, Story Dreaming and Collage.

I liked making the abstract painting with the little frames and it was actually quite fun

The huge abstract paintings they had done collaboratively had hung in the school during the week and now I thought it might be good to revisit them. I had made each child two L-shaped pieces of paper so they could re-examine their group work and choose to re-frame sections of it, and ultimately choose one. We photographed each child’s choice to create a new piece of abstract (and some figurative) art. We used their name tag or their name on their book, to ensure we knew which way around to read the work. I had been worried that they mightn’t “get” this exercise but they totally did, and also seemed to really enjoy it.

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I made a diamond with my frame

Referencing the way they had responded to the abstract artworks I had shared with them at the last session by “reading” them as stories, or titling them in imaginative ways, I asked them to do the same with these new pieces they had created now. We gave out their ideas books from the second session to write or draw these down. After a while, partly also to quieten down the room as everyone was becoming very excited, we also played a piece of music I had chosen to assist in story dreaming: Peter and The Wolf. Some children were very absorbed with creating stories in the books, but for some others there was probably too much else going on.


I liked writing in the books

After some discussion, we decided to cut the children’s chosen pieces out of the original large paintings, so that they could take them home. Having something to bring home is very important to some of them. It was interesting to notice that once this was established and the children were asked to trace in pencil around the inside of their frames, some of the images grew! One girl needed some other parts of the picture also – a butterfly, and her name.

We then invited the children to use their framing devices around the room to find some “abstract” or other images they liked. I photographed as many of these as I could capture before break time. Again I was delighted at how they grasped and ran with the idea with such enthusiasm.

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In discussion then with Deborah about how the painting cut offs would be good for collage work, she suggested we do it after the break and was able to provide black sheets for them to work with. We chopped the cut offs into smaller pieces and shuffled them between the different tables so when the children came back it was easy for them to pick and choose and cut them up further into the shapes they wanted. Again they completely “got” and enjoyed the exercise and the work is lovely. I had mixed in some sheets of pure coloured paper, but it is interesting that most of them were happy to work with the painting pieces.

I liked when we cut out the pictures and made like one big picture

I learned about shapes

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I liked when we were cutting the pieces out and sticking them onto the piece of black paper because I like sticking and cutting up stuff

Afterwards Deborah asked them what they had liked from the session and what they had learnt and I recorded their answers, some of which are transcribed here in italics as the sound quality is quite poor. Looking back at the photos I am amazed at how much ground we covered today in just over two hours.

Dalkey School Project Senior Infants Session 3 Painting!


“Today we did abstract art using paint. We looked at pictures of abstract art and photos.” 

Following on from our discussions in the first two sessions where the children expressed an interest in painting and curiosity around Abstract art we decided to explore this as our third “getting to know you” session.

On the whiteboard I shared with the children some Abstract paintings and some photographs that appeared at first sight to be abstract featuring patterns or large blocks of colour. We discussed colour, shape, “movement” and the children enjoyed “reading” them in different ways – we had talked about Abstract art being “open” in meaning, and they enjoyed the imaginative possibilities of this.

Then I invited them then to enjoy painting without being concerned about picture making, and to collaborate together on their tables, having “conversations” in paint. I gave each child their own palette however, so that they could have a chance to explore colour mixing independently. There was a lot of excitement in the room as they worked.

Afterwards we had a look at the blog from the previous week and as a group, wrote some reflections on this session:

“I enjoyed painting. We worked together as a team painting.”

“If we mix yellow and blue it makes green. If we mix yellow and red it can make orange. If we mix yellow and blue it will make a kind of browny colour. If we mix different colours together we get more colours.”

“I made gold and a greeny dark colour. I made Turquoise. You use red and blue and you can make purple. If you mix red and blue and yellow it makes brown.”

Many of the white spaces left in the paintings were somewhat accidental having been covered by palettes or shared water on squares of newspaper. Given more time the children probably would have kept going until even the chairs and floor were covered – in fact this process had begun when it was time for them to eat. When we looked back at what they had done after their time in the yard, however, I proposed the white spaces acted like another colour, giving space for the “busyness” of the other areas, and the children were content with this.

Dalkey School Project Senior Infants Session 2 Idea Book Making



Again this session was focussed on getting to know each other.

We returned to humming introducing the idea of different volumes signified by how high my hand was and I noticed the children liked to do this physically themselves too. Then we improvised name songs as each child’s name cards they made the previous week came out of the bag and I helped put them on. We also played with creating silences in between names with the children holding up a white card to signify this.

I showed them a couple of my sketchbooks, and talked about how I use them to reflect on my work / generate and develop ideas. When I showed them the book I am using for this project and showed its empty pages and said I was excited about what we might do together, they began to talk about what they like to do creatively. They mentioned: Painting (agreement to this was unanimous), Collage, what they called Junk Art – using recycled materials to do three-D work, Drawing and Writing. We talked about how writing evolved from drawing and thought about cultures where letters are still images.

I then took them through a process of making their own simple books for drawing and reflecting and collecting ideas. They chose from a selection of coloured and white paper and card that Deborah provided. We folded the cover first, all working together. Then we folded the pages to go inside. While the children began work on using the books to depict their self and five important things about them, Deborah and I and the SNA put hole punches in the papers and helped them string Pipe cleaners through to “bind” the books. This also means the books can be reopened later to add more pages.

After the break the children returned to their task, and then before I left, in response to their having shown and told me about hedgehogs they had made with clay some weeks ago, I introduced them to a hedgehog puppet I made for a show recently. I had also shown them the research for this puppet in the sketchbook earlier. This puppet gave me a chance to look at their work individually and hear what they had been doing, as he toured the room to meet them all.



I was interested to see that in addition to the task I had set of them drawing about themselves a couple of children, perhaps inspired by the book form or the fact that they have already done storyboards with their teacher on another occasion, used their book to tell a story.

Deborah and I have decided that, in response to the discussion earlier we will devote the next session to painting.

1 Hello Session Dalkey School Project Senior Infants

Today was an hour long session to allow an opportunity to meet together and begin a process of getting to know each other. When I first arrived I had a quick look at some of their art work and then I invited the children to guess my art form, through asking me questions and my questioning them in response. This was quite informative, allowing an understanding of their ideas about Art, and creating opportunities to discuss what they have used and enjoyed before. It was interesting to see that they had an understanding of abstract art, and a lot of experience. I am not sure they came to an understanding of what it is I do, which is fine (I am not always comfortable with the various definitions of this myself!) it is useful for this process to have a very open understanding, to allow for lots of possibilities of what might happen.

I then asked their advice on how I could learn their names, and we agreed that they would make name tags, but saved that for the end of the session. First I thought it might be fun for us to sing our names. We started with breathing, as breath carries song, and this served also to calm everybody down a bit. Then we began some humming and gradually opened it out into singing notes and then to the children singing parts and then the whole of their first names. Afterwards they worked in their table groups to prepare a little song of their names, and then they performed these.

One of the things Deborah had expressed an interest in at our artists / teachers meeting was my use of Irish, and I had brought along a finger puppet called Bean Uí Croí and she then sang her name. She was a lot more chatty about it and it took a little while for the children to locate her name among her long song in Irish. One of the children translated her name for those who didn’t understand and then Bean Uí Croí / Mrs Heart allowed the children to take turns passing around her little velvet covered heart. They were very gentle and careful about this, so it became a very quiet, lovely ritual. 

Afterwards the children each chose a coloured piece of card and did beautiful drawings of their names onto them. Several children hid Pikachus on the back of their names.

Materials we used

Pencils, rubbers,


Small squares of coloured card

Pocket Finger puppet


Session Eight: Independence & Stability

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20th March 2017

Artist: Helen Barry/Teacher: Sharon Smyth

I would have to note that there has been a sudden increase in the children’s independence. Previously Ms. Smyth and I will rearrange the classroom furniture prior to the session commencing. This week Ms. Smyth asked the children to do it. And with such swiftness and co-ordination I was taken aback. She had already noticed and wondered how much of this newfound sense of awareness of being part of a group and approach to tasks is being influenced by the creative process. We try to build in time for us (the teachers and I) to talk about the impact of a creative approach on the children’s ability to learn, focus and communicate with each other.

Once the children had rearranged the desks they went out for a quick break to run around and be ‘ready’ for the session ahead. The insulation piping had been introduced in the previous session and we had focused on building an independent structure, so the children knew how it worked. I was aiming to be more experimental this week, having tried out some ideas I was still not sure if something would work or not. But I was hoping the children would find a solution for me. I had also hoped that we would have had more time for the children to have ‘free-play’ with the materials to but we ran out of time.

We started by using the piping to connect us all together. We looped all the 30 pieces of piping around and through each other. The challenge then was to see if they could move about in one unit. We moved backwards, forwards, to the right, to the left and round in a circle with lots of laughter. Our warm up finished I showed the children the cardboard semi circles I had brought with pre-cut holes that were just the right size for the piping to push through. We divided the class into 3 group. Each team was given a cardboard semi circle, 12 pieces of piping, 6 chairs and lots of Velcro straps. Our aim was to build 3 domes structures. My design was flawed the domes kept collapsing in the centre. The cardboard was perhaps to heavy or as the children pointed out the ‘pipes are not stable enough’. I had never seen or heard the children study the collapsed domes so with so intensity. They were very vocal in their suggestions offering different ways in which we could make our domes more stable. I was I would have to say somewhat consumed with not being able to get the domes to hold but Ms. Smyth was delighted with the children’s response. It is often when something doesn’t work when we learn the most.

I am learning a lot about myself whilst I work with this class and their teacher. Ms. Smyth has provided a wonderful space in which we learn, make mistakes, find solutions and create together. I would like to emphasis how crucial the relationship between and artist and the teacher is to the success of the collaboration.

In the week prior to this session I had been offered some willow cuttings. I suggested to the class that we would revisit the idea of domes again in the next session. Domes being a structure that has frequented my work for many years I was delighted to have the opportunity to plant a willow dome in the school grounds. For our next session we shall head out of doors and plant a willow dome. The dome will grow with the children as they go through primary school. I too will remain in contact with the school and visit them to help maintain or ever changing dome structure in the coming years.



Session Seven: Building A Playground

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27th February 2017

Artist: Helen Barry/Teacher: Sharon Smyth

At the end of our previous session I had asked the children what would they like to do next. Many of the children asked to do more construction and sculptural work. A number of the children asked to do the spaghetti structures again. Thinking sculptural and having a preference for creating on a larger than life scale I brought along my 2metre insulation piping and cardboard boxes.

We started the session with some gentle stretches and balancing exercises. I also introduced some breathing exercises to help the children focus and bring down the dynamic a little. This is always a good thing for me to do also. We were sitting in a large circle with plenty of space between each child. The children always find the lengths of insulation piping intriguing. It is always essential to allow the children to play a little first before we use them to construct with. As with most children their age and younger very little instruction is required. The pipes and cardboard boxes are colour coded and with a little direction the structure builds before them with them in charge. I find that this construction workshop offers the children a fantastic sense of achievement. It is very solution driven and requires great team co-operation whilst providing an understanding of the design and engineering of a solid structure. This initial workshop will give the children skills they will require to create large scale builds themselves in future sessions.

I had brought other pieces for us to exploring the building of structures further but we decided to give the time to playing in the construction and we would continue exploring for our next session.