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Orla Kenny: A tribute

By: TERESA HEENEY

Tuesday 31 July 2018

I was very sad to hear of the death of Orla Kenny on July 19. Many of you will know Orla from her work as an artist and more so as the co-founder and passion behind Kids Own, the children’s book publishing partnership. Many Irish early years organisations will have worked with Orla and produced beautiful publications written by and for children. In Early Childhood Ireland, our collaboration with Orla and Kids Own resulted in 2 beautiful publications, The Lullaby Book and Being & Belonging. More recently, Kids Own produced a beautiful new book “A Strong Heart: A book of stories and dreams for the future by Syrian and Palestinian children living in County Mayo”, and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone TD, read the children’s words from the book into the record of her recent UN Security Council address. What a fitting tribute to Orla and her work.

We want to send our deepest sympathies to Orla’s husband Declan and young son Oscar as well as the team in Kids Own and to mark this sad event, we share with you the introduction to our publication The Lullaby Book. It was written by our friend and former colleague Dr Carmel Brennan who worked very closely with Orla on each of our projects with her.

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Early Childhood Ireland and Kids Own, especially Orla Kenny, worked together on the Lullaby Book, with a shared interest in creating opportunities for creativity and expression within the early childhood curriculum. With the Lullaby project, we wanted to regenerate an interest in lullabies among early childhood educators, parents and their babies. We thought of lullabies as a way of creating relaxed, peaceful spaces where adults and babies communicate and connect at an emotional, physical and deeply human level. The project fits comfortably with Early Childhood Ireland’s strategic goal to be a learning organisation that promotes research and innovation and builds on ECI’s tradition of promoting the integration of care and education and the central role of relationships in healthy development.

What emerged from the Lullaby project is the essence of the lullaby rather than a collection of songs. In keeping with Giannini’s (2012) basic premise that “in all cultures, lullabies arise from a need to communicate: with a child, with oneself, with the community”, the project artists sought to make deep connections with the babies and the early childhood educators and allow them together to bask in the sounds and sensory changes happening around them so that all participants could have what Trevarthen (2001:20) names as ‘the feeling of being present with one another.’

It is a view of learning as a process of changing relationships between people, places and things. We are fortunate in Ireland to have Aistear (NCCA 2009), a curriculum framework that supports this process. Early childhood educators are bound by this framework to create time and experiences that allow the young children to develop a sense of well-being, identity and belonging, and at the same time the motivation to explore and think and share their thoughts and feelings. Aistear, as the name implies, recognises that these developments happen by travelling through a process where children build a repertoire of memories and dispositions that become part of both their being and becoming.

A day spent on the project brought me (Carmel) into the ‘lullaby’ zone. The artists had created a simple, uncluttered space to which they introduced wooden bowls, sand and shells. The sounds of the big bass, the harp, the duckcaller, become natural parts of our surroundings. In this zone there is an unspoken contract between us about slowing down and appreciating the moment. We pour the sand – but not for any purpose other than that we jointly focus on the beauty, the pattern, fluidity, grace, movement, possible images and meanings. Suddenly the senses come alive to art and music. We are in awe at the peace, the focus and the intensity. We have a shared lens for seeing and communicating. It is a beautiful lens for seeing the world – a lens borrowed from the children. Vecchi (2010:5) is so right when she describes this approach as founded on ‘an attitude of care and attention for the things we do, a desire for meaning; it is curiosity and wonder; it is the opposite of indifference and carelessness, of conformity, of absence of participation and feeling’. Take time to engage. Put on your ‘aesthetic’ lens and see the beauty in the faces, the movements, the materials. Put on your ‘inquiry’ lens and wonder about what is going on with the materials, the minds and senses. Put on your ‘rights’ lens and think about the child’s right to be, to wallow, to share beautiful moments. Put on your ‘advocacy’ lens and think about what you can do to make it happen.

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Orla Kenny was instrumental in this happening. You will be missed Orla.

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