Can babies enjoy art? At My Little Van Gogh, the artists are aged between 6 and 48 months and they are having a wonderful time. Deborah Nicholls-Lee went along to one of Zuid's newest clubs to get the full picture.
A Unique Idea
What do a toddler-sized cardboard robot, cake toppings, play dough and drinking straws have in common? Answer: they were all found at My Little Van Gogh on Monday morning and gave my pre-schooler a wonderful hour full of busy, messy joy.
This new club, just south-west of the Vondelpark, is the brainchild of Venezuelan Radha Ovalles, who moved to Amsterdam in 2015, and is bursting with ideas and talent. Her baby daughter Miranda is the real inspiration behind the business: “I’m a very crafty person and I was looking for something to do with her and I couldn’t find anything.” She started her own workshop in the local library and the business grew from there.
Great for Parents. Great for Kids.
Radha is smiling and relaxed and welcomes the mini artists with a Van Gogh puppet during the circle time at the start of the session. Her room is light, clean and cheerful, and decorated with her clients’ colourful work. As it shares the floor with other children’s services, it is a safe, purpose-built environment, where even the toilets are toddler-sized!
What is niche about My Little Van Gogh is its focus on art. But I was mistaken to expect a painting club. Radha takes art into three dimensions – and then places the child at the centre of it. I saw this - literally - in the ‘sand pit’ installation: a giant conch shell full of sugar in ice-cream colours, which the children could sit in, sculpting, digging and sifting the grains through their fingers. And if the sensory experience extends to taste - as it inevitably does with small people - there’s no danger. “They discover the sensations… and they make contact with art through play,” explains Radha.
I enjoy seeing the faces of the babies when they discover, or when they paint; and their eyes are like ‘wow!’
The class also allows space for parents and children to work closely together, away from the distractions of the home. “This session works great," says Radha, "when the parents are involved in the activity with the child. This bonding moment is amazing. They are creating with their child. And for the children, there are great benefits to working with art: it’s imagination, it’s creativity, it’s self-esteem.”
One of the most rewarding aspects for Radha is watching the kids' response to the materials: “I enjoy seeing the faces of the babies when they discover, or when they paint; and their eyes are like ‘wow!’, when they are making an insight.”
Other activities included building with straws and play dough, shaking cake decorations over gluey paper, working on an individual canvas - which they add materials to each week, and painting a huge robot made of boxes. And a paintbrush is not just a paintbrush here: they are spongy, stringy, forked, flappy, or satisfyingly big and chunky to get the job done with a great big splosh. The lovely materials make the classes extra special and allow the children to really experiment with mark-making and texture.
The concept is ‘free-flow play’; the child chooses how to interact with the materials and which play stations they want to try. At home, there have to be rules, but here they have more freedom and control over what they do, which is perfect for small children who like to change activity frequently. They can make art in a way which suits them. Radha emphasises the importance of self-confidence; she wants the children to feel like, “I made this, and it’s perfect how it is.” Even the youngest attendees can take pride in their creations: “You make memories for your baby. Every week you take something home that you made with them.”
Adapted to the Children’s Needs
Planning the sessions, and choosing the skills they develop, is an element of the business which gives Radha enormous pleasure. She loves drawing inspiration from masterpieces and coming up with new ideas each week. She is the daughter of a painter and has a background in instructional design, psychology, child development, teaching, and strategic management – all skills which make an ideal foundation for this latest venture. She understands how kids learn and explore, and she loves inventing activities for them. By devising her own programme, she can tailor the sessions to suit her clients: “This is not a franchise. I made this, and I designed it, and I adapt it for the child.”
We have a lot of complication in our lives. It’s hard with children. Come, feel good, and enjoy this time with your baby.
A Flexible Approach
Not only does My Little Van Gogh understand the needs of the children, it totally gets the parents’ requirements too. If you miss a session or two, you can do make-up lessons. If you want to change your day, just let them know. Radha explains that International parents travel a lot, and they need a concept that takes that into account. “I’m very flexible with the parents. When you have small children, flexibility is very important. I have a baby, I understand.”
In response to parents’ requests, Radha is extending the business to include classes for 6-9-month-old babies, 3-4-year-olds, and she has just launched a party package: ‘Arty Party’.
“I spend a lot of time talking with the mums,” Radha says, “I see my business as a service for the parents. We have a lot of complication in our lives. It’s hard with children. Be comfortable. Don’t stress if you come late, just stay a little longer. Come, feel good and enjoy this time with your baby.”
A Stress-Free Ethic
It’s hard work running the business and Radha works most evenings and, one day a week, Miranda goes to daycare. But she has a promise with herself to make the venture a pleasure and not something stressful.
“This is a playful business. I have to enjoy it. I cannot stress. If I want to stress, then I’m back to the company, back to the organisation and to my old life. I made this to enjoy it and to spend time with my daughter. ”
And with a philosophy like that, what’s not to like? Art in this format is therapy for everyone – and a whole lot of tactile, splodgy fun.
My Little Van Gogh received Honourable Mentions in the categories 'Best Class for Toddlers', 'Best Class for Younger Children', 'Best Class for Older Children', 'Best Party Service Provider' and 'Best Children's Party Location' in the Amsterdam Mamas Recommends Awards 2016. For more information about My Little Van Gogh visit their website, email Radha or check out their Facebook page.
Disclaimer: My Little Van Gogh has paid to be featured on Amsterdam Mamas because they believe that their services would be of interest and benefit to our readers, and we think so too. For more information on sponsored posts and advertising on Amsterdam Mamas, please see our Advertising and Disclosure policy.
Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a British national who moved to the Netherlands in 2009. A former French and English teacher, she now works as a freelance writer and editor while raising her two children. See her website to find out more about her work.
photo credit: Radha Ovalles