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Key ideas for designing play spaces for children using contemporary art

In our webinar on designing spaces for creative play, Dr. Louisa Penfold describes how she draws on contemporary artists’ and designers’ experimentation with materials to develop play spaces for children. She describes a process for planning a material-based play space and how teachers might scaffold children’s creative learning. 

The key insights from the webinar include:

The importance of materials in early childhood education

Materials have always been seen as an important part of early childhood education. For example, Froebel focused on the idea of materials as ‘Gifts’, and saw a relationship between how children manipulated materials, such as balls, blocks and clay, and their cognitive and abstract thought processes. The Montessori tradition of early childhood education is also focussed on sensory- based learning, in which children are encouraged to work with physical things. Materials and material space also have a strong place in the philosophy of the Reggio Emilia pedagogical approach, with the physical environment described as “the third teacher”, and children being encouraged to express themselves through the manipulation of a range of diverse materials.

New materialism is a critical theory used in a variety of disciplines, which can be used to theorise the importance of materials in education in a different way. In this theory, physical materials are seen as active participants in the formation of knowledge. This means that rather than seeing the child as having an idea and then projecting it onto the material, both material and child are seen as being in constant dialogue with one another, there is mutual influence and mutual transformation. This theory suggests that creativity is not a one-way process from child to material, and that materials (and teachers’ provision of experiences with materials) can be a major contributor to children’s creativity.

The potential of artists and designers’ practices as inspiration for children’s art experiences

It can be really powerful to make connections between the experimental processes that artists are developing with materials, art tools and techniques in order to design play spaces for children’s play with materials. Taking inspiration from the practices of artists and designers can open up potential beyond the standard set of equipment provided in a block corner, or role-play area, where materials are often used in quite static and fixed ways. For example, teachers might look at the ways that artists have used recycled plastics and recycled cardboard, and offer this to children in particular ways so that they might take it up and explore it in their own framework and according to their own interests. The relationship between art and materials offers children a deep space for tactile learning and sensory learning. A key question is then: how do we take this artwork that we see in a museum or art gallery archive online and put it into a form that children can explore in their play.

Key steps for developing a play space around an artwork

1. Collecting and gathering your different materials and tools. Work with what you’ve got – use recycled materials such as cardboard, coffee pods, and bottle tops that are affordable and readily available. These kinds of materials spark different thought processes in children in comparison to pen and paper. Get families collecting materials to quickly amass a lot of material in a short space of time.

2. Laying out the play space and thinking about the different components that will facilitate children’s experimentation and creativity over time. Intentionally select the materials (physical materials like plastic, paint or cardboard, or non-physical materials such as sound) and think about how to lay out and position them. For example, inspired by an abstract painting by Jessica Dismorr’s ‘Abstract Composition’ (1915), provide infants with different kinds of papers such as tissue, aluminum, and butchers’ paper and lay these out in a way that infants can crawl over and scrunch the materials, as well as pick them up and put them over their heads. Also, try to lay out materials in such a way as to encourage social interactions between children and adults. For older children, inspired by the flatpacked cardboard sculptures of Charlotte Poseneske, you might choose large cardboard pieces or boxes which encourage children to work together. 

Think about the concepts that the material can be connected to – line, shape, coverage, measurement and construction, for example. Select tools and vocabulary to use that connect the material to those concepts, that you can then introduce at the appropriate time according to children’s interests. For example, in relation to using cardboard, art techniques might include cutting, ripping, folding, sticking, and tools such as pegs, masking tape, large paper clips, scissors, and a resource called MakedoTM. Consider printing off some images of artworks, as a source of inspiration so that children can see the creative potential of the material, without suggesting to children that they have to make a particular product. 

3. Letting children experiment. Keep extra tools and techniques off to the side when children first come in and start playing. As children come and play and show different interests and different curiosities then teachers can layer in new materials, techniques, vocabulary, and questions. Play with materials can (and should) be messy, this is when the best creativity and learning happens!

4. Observing and introducing new techniques and tools and ideas to children, to scaffold their learning in different ways over time and in response to their interests. 

5. Documenting, sharing and reflecting on the creative process. Record children’s learning processes through photos, videos and making notes of children’s conversations and comments, and document these in a way that makes the learning processes of the children visible. This can demonstrate the pedagogical approach and convince parents that there is real learning happening within these creative experiences, even when there is no product at the end of it. Pedagogical documentation can be powerful in communicating young children’s voices and really transforming people’s understanding of the importance of art and early childhood education.