Young Lungs

Freelance Artist and Creative Producer Jan Cullen on working with children from William Patten primary school from nursery to yr 6 to create artwork around the theme of air pollution and how it affects them in their daily lives.

I have been setting up art projects with William Patten Primary School in Stoke Newington, London for 5 years now, devising projects and finding artists to work with the school. Since leaving the National Portrait Gallery (where I worked for 13 years as the Family Programmes Manager) to freelance full time, I decided I wanted to create a project that gave me the opportunity to work as the lead artist in the school. As a parent with two children who have attended William Patten Primary, I have always been keen to support the enrichment of the curriculum through different art forms.

The school has always been open to working with artists and is fortunate to be able to fund a rich and varied programme of activities. Over the last two years there has been an active local campaign regarding air pollution to raise awareness of the illegal amount of pollution that our young people are exposed to. As William Patten is situated on a busy street with a bus stop outside the playground, I wanted to devise a project that would give a voice to the children’s thoughts, ideas, anxieties and solutions around the topic of pollution. I proposed a two-layered approach to the head teacher that would incorporate a sound project and a craft based project — making felt lungs to display outside the school near then bus stop.

three rows of five red and white model lungs made of felt
Felt lungs. Image: Jan Cullen

Prior to the project the school had been learning about air pollution and had produced a map that illustrated a less polluted route for walking to school.

Sound was not a medium I had worked in before, but I had a strong vision of how I wanted the piece to be structured. I found a sound designer to work with and we spent 6 days in the school visiting every class. With such a tight deadline we had to be very clear about our time. I started by assembling the whole school together to record the children breathing. We also devised chants to record which voiced the children’s human right to clean air. It was a very powerful experience to listen to 450 children breathing and chanting together. The chants were both an expression of their rights and a call to action

Young Lungs Matter

We Deserve Clean Air

Clean Air for Kids

The children were so engaged with the project and the topic and were very passionate about sharing their ideas and views on a health issue that affects them every day. We recorded their ideas, and often very inspiring solutions, and edited them together with the chants and interviews that the year 6 children undertook with a range of people from the local community including shop owners and people who use the bus stop outside the school.

Excerpt from the Young Lungs Sound Piece by students of William Patten Primary School

I feel a bit confused because if people are getting asthma more often because of pollution why are drivers still polluting the roads and going near schools

Year 4 student

I really enjoyed interviewing people in the shops … I learnt how to use a professional microphone

Year 6 student

The aim of the second part of the project was for every child to design and make a set of lungs out of felt. I collaborated with another artist to work across the school, adapting the idea to suit the age and ability of the year group. Skills learnt ranged from felt making to sewing and designing. The children clearly enjoyed the chance to sew in a group session and with the chance to share skills and chat.

We are still evaluating the project with students and staff. Below is some feedback from the Headteacher

The feedback from children, staff and parents has been nothing but positive! The children and staff have thoroughly enjoyed working in such a cross curricular way, debating current affairs, learning new skills, experimenting with new techniques and most importantly having fun! Parents have been very appreciative that current issues are being covered in our curriculum, in a creative way that truly compliments the ethos and values of the school.

Karen Law, Headteacher William Patten School

There are plans to have a celebration event for families to hear the sound piece and view the lungs when they are installed outside the school. The campaign CleanAir4schools continues to fight for our children’s rights around clean air and hopes to persuade TFL to move the bus stop from outside the school. I hope to work with other local schools on creative projects around this topic and to get the sound piece heard outside the school so that the children’s voices are heard and taken seriously.

Jan Cullen
Freelance Artist/Creative Producer