Hands Find Form

Hands Find Form was a collaborative project involving Earlham Nursery School and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Over a seven-month period, eighty young children, plus staff, parents and carers, visited the gallery and then took part in workshops to explore the qualities of ‘being animal’.

The project started from an understanding that children’s play is fluid and multi-modal. Children develop an idea or an impulse through a combination of different materials and a sequence of different actions. In one example from this project, a drawing on cardboard became a dance with the drawing, which became a rhythmic song, which became a discovery of how to chop up chalk with a protractor. Young children don’t seem to encounter barriers or divisions between different forms of making. In this way, young children demonstrate that in Gunther Kress’s words they are ‘thoroughly experienced makers of meaning, using whatever materials they have to hand’.

There were two aims for Hands Find Form. First: to privilege these rhythms of playful exploration whilst retaining a coherent focus which allowed the adults, particularly those not directly involved, to see the value of playful exploration. Second: to present some outcomes in a public display that could communicate to viewers.

Both the collaborating institutions on this project are situated in west Norwich, about 20 minutes’ walk apart. The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is an art museum on the campus of the University of East Anglia. It was established in 1974 to display the art collection of wealthy couple Lisa and Robert Sainsbury. Earlham Nursery School is at the centre of an area of social housing which is experiencing severe economic deprivation. The figures for the electoral ward (Wensum) show child poverty rates, after housing costs, of 50.9%. The nursery school itself was set up in 1938 using the principles developed by Margaret McMillan. It receives consistently high ratings from Ofsted.

Hands Find Form began with a series of visits to Humans And Other Animals, an exhibition celebrating the work of sculptor Elisabeth Frink. The children came in groups of eight to ten. The small group size allowed the children to walk to the museum, and whilst there to develop responses, conversations and ideas with the help of the supporting adults.

A group of children lying face down on the floor with arched backs alongside nursery worker Jayne Leveridge
Nursery worker Jayne Leveridge helping the children to develop embodied responses to sculpture. Image: Lawrence Bradby

After the visits, there was a three-week period of workshops at Earlham Nursery School led by artist Georgie Manly. The methodology we used was based on a sympathy for materials and a fluidity of exploration. We offered the children a carefully chosen palette of ideas and materials. The materials included: giant fuzzy felt (abstract biomorphic shapes which could be combined on the wall to build up original animal forms), ‘mushy colour’ (art maché mixed with poster paint to create a brightly coloured malleable mush), large sheets of newsprint paper, fake fur and four-foot willow withies. The ideas included: food and feeding, moving like an animal, making animal noises, and the idea of both caring for your animal creation and inhabiting your animal creation.

Our methodology supported different forms of communication and meaning-making. In particular, we wanted to allow verbal and non-verbal communication to have equal importance during the project. While some children were confident and forthcoming with verbal communication in English, a significant number had English as an additional language. (Between them, children at the nursery school speak twenty-five languages). Others, in the words of headteacher Carol Jacques, had a ‘language-poor home environment, with lots of time spent watching TV or playing on mobile devices and using dummies.’ During the workshops, children could make meaning and develop ideas by choosing from the palette of materials, by combining the materials in their own individual ways, and by the way they used gesture, action and movement to animate their creations.

Another significant element was the structure we built at the centre of the room where the workshops took place. This was made from large sheets of cardboard joined together with cardboard screws (a proprietary system called MakeDo). Each week we added to this structure. By watching us, the children learnt how to use the screws and began making their own additions. At the start, we thought of the structure as a ‘habitat’ for the children’s animal creations. The children themselves referred to it variously as ‘the house’, ‘the princess castle’ and ‘the boat’.

Young children playing with their animal creations inside a cardboard house/castle/boat
Children playing with their animal creations in the house/castle/boat. Image: Lawrence Bradby

The project concluded with an exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre. This was important for the wider visibility of the project and for the validation it gave to the children’s creative abilities. We selected eight of the paper, art maché and fake fur creatures. These were put on display alongside creatures from the Sainsbury Collection, including carved wood and ivory objects made by North American First Nation peoples, and 4,000-year-old stone carvings from the Middle East. Putting objects on display in this way, with labels and lighting, was such a transformation that some of the nursery workers didn’t recognise the objects in the museum case as being made by children.

While this validation through established forms of display was important, our primary aim was to privilege children’s rhythms of playful exploration. To do this, we re-constructed the cardboard habitat in the museum.

Children and adults gathered around a clear vitrine looking as the sculpture inside
The children seeing their creations on display alongside objects from the Sainsbury Collection. Image: Glen Jamieson
The cardboard habitat re-constructed in the cloakroom of the Sainsbury Centre, with the exhibition title on the wall
The cardboard habitat re-constructed in the cloakroom of the Sainsbury Centre, with the exhibition title on the wall. Image: Glen Jamieson

The habitat then became part of a sound and film installation. During the workshops, we had made two short films that captured some of the dexterity, imagination and energy the children had deployed. These films were projected onto the surfaces of the cardboard habitat. One of the nursery workers described the films as a diary, recording the creative processes and milestones during the workshops. While adults could see the film from outside the habitat, the best viewing position was by entering the habitat through a 3-foot high doorway.

The final display, like the rest of the project, put children at the centre, privileging their viewpoint and their ways of being. Carol Jacques (headteacher of Earlham Nursery School) said that by the end of the project there had been a positive and noticeable impact on the children’s communication skills, and their interest and enthusiasm to talk about their learning.

Two children standing inside a cardboard structure while a adult looks on
The best place to view the films was from inside the cardboard structure. Image: Glen Jamieson

Lawrence Bradby
Learning Programme Manager (Children and Families)
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts