In November 2015 Lisa Procter, Abigail Hackett, both from the University of Sheffield, and local artist Simon Wigglesworth-Baker organised a series of walks around the Winter Gardens for young children and their parents/grandparents.
This walks were designed to encourage young children (ages 3-5), with their parents/grandparents or adult helpers from their nurseries, to explore familiar spaces in Sheffield. We were interested in the ways that different generations of people experience the spaces and places of cities. While people of different generations attended the walks, we found that adult engagement with the space was focused primarily on what the children were doing.
Supported by an artist, our participants used a range of artistic medium (including sculpture, drawing, storytelling, figure making) to explore the Winter Gardens. The participants were asked to model with Plastercine, draw onto paper or create a cutout figure from card something that they might find or wanted to add to the gardens. The description that follows focuses on the young children’s creations during the walks and explores what they were drawn to and why. As the descriptions reveal, the children were influenced by the space itself and the objects within it, as well as materials they were working with as they create characters and objects and began to tell stories about them.
Snakes: The idea of snakes came from the children’s interest in the big model of a snake in the winter gardens. The snake really captured many people’s imagination, and the children began to use Plastercine to make snakes.
“I want to draw a snake, a long one”
“It’s like that one (the big snake)”
“This is a snake, it wiggles like a worm.”
“I am a snake.”
Worms: Later some of the children discovered small pink post it notes in their bags, and delighted at pulling these off and arranging them all around the winter gardens. These became worms. The idea that lots of worms could be made very quickly this way was appealing, and mentioned in many of the young children’s stories.
“This is wiggly worm, the pink worms are taking over”
“We have this many wiggly worms!”
“And this one and this one and this one.”
“Wiggly worms everywhere.”
“A wiggly worm.”
Teeth: The idea of making teeth seemed to emerge from some children’s experimentations with what the materials could do (MacRae, 2011). Playing about with the scissors and the Plastercine, the children snipped off little bits of Plastercine, which they then decided looked like teeth.
“This is a real crocodiles tooth.”
“This is a dinosaur tooth, it has holes because it’s for a dinosaur.”
Crocodiles: Ideas about crocodiles, dragons and dinosaurs partly emerged from the play with teeth. Because many of the Plastercine teeth were big and knarly, the children began to play that they belonged to animals with large teeth.
“This is a colourful [animal] with lots of eyes, he needs so many. I’ve made a crocodile too. I want to make paper with a crocodile, I want to do it on black.”
“This is a crocodile, he snaps. I didn’t colour all of him in.”
Dragons, Dinosaurs and Monsters: As well as being connected to the play with teeth, ideas of dinosaurs and monsters also emerged from the ways in which the Plastercine could be moved around. For example, big heavy lumps of Plastercine could stomp across a page, and begin to gobble up a snake.
“This is a dinosaur.”
“The monster (a model in the child’s hand) ate the snake (the child’s drawing), he gobbled him all up. The monster stood on the wall and then ate it. It’s in his mouth. He is like the wall.”
“My monster was on a rock.”
Sky and Rainbows: Some of the children’s creations seemed to be influenced by the space itself. The Winter Gardens is a tall arched structure; arched timber beams create the main frame and this is clad in glass. If one looks up they can see the sky. One child created a drawing of the sky and another used Plastercine to sculpt a rainbow.
“It’s clouds and the sun and moons and stars. I’ve done x marks the spot you follow the path to x marks the treasure.”
Aeroplane: The idea of making aeroplanes evolved from the children holding and playing with their Plastercine models. Because children could hold the models over their heads, and perhaps also because the winter gardens is clad with glass and therefore the sky is visible, the children began to play that the models were both aeroplanes and rockets. The children also experimented with arranging their models into the flower beds.
“This is an aeroplane, it was in the cactus.”
Memories: Adults and children talked about personal memories of things happening in and near the Winter Gardens, both recently and in the past.
“One way, no u turns.”
“This is the wedding cake which is symbolic of the registry office, the egg box, town hall, the hole in road where people used the meet. A little master at his desk, one at his grindstone, one knifed in his bike, and industry being cut. This is the symbol for iron-Thatcher, who then sold off the industry.”
“This place always reminds me if the British Heart Foundation Christmas dash, you do two laps of the town hall dressed as Santas, there’s all these brass bands playing, you see all the Santas doing warm ups.”
“I like the peace gardens I had lunch there and everyone was in fancy dress in their gowns.”
Nature: Both adults and children talked about the experience of being in and observing nature in the winter gardens.
“This is about family being together, having a break from family. Exploring around the paths, learning to walk here. Exploring nature even when it’s raining.”
“Look at the leaves, they all go in different directions the leaves.”
“Blue leaves, and I want to do blue flowers.”
“I’ve done some leaves for you.”
“This is one blue flower, they look like little veins, they’re sticks, little blue sticks.”
As these short anecdotes reveal the space of the Winter Gardens and the use of arts materials facilitated children’s imagination. They took inspiration from the place as they created characters, objects and stories. This is an example of the important role that space can play in children’s learning, and in multi-sensory environments which offer children rich opportunities to experience through movement, touch, smell, sound and sight.