Ingredients: photocopied drawings of food stuffs; joining words such as ‘mix’, ‘bake’, ‘wash’ (optional); backing paper; glue and pens

The Big Sell: Let’s make our own recipe… Then cook it!

Strategy: Here’s a simple, open arts activity that can introduce a 3+ year old to several arts skills at once, in addition to an adventurous approach for fussy eaters.

1) Introduce your child to the concept of a ‘recipe’ by showing them your own cookery books at home or letting them watch you cook.
2) Create some simple labelled drawings of food stuffs, photocopy and cut out (or let your child cut out to improve their scissor skills)
3) Invite them to glue these down in any order they like on their paper, colour and add joining words (optional) to their recipe
4) Of course, the best way to complete this learning cycle is then to work with the child to produce their meal for real. This may be tricky if they’ve chosen to make apple and onion cookies (!) but gives you a chance to educate them in which flavours complement each other. You can refine their recipe choices as you go along… This herb smells nice with that vegetable, shall we try adding it?

Verdict: Some children, perhaps those who are less artistically fluid and prefer a more structured, systemic approach to learning like my 3-year old (potentially those who have a tendency towards fussy eating too), will enjoy this ordered but empowering activity. It introduces them to the adult world of cookery and encourages them to make autonomous choices about food, whilst refining the fine motor skills involved in cutting, sticking and colouring. And if they learn to love food while experiencing the satisfaction of home-cooking, even better!

Catchphrase: ‘Ooh, chocolate potato mash, what an interesting idea!!’

Left wanting more?:
) Leave the photocopied food stuffs out in a small bowl on the table with accessible paper, glue and pens and see if they return to it at a later date. If you are in the middle of a particularly stressful meal time, invite the child to take some time out to show you a different recipe of something they would like to eat. Draw the proportions of fruit, protein, dairy etc… they need to stay healthy on a paper plate and ask them to fill in each section with their own choices.
2) My son’s pre-school set up a brilliant food activity recently. They put a series of toy tills and scales along tables with real bowls of onions, apples and potatoes so the children could play at weighing, buying and selling while handling real produce.
3) I haven’t tried this one yet, but I’d like to try making a ‘smelly painting’. Use food stuffs to rub different smells onto areas of paper, these may be colourless or leave a stain. Experiment with navigating the painting with eyes closed or open… Could the smells lead to ideas for new recipes? (Heston Blumenthall, eat your heart out!)


Just a quick blog this week to share a link to an interesting article I spotted this week about the new Oliver James’ theory of ‘Lovebombing’.  This article really spoke to me and bore great similarity to my earlier blog about Special Time, encouraging pockets of high quality time in which parents focus love on their child and place that child in the driving seat of dialogical activity.

This ‘lovebombing’ technique is something I have frequently built into play experiences with both my sons and I can testify that it has powerful results. With my eldest, an artist, this was often achieved through joint arts activity – painting, drawing and making together – in which the accomplishment shared between us created a strong bond and gave us a mutual sense of satisfaction. With my younger child he prefers to read together or play games (in which he gives me explicit repetitive script for certain toys that place him in the role of being powerful / superhero-like / rescuer) and can be more dull from my perspective as an activity, but give me a profound sense of joy in seeing his self-esteem and empathy build step by step.

Over the last month I have increased from part to full time work, and this has had a dramatic effect on our family life. My eldest son in particular is struggling to share my attention with my many new work demands. Reading this article was timely for me to remember how it important it is that I continue to carve out time to hear my sons and preserve their wellbeing – so lovebombing is being booked into the diary as a crucial component of our family life.

Ingredients:  Collection of all shapes of fallen leaves, feathers, conker cases, twigs, pebbles (anything with an interesting texture); crayons, drinking straws, wool, stapler, pretty crepe or sugar paper.

The Big Sell: Let’s celebrate Autumn!

Strategy:  There’s something about September that I find really comforting – the fading firey leaves seem to coat the world in a blanket that promises snuggly jumpers, hot chocolate and Christmas stockings are just around the corner.

If you and your child love to harvest interesting fallen Autumn detritus, why not turn them into a hanging mobile to display in a window?

  1. Simply collect an array of interesting leaves, feathers, bark etc… and use crayons to make rubbings on pretty crepe or sugar paper. Look at the detail of veins and differing shapes with your child.
  2. Cut out your rubbings in shapes and sizes of all different leaves
  3. Make a triangular frame by sellotaping together 3 drinking straws (use the bendy bits to form the corners).
  4. Hang your leaves from the frame by stapling to wool and attach more wool at the top by which to hang your finished mobile.

The verdict:

Banish post-summer and ‘returning to school’ blues by celebrating the changing seasons around you, and make those walks to school fun (while the sun still holds out) by collecting new finds each time you go out to add to the mobile.

I received an email from the National Trust this week, who are promoting their campaign to encourage children to play outside and seek entertainment in the environment to address growing Nature Deficit Disorder. This is something I feel passionately about and want to encourage parents to get stuck in to reverse the trend. Check out the link to their excellent website Outdoor Nation and, while you’re at it, why not pop National Trust membership on your Christmas List so you can explore the changing seasons at your nearest  location.

Catchphrase: Anyone for a game of conkers?

Left wanting more?

Ingredients: Boxes and tubes of all shapes and sizes, bottle tops, bubble wrap, polystyrene, drinking straws, inner chocolate box packaging, some spray paints (kept out of child’s reach), stickers in all colours, winged pins, string / ribbon, different types of sticky tape (sellotape, masking tape, electrical tape, parcel tape), glues (PVA and Pritt stick), a tool that punches holes easily, possibly even a Makedo set, good quality scissors. All kept in an accessible replenishable box.

The Big Sell: Build me something the world has never seen!

Strategy: All parents do it – the roll of the eyes as you present your child with a rather expensive new Christmas present and they fling it to one side and spend the rest of the day playing with the large cardboard box. But what’s really going on here?

Children have an innate ability to be explorers – they haven’t yet learnt to be afraid of the act of creation (linking it to failure and disappointment as many of us do as we grow older). They often don’t want to be told what ‘should’ be fun (by an adult toymaker) but reject conformity to discover the world for themselves. If only we didn’t grow out of that state?!

If I were to choose one activity that has taken up 75% of my sons’ childhood so far, it would be the act of junk-modelling. And I believe it is seriously underrated as a lazy past time, an end of the day ‘that’ll occupy them for a few minutes’ second rate, cheapskate distraction before we get stressed by the mess and it’s tidied away.

But I think it is so much more. When I take a moment to watch my eldest at work with junk he is using so many skills – developing his maths by taking accurate measurements and creating symmetry; learning engineering by constructing strong platforms, pulleys, hinges, catapults; exploring critical and imaginative thinking by breaking down big dreams into the small steps towards realisation. He is also learning social skills – managing his expectations of what is achievable in a given time frame and with limited resources, recycling the useless into the useful, even demonstrating love by creating birthday presents (like a ‘tea-maker’ for me) when he has no access to bought things, and communicating his end product by providing a showcase. If I were to describe his best talents within the framework of his school curriculum, they would fall under ‘Science’ and ‘Visual arts’ – truly a Leonardo da Vinci of the junk-modelled world.

If you have a little inventor in your home, as well as supplying them with endless refuelling of interesting objects to occupy their minds and fingers, you can also encourage them with these challenges for Advanced Junk Modelling Fun:

  • The Transformer junk model – make something that turns from one object into another? (See Transformer Robot model above).
  • The Moving junk model vehicle – wheeled, flying, hovercraft (using semi-inflated balloons), floating (see Titanic model above – historically accurate as it really did sink!)
  • The Stage Set junk model – one previous effort was Harry Potter’s Chamber of Secrets complete with Chess set, Devils Snare (green wool), cardboard roll sewer tunnels, flying keys (hanging from thread). (The picture above is my son’s Harry Potter ‘Hogsmead’ stage set with working elevator).
  • The Garden Orchestra junk model – use old metal tubes, cans (with the edges sanded smooth), tins and pans with wooden drumsticks to make music outside.
  • The Marble Run junk model – weave all your old cardboard tubes into a taped maze.
  • The Make Do and Mend junk model – teach them about World War II and the impact of rationing on children’s experiences – invite them to invent a toy to take on an ‘evacuated’ journey (to a pretend Bunker den in the garden).
  • And of course, the Den junk model – reinvent the largest cardboard boxes you can find into an igloo / treehouse / teepee / other assorted living space of child’s choice.

The verdict: A junk modelling child is one that is following an ‘enquiry-based’ model of education, in which rather than memorising and recalling a set of facts they learn to form and test a hypothesis, use the world around them to spark an idea, pursue an ideal and visualise a transformation. A junk modelling child learns that truly creative practice can be explosive in terms of the unanticipated outcome, and that’s more exciting than any old bit of plastic from the shops.

Catchphrase: “Can I email the toy-making people, Mum, to show them my prototype for a real Harry Potter Hogsmead Play-set?”

Left wanting more?

From top to bottom: Painting alongside my children – finger painting with my three-year old; observing my seven year old start some abstract art (which I joined in with towards the end); the resulting finished painting.

Ingredients: A range of paints – finger paints, acrylics, watercolours, oils (and linseed oil), mark-making tools, and materials to paint on – wood, canvas, cartridge paper, collage paper.

The Big Sell: Let’s paint beside each other and see what we can make together.

Strategy: It occurred to me early on as a mum and an artist there was a big gap between mine and my child’s expectations of a painting. I expected them to sit quietly and to concentrate on forming a well composed painting with narrative and clear bright colours. They expected to swish some paint around a space (which included paper but also included the table, chairs, floor, their hands and feet) until a muddy blend plastered the area and they could run off half-decorated and leave me to clear up!

I wondered whether my boys would ever come to enjoy the tranquillity and focus of painting in the way that I did and what the steps were to this taking place. The answer was … yes they would, and here are some of the steps along that journey to my now seven-year old, who received mainly painting materials for his seventh birthday and loves abstract art more than any other style of painting.

  1. From 2 – 3 years onwards, make painting fun. Do it outside in the sun and paint on rolls of old wallpaper to make train tracks down the garden path. Paint hands and feet, toys, leaves, stones, feathers – anything that makes a print. Be well prepared with a bowl of warm water and wipes at the ready to clean them up and hang a washing line and pegs against a space wall if you are lacking in drying space.
  2. Introduce dialogue into their work from the word go. Once their paintings are dry (an hour or two later) reintroduce them to your child and using a fat marker pen show them what images you have seen in their paintings – turn a splodge into a face, a splash into a fish, a stripe into a stick man.
  3. Once your child starts to understand and enjoy ‘painting with mummy/daddy/carer’, try some tandem-finger painting. Pick the subject of their favourite book (such as The Hungry Caterpillar above) and show them how you can recreate the images using sharp shapes and clear bright colours with your hands, if you clean them in between with a wipe or bowl of water.
  4. Now turn to DIY toy-making. As they grow in confidence building images from shapes and colours, make their favourite cartoon character by giving them a basic outline to paint in, add finishing touches with black marker once dry, cut out and cover in sticky-back plastic so they can carry it around with them, attached to buggy.
  5. Alongside figurative art work, introduce elements of abstract art play – arrange patterned collage cut outs alongside swishes of paint and discuss what looks pleasing to their eye. Don’t be afraid to show them famous works of art to inspire them – any age can appreciate Matisse, Pollock, Picasso. Talk to them about the colours of their feelings and dreams and ask them to show you.
  6. As your child’s confidence and knowledge of painting grows, support them with increasingly interesting materials – by the age of five my eldest son was painting on wood and papier mache, and quickly progressed to canvas at six. Gather interesting mark-making tools – run down pens, bamboo scratching sticks, an old comb – and try using ink and wax to explore ways to build light and dark in images. By this age, they will appreciate a visit to child-friendly art galleries or sculpture parks. Explain that new materials are precious things to be considered and explored, parts of the rites of passage of becoming a skilled artist.
  7. Exhibit your child’s art work – not just with a magnet on the fridge – but by providing them with their own gallery space. If you can’t attach any permanent fixtures to a wall, just use a cork board covered in white or black fabric and lean it in a temporary space. Invite the child to be a curator of this exhibition and talk visitors through their paintings, rather than speaking for them.

Accompany this arts play with a culture of carrying sketchbooks on any long car or train journey, ready to play ‘Oops!’ – one person makes a ‘mistake’ (jabs a hole in the paper, creates a fold, line or squiggle) and the other has to turn it into something beautiful, before you swap turns.

The verdict: I’m aware that I may be making this arts development sound too serious and prescriptive, but that is possibly a response to the type of person my eldest son has become – a serious young man who craves authenticity and a ‘grown up’ approach. Other children may prefer to pursue a more freeform route, continuing to explore mess and mayhem indefinitely.

However, I don’t think there is any danger in exposing children to established artwork from a young age, nor from introducing this idea of dialogue and the closeness that comes from ‘drawing alongside’ a parent with their own style and artistic choices. And it goes without saying, NEVER describe yourself as ‘hopeless’ at art, no matter how lacking in confidence you are – to them you are wonderful and any poor self-esteem you display will only provide them with the weapons to be ashamed of their own efforts.

Differences between you and them as unique artists are a great gift to emphasize, as you journey towards a shared understanding of art as key to expression and freedom.

Catchphrase: I love painting beside you! It shows me what the world looks like to you.

Left wanting more?

  • Does anyone else remember the fantastic retro-joy of watching Bob Ross paint a laidback landscape?! Type his name into Youtube and enjoy watching him at work with your child!

At this time of year, I always sit down and write a list of as many ways as possible to give the kids a fun educational holiday, so this post is as much for me as the world out there! I think a little planning (which is posted on a communal notice board for the kids to read too) goes a long way in helping to create free to low cost entertainment to fill those six long weeks. Please add your own too in the comments box!

There are 30 ideas here (one for each week day of the holiday, give yourself the weekends off!) many of which are explained in prior posts:

  1. Try a new exotic piece of fruit or veg once a week – this week I have bought a hairy coconut which we will ask Daddy to open with a knife and then drink from with straws
  2. Staircase mountaineering
  3. Make an easy peasy DIY doll by bending a pipecleaner into a person-shaped frame, then cutting old scraps of fabric into clothing shapes (2 of each, one for front and back) and glue over the frame with lots of PVA. Once dry, the kids can sew around the edges (optional), and you can decorate with ribbons, pen and wool.
  4. Make some Land Art in your local park (look at Richard Long for ideas) by gathering sticks, long grass, pebbles etc and making a natural collage around a tree trunk. Try to use skills like weaving, natural colour coding, freezing and sculpting ice.
  5. Have a pretend sleepover either with friends or siblings, simply by moving them onto a shared mattress on the floor of a different room at bedtime (like the living room), providing snacks in a bowl and a ‘late night’ film (7pm onwards).
  6. Make a Flick Book animation
  7. Have a Backwards Day. Start the day with a bath, bedtime story and milk, eat dinner for breakfast mid morning and finish the day with cereal and toast, meeting yourself for lunch in the middle!
  8. If your house has a pile of half read kids magazines like mine, create a collage or a comic book by cutting out all the characters and letters (then recycling the remainder).
  9. Have a Kids Cuisine Family Dinner – invite the children to cook for the family by showing them the contents of the cupboards, explaining how they must use a healthy balance (draw out the portions of carbs, veg, protein on  a paper plate) and then inviting them to make their own recipe whilst helping them to cook with as little intervention as possible. They must set the table and do the washing up too!
  10. Try some DIY story-telling and bookmaking.
  11. Visit your free local library and museum for research and then make your own at  home, with homemade tickets and badges for staff (you can buy cheap stamp from a Pound shop to help make the tickets)
  12. Throw a Teddy Bears picnic
  13. Speak in a foreign language for a day. The kids can pick the country of choice and use the internet to find the basics – Yes, No, Please, Thank you, etc… you could even theme your dress and food too
  14. Create a DIY Olympics in the back garden or local park – use ribbon for the finish line and make your own medals with paper plates and foil.
  15. Draw a Chalk dartboard on a fence or wall in the garden and arm your kids with water pistols
  16. Build a Lego world for all the small toys (try Atlantis or a theme park).
  17. Eat an apple in the first week of the holidays, plant the seed, re-pot the shoot as it grows and plant it in the garden by the sixth week.
  18. Write an Acrostic Poem (choose a word for the theme of the poem and make the letters go vertically down the page, then write a horizontal sentence from each starting letter of that word).
  19. Start saving your junk modelling now to make endless ‘Finventions’
  20. Make an Imagination Goggles Sketchbook
  21. Have a Home School Day – the  kids must draw up a timetable, with break times and fruit time just like school and run their own school for the day. Teddies can be the pupils!
  22. Watch Deadly Art here and learn to draw your own deadly creatures
  23. Make an Air drying clay model, bake it and paint it.
  24. Hold a Yard or Table Top Sale in the front garden – the kids can choose which toys they want to recycle and then invest the profit wisely in a local charity shop
  25. Create a toy hospital with all the cuddlies and lots of red stickers.
  26. Go on holiday in the house by flying carpet with soundscape.
  27. Play a game of Chess or Backgammon or make a Domino run (can you make it climb up and down bricks as stairs?)
  28. Have a midday Play Bath by dying the water with food colouring and adding all your sea creature toys.
  29. Write a Pen Pal letter or postcard to a friend who lives far away.
  30. Most importantly, make a scrapbook record of all your adventures as you go – then they can revisit all their games for the rest of the year and want to play them all over again!!!

P.s. Let them get bored at the weekends and they’re sure to come up with their own fantastic ideas too!

Ingredients:  All the toys at their disposal; a climbing rope (or several dressing gown cords tied together)

The Big Sell: Me to the kids: “I’m bored, what can we play?”


My two boys never fail to amaze me, they came up with two fabulous games this weekend which I had to share.

3 year olds game: Let’s Play “Staircase Mountaineering”

Spotting his Dad’s length of climbing rope which I had been using for an Antarctic Explorers workshop, he asked me to tie it securely to the top rung of the banisters, and we proceeded to spend the next half an hour playing mountaineering down the stairs. This involved finding Arctic cuddly toys (a seal and penguin), making a basket of explorer food and flask of hot chocolate, practicing creating echoes “Can you hear me, can you hear me, can you hear me…” whilst travelling up and down the stairs holding on to the rope. I hasten to add our many adventures were heavily supervised (never leave kids and rope alone obviously!) but provided some excellent rainy day exercise and lots of educational conversations about what explorers used to eat (pemmikin and chocolate), how cold the Polar regions are, Arctic food chains, etc… all whilst sitting in the clouds perched on the top stair.

7 year olds game: Let’s play “Our Home Museum & Art Gallery”

Totally invented and delivered by my eldest, I was merely required as a Museum Visitor. I had to patiently wait for the Tour to start in the Waiting Room (dining room) before I was led around the various sections of the Museum (rooms of our house) to see the Dinosaur period (lots of plastic dinosaurs arranged on a shelf), Soldier section (Toy Story small soldiers arranged in battle pose), art gallery (his own art displayed on the walls), Victorian childhood section (rather profusely populated play room covered in lots of plastic, but at least he did try and steer me towards the wooden toys!) and finally taken to the Shop. Here he came into his own as he tried to persuade me a small box of gifts was a steal at only £7.50 (I declined). Again, wonderful opportunities for some two way educational conversations here about history (Me: “And when was the Jurassic period?” Him: “Oh well, at least a thousand years ago!”), and a chance for me to see how much school and our museum trips have inspired him.

The verdict: Sometimes kids come up with the best stuff without us interfering at all. I learn something new every day from them!

Catchphrase: My little salesman: “Well, the museum entry was free, so I really think you ought to spend some money in the shop!”

Left wanting more?

  • One thing I do to help this kind of play along, is to not allow their toys to dissolve into a horrible hybrid mess, but to organise them according to theme (sea, dinosaurs, vehicles, space etc..) in lots of pretty bags and boxes. I’ve always suspected, if you can manage to tidy and present them nicely as often as possible, the children see their toys as valuable rather than junk!

Ingredients: A piece of paper and a pen, or computer & printer

The Big Sell: To child: “How about you tell me a story for once?”

Strategy: My 3 year old loves books and always has. He takes a pile of them to bed with him at night and after we have finished reading to him, he carries on with his Fireman Sam torch. When I come back in the morning they are strewn all over his duvet. Not all children have this natural affinity with reading. My eldest son for example finds it a lot harder to sit still and focus, and although he’s always loved being read to, he shows little interest in reading to himself.

However, with both eager and reluctant readers, I’ve found if you invite a child to become the story-teller there is little to hold them back. There are lots of ways to do this, such as developing the technique of telling a Stepping Stone Story on a journey to school, using the Helicopter Drama technique or putting up a Blanket Den and inviting campers to tell a spooky story by torchlight inside.

However, sometimes the best story-telling moments are impromptu and worth seizing. I was sitting on the sofa with my 3 year old at lunch today and out of his mouth tumbled a completely original story. I immediately went to the computer, typed it up, added Clip Art, and brought it back to him as a published entity within 3 minutes flat.

The verdict:

I can’t describe the look on my 3 year olds face when faced with his very own story – it was a mixture of sheepishness, pride and glee. It had to be read back to him several times over and then we started to discuss how we could share his story – take it to read to brother when we pick him up from school? Read to Daddy at bedtime? Take it to show the other children at play group or grandparents next week? The possibilities for sharing his accomplishment belonged to him too.

And in the midst of this happy moment, it occurred to me that first time around with my eldest son, I tried many artistic ventures in the hope that I was planting a seed and it might someday lead to something. But second time around I have the benefit of hindsight, and I can reflect with greater clarity that these seemingly inconsequential acts of validating your child’s creativity, which could be so easily missed or dismissed, form something more powerful than you can imagine at the time. They preserve an inner creative core that continues to protect that person’s sense of agency into adulthood. I am so privileged that my son chose to tell me his own story, and I feel it’s so important that I show him his stories are worth listening to and sharing. What does it matter if you’re only 3? Story-telling is how we have always communicated with each other and nothing beats the feeling of holding your own book in your hand.

Catchphrase: Let’s write some happy endings…

Left wanting more?

  • One, as yet, unfulfilled ambition is to make my own DIY story-telling book in the style of Nick Sharratt’s Pirate Pete with the kids. You have slots in the page and can choose your plot twists by changing the objects. I would love to try this more visual approach to story-telling with reluctant readers and writers.

Ingredients:  Sheets of a range of different materials – fabric, baking parchment, foil, cellophane, newspaper, black paper, bubble wrap, wrapping paper etc…,  needle and thread, a range of mark-making tools

The Big Sell: Bored in the summer holidays? Create your own Imagination Goggles Sketchbook

Strategy:  First an explanation of the term ‘Imagination goggles’. In every workshop I run with children I begin by asking them if they have remembered to bring their imagination goggles. Children do NOT question this – they immediately copy me by putting their fingers up to their eyes to make goggle shapes. I then lead an activity asking them to prove they are wearing their goggles properly – often this means producing an everyday object from my magic bag and inviting them to turn it into something different, or using their bodies to mime something completely different. This sets the scene for our workshop – anything is possible if you enter into your imagination.

As part of the reward system for my current Artspip group (ages 5 – 8) I have promised to give them each a special homemade gift IF they get 20 names on the leaves on our Artspip Tree (our Behaviour Contract) which are awarded for exceptional listening, sharing, thinking and having fun.  This homemade gift (shhh, don’t tell them yet!) is an Imagination Goggles Sketchbook for the holidays.

Homemade sketchbooks are easy to make. Simply collect a range of different interesting materials and sew together. This will invite the mark-maker to look at them in resourceful ways in order to make an impact on their book. They could choose to make a coherent story from start to end, to treat each page as a separate work of art, or have a theme. They could mark them with crayons, scissors, charcoal, collage; they could fray them, fold them, put lipstick marks on them… literally anything!

The verdict: Learning the art of recording your thoughts in innovative ways is an incredibly powerful life skill and you are never too young or old to learn to start. This is a great way of using up odds and ends around the house and the making of the sketchbook can be as fun as the completion of it.

I will interested to see if my Artspips have fun filling theirs in and bringing them back to show each other in September. I hope each one is as individually expressive as their makers.

Catchphrase: There are no such thing as mistakes in these sketchbooks – make it your own.

Left wanting more?

  • I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s so brilliant I’ll recommend it again. If you are teaching children how to respond creatively to homemade sketchbooks you MUST read them ‘Beautiful Oops’ by Barney Saltzberg, published by Workman. It is the Bible of this type of practice.
  • Last week, my first short story written for children was published by the charity Access Art – it’s called ‘The Incredible Finvention’ and you can download it FREE for i-pad or as a PDF. It’s carries the same message of the process of creating being more important than the end product. Enjoy!

Ingredients: A range of drama games which promote clear rules for preparing your body, voice and mind for creative work as a group.

The Big Sell: When I say MAGIC CIRCLE I want you all to form a perfect circle in complete silence. [Don’t accept the first circle that is made, keep pushing the group to make the circle as perfect as can be, and consider what qualities were required in the making of that circle.]

Strategy: I recently trained with Bigfoot Arts Education to become a Creative Facilitator. This means I can be employed in schools to provide creative supply for teachers, run after school clubs or provide professional development training. It was the most intensive, comprehensive training course I’ve ever done, and I’ve come away full of ideas which I can’t wait to put into action.

There is one overarching element that I feel the Bigfoot philosophy is strongest in promoting and encouraging – this is the importance of instilling discipline in the group and using explicit rules of creative play to surround all aspects of work with children and young people. These include the following:

  1. Create ground rules attached to specific rewards and consequences at the beginning of each session, and use these group behaviour contracts religiously throughout the session to promote the qualities necessary in positive group work.
  2. Let the group know the exact learning objectives and outcomes at the start so everyone is on board with the purpose of the shared work.
  3. Warm up the body, mind and voice through a variety of group exercises which allow no room for misinterpretation. For instance, show how to create a perfect circle for group work, respond to a clear command with immediate silence and focus, watch an instruction intently, listen to another person with your complete attention.
  4. And after performance, complete a cool down and reflective listening activity which asks the children to articulate the areas of their learning in order to check the objectives and outcomes have been met.

The verdict:

Now the use of rules may sound quite prescriptive and counter-productive to imaginative play, and at certain points when working in small groups the Bigfoot trainees did wonder “are we were in danger of inhibiting child-led learning?” As a trained Youth and Community worker, I have explored in great detail the principles of ‘informal education’ and how over-prescriptive learning outcomes can disengage and disempower learners. However, there are some key elements to the above practices which I feel support children and young people to feel more rather than less confident about offering their own ideas and feel a deeper sense of value in the creation of a shared artistic experience.

Firstly, we always focus ON THE WORK. So you set out the principles right at the beginning that everyone who wants to be in the session, wants to work hard to be an actor / artist / performer etc.. Anything less than 100% given to listening, watching, sharing, will inhibit the creative potential for that individual and the whole group. By stressing that the creative process is not easy and there are high expectations for EVERYONE, you are attributing value to the art that will be made. High stakes = Big gain.

Secondly, by setting out explicit learning objectives you are being open with your learners about your goals. You can create learning outcomes which allow plenty of room for creative manoeuvre (such as ‘Today we will be exploring the range of emotions experienced by children being evacuated in World War 2’). I do think you need to be careful here – if someone wants to add information which is outside the boundaries of that session, this needs to be recorded as an additional learning objective to be covered, either immediately or in the near future. It also requires a confident facilitator to hold two sets of information in their head – your original broad aims for this session and how they fit into the subject as a whole, with the route the group is taking which may include unexpected learning outcomes and reflect on and bring all of these together at the end.

Thirdly, and crucially to any artistic educational experience, you must ensure you have warmed up the group sufficiently to make everyone feel comfortable diving into their imaginations and sharing their ideas. Warm-ups should involve everyone so no one feels exposed – this builds trust and respect amongst members as well as navigating compromise. If people feel uncomfortable they need to be given choices about participating, but these choices need to adhere to the original principle of giving 100% of what they can offer.

Lastly, our trainer stressed if a session has not worked, even for only one child, as the teacher we must consider, what did I do wrong to disengage that child? We must believe that the work we are offering is of value and that every child (no matter their age, ability or background) has the potential to be an artist. Only once we have walked through the skills necessary to learning together, can we expect them to feel confident to learn – and drama works wonderfully to help embody our potential to be powerful ‘Actors’ in our lives and make change happen. As our trainer said “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand”.

I now see how some of my past practice has been too woolly, too vague, too ineffectual and this was not allowing child-led learning to blossom – it was undervaluing the importance of clear communication and expecting too little of those participating. I now feel armed with strong boundaries and clear expectations to open up deeper imaginative child-led practice.

Catchphrase: A common ‘signal for silence’ can be used throughout a session – when I say “Big” you say “Foot” and stand completely silent, waiting for the next instruction.

Left wanting more?

  • Good drama books include Theatre Games for Young Performers by Maria Novelly, Games for actors and non-actors by Augustus Boal, Drama games for Classrooms and Workshops by Jessica Swale.
  • Many of the ideas in this blog adhere to principles of informal education. Check out infed to find out more.