Reflections on a journey of discovery: lessons learned from ‘Creative Baby!’

It’s widely known that babies learn through play, but what can adults learn from the experience? 

Earlier this year I came up with the idea of ‘Creative Baby!‘ and launched it in August as a experimental pilot project at the Shipley Art Gallery. I’d been greatly inspired by Manchester City Art Gallery and The Whitworth’s work with families, and hoped to create something new and exciting.

My first blog post – which describes how much Manchester had inspired me – gives a good indication of the excitement with which I embarked on ‘Creative Baby!’ There were many unknowns at this stage of the project; in particular I wondered whether parents would feel comfortable with the open-endedness of the sensory play space, or if they’d be daunted by the lack of ‘proper toys’. I also wondered if I’d be able to create a different experience each month, and if people would really connect with the exhibitions through the project. Most of all I wondered if the project would successfully engage babies in the Shipley Art Gallery – an audience I’d not worked with in this way before.

The final session of the five-month series is almost upon us, and looking back through the year I’m delighted at how ‘Creative Baby!’ has taken off. The series sold out in record time and I had a stream of messages asking if more places would be made available. It was reassuring and exciting to discover there was a huge appetite for the project I’d created, but also slightly daunting to think that now I had to ensure it met expectations!

It’s been a real learning curve, and a very enjoyable one at that! For the final session I’m planning a sort of ‘best of’, bringing back the favourite elements of the play spaces I’ve created over the course of the project. It’s really got me reflecting on the project as a whole. These are some of the main lessons I’ve learned about what makes the most creative play with babies:

  1. You don’t need toys to play! At the beginning, I vaguely knew this – I’d oberved waste paper bins, spatulas, and hosepipes being used with great success at Manchester City Art Gallery’s Mini Art Club however I’m not sure I dared believe it to the extent I do now. At ‘Creative Baby!’ I’ve created playthings from foil, baskets, tents, string, and kitchenware, and babies and parents have found wonderful and varied ways of playing with it.

    Exploring the fruit found in the paintings

    Exploring the fruit found in the paintings

  2. Think about how it sounds and feels: This being an art gallery, it’s easy to focus on the visual. However for very young babies, senses other than sight are much more attuned to the world around them. Different textures, and things which make sound are an essential part of exploring the play space – and anything that scrunches in the way a crisp packet does, is a guaranteed winner!

    Foil nest

    Foil nest

  3. Inviting spaces are essential: at first I aimed for an open play space to accommodate large numbers, but then observed how people flocked to the dens and chill out spaces I’d created. Babies seem to feel cocooned and immersed in the sensations they find there. I’ve set up tents with music on speakers, coloured lights, reflective foil, and floaty scarves hanging overhead. Even tables with dangly things hanging round the edges and a blanket underneath have proven to be inviting dens.

    Changing colour light tent - photo Sarah Batsford

    Changing colour light tent – photo Sarah Batsford

  4. There’s more than one way to play: presenting open-ended play opportunities makes for the most creative experience, and is also a fascinating learning experience for both adults and children. In a previous blog post, I wrote about the importance of invitations to play, which I feel are not only more interesting for children, but more empowering for adults, who see that there’s no right or wrong to engage in this kind of activity.
  5. A change of scene can be surprising: I often reuse the same materials to create the play space, but set them up in new configurations. This can make them become a whole new plaything, often unintentionally; for example, I set up egg-shaped lights inside a tent at one session, and at the next put them out on the mirrored floor. Having more space around them prompted the babies to use them in different ways, and we found they wobble and bounce back when pushed over – a new discovery for everyone which presented different play possibilities.

    Egg lights

    Egg lights

  6. See things in a new light: There have been so many different lights at ‘Creative Baby!’ – sparkly, colour changing, starry, handheld… The lightbox presents exciting opportunities for colour mixing and investigating materials in new ways. And it’s easy to make your own using an underbed storage box and some battery powered lights! 

    Icecream sundae glasses on lightbox

    Icecream sundae glasses on lightbox

  7.  New month – new experience: The babies have been through a wide range of developmental milestones in the time ‘Creative Baby!’ has run, meaning that even if the same play opportunities are offered, their ways of interacting differs each time. We’ve made sensory toys at each session, so people can continue the creativity at home. Due to the various ages of the babies, this means sometimes parents take home a toy their baby’s not yet ready for, so it’s been brilliant hearing back from parents that their baby’s grown into it and is enthusiastically playing with it at any opportunity! (Or in the case of Xanthe, pictured below, refusing to let go of it for the entire day. Thanks to Xanthe’s mum Jenny for the photo – we hope you’ve managed to leave the house without the tissue box in tow since then!)

    Xanthe playing with her fabric pull-box at home. Photo: Jenny Wade

    Xanthe playing with her fabric pull-box at home. Photo: Jenny Wade

  8. Play is a whole-body experience: we often present play opportunities for babies to sit or lie with. However, anyone who’s witnessed the whole-body response babies have when filled with joy or excitement will understand that playing is rarely stationery, even for the pre-mobile baby. Pictured is a ‘sensory runway’ I created using boxes covered in various textures – it was a lovely surprise to find some of the babies had learned to walk since the previous session, so instead of being a crawling course it became an array of interesting textures for little bare feet. And for those who were not yet crawling it became a drum kit, prompting energetic movement as they created and responded to their own music.

    Sensory runway with a new walker!

    Sensory runway with a new walker!

  9.  Play makes you see things differently: I’ve become a very strange sort of shopper since launching ‘Creative Baby!’ – I’m regularly found in charity shops and discount stores, investigating the textures and generally prodding and re-configuring everyday objects. There are so many play possibilities to be discovered when these objects are part-deconstructed, combined in new ways, or just arranged in unusual contexts. Some of the most played with items at sessions have been Christmas decoration bells hanging from a table; a mop-head; silver dish scourers; and some sparkly fabric chilli peppers from a Chinese supermarket – all easy to find, you just need to see things in the shops differently! Warning – this way of thinking is difficult to switch off; I recently caught myself looking at those puffy body sponges in Wilko and thinking they’d make good Christmas tree decorations!
    Playing with the mop, inspired by black and white ceramics in Katharine Morling's exhibition

    Playing with the mop, inspired by black and white ceramics in Katharine Morling’s exhibition

    Bells hanging from the table

    Bells hanging from the table

    Enjoying the tassles on the chilli peppers

    Enjoying the tassles on the chilli peppers

  10. Play is learning in disguise – The adults at ‘Creative Baby!’ have looked during the exhibition tours, but playing is the lens through which the babies look and learn about things around them. Therefore it’s been important to create opportunities for playing the artworks rather than just looking at the artworks. This has taken different forms for different exhibitions – the knitted garden exhibition ‘Blooming Marvellous’ was wonderfully colourful, tactile, and allowed to be touched. But what about when you have an exhibition of paintings or ceramics? In this case, create opportunities for babies to play along with the artworks – for example, a bowl of fruit to allow them to experience the still life painting on the wall; monochrome toys to allow them to investigate black and white ceramics; or dressing up to help them explore the costumes in the portraits. One thing that’s been transferable to every exhibition has been putting large pieces of paper on the floor and giving the babies egg-shaped crayons to draw with – the sight of these young artists creating their own drawings amongst the framed artworks is a joy!
    Exploring the knitted picnic in Blooming Marvellous

    Exploring the knitted picnic in Blooming Marvellous

    Dressing up alongside the portraits- photo Sarah Batsford

    Dressing up alongside the portraits- photo Sarah Batsford

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