The Eco-Capabilities Project

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Eco capabilities

Educators and artists enjoy their own creative adventure in the Mill Road Cemetery; part of our launch day for the research, February 2020

The Eco-capabilities project is examining how working creatively in nature can help the well-being of young children. It is led by Dr Nicola Walshe,  Head of the School of Education and Social Care at Anglia Ruskin University, who was awarded a six-figure sum of funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in 2019. The research team are coming alongside two ArtScaping projects taking place this spring and summer with Shirley Primary School and Howard Primary School.  The project diary documents and shares the ongoing adventures for these communities and can be viewed  here.

Artists Sally Todd and Hilary Cox Condron are working with the two year 4 classes at Shirley Primary School alongside teachers Emily Irvine and Anna Ullmann and their colleagues. Also supporting these projects are artists Tonka Uzu and Libby Walmsley. Artists Caroline Wendling and Filipa Pereira-Stubbs are leading the work at Howard Primary School, working with teachers Emma Walker and Sally Attwood and their classes of year 4 and years 5 and 6. Supporting these projects are artist Alfie Carpenter and recently retired headteacher Amanda Morris-Drake.

Initial evidence for this research proposal was gathered by Anglia Ruskin’s Dr Nicola Walshe and Dr Elsa Lee from the University of Cambridge when they worked with CCI in 2018. This was set out in a recent chapter in the Research Handbook on Childhoodnature published by Springer and written with Ruth Sapsed and Jo Holland from CCI. It detailed how CCI artists observed how the creative activities they took part in with the children had a significant effect on the children’s wellbeing – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The study found artists could illustrate how their work encouraged children’s confidence and independence, as well as stimulating new evidence of creativity. 

Dr Walshe said in the announcement of the award: 

There is significant national and global interest in children’s wellbeing and mental health, with figures suggesting that 10% of children in England suffer a severe mental health illness, and that suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people. This figure is higher among those from deprived areas.

We believe that an innovative way to reconnect children to their local environment is using art in familiar outdoor places. Our research so far has found that artists undertaking this practice have observed how it encourages the children’s independence and sense of agency, develops their confidence, and cultivates a healthy sense of adventure! However, we need further evidence to determine why this is the case.

This AHRC grant will enable us to explore this further, working alongside the artists in two primary schools over the course of a school term to explore exactly how children benefit from this unique way of learning.

The outcomes will be of particular significance for teachers, schools and their communities but also for policy makers through access to evidence-based knowledge about arts-based learning in nature and how this supports children’s wellbeing.

A new webinar series is planned to share learning from the research and the first in this series was recorded during lockdown. It reflects on a CCI project with Mayfield Primary School and Under Fives Roundabout Preschool in 2018 - Lost Words and Found Connections - and has contributions from Nicola Walshe (ARU), Pippa Joyce and Jake Holt (Mayfield Primary School), Dana Harrison (Under Fives Roundabout Nursery), Filipa Pereira-Stubbs (CCI Artist), and Ruth Sapsed (CCI Director) .

The project is supported by an advisory panel and we are grateful to Hilary Bungay, Joel Chalfen, Kevin Jones and David Whitley for their support in this.

Exploring with colour

14/05/21

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Exploring with colour

Close your eyes and breathe deeply – feel the breeze on your face, roll your shoulders and wiggle your fingers.
What colours do we connect to emotions and memories?
What do different colours symbolise to us?

(by Hilary Cox Condron) Over these last few weeks we have been inviting the children to look closely at the colour and shapes in nature.

We started by reflecting on the work they had been doing in their sketchbooks –and the children each created a ‘nature square’ that they felt represented them.

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Exploring with colour
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Exploring with colour

I am …..clover fox…. rainbow leopard…a turquoise ocean….dream snake pyramid…evergreen elegance.

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Exploring with colour
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Exploring with colour
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Exploring with colour

We took time to explore outside, looking carefully at the shapes and colours and connecting the ‘nature square’ to the environment, whilst making notes and collections to take back to the class.

And then came the rain, hail and wind!

Being in the hail hurricane felt like world war 3…..it tickled and pierced into my skin….we laughed and ran and shouted…..I begged for it not to stop.

Back the classroom I asked what the children had brought back with them:

Sticks, golden leaves, new ideas, our imagination

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recording the shapes, colours and stories of Shirley School
Recording the shapes, colours and stories of Shirley School

Finally the children created a Shirley colour chart inspired by the nature around them. They mapped the area working with paint, watercolour pencils and found colours made with dandilions, grass and even teabags. Fantastical stories of Shirley were then added to these, such as Queen Glitter’s enchanted leaf necklace; the leaf carried by an injured horse that is being cared for by ‘HorseMan’; the ancient stone stolen from The Museum of Shirley; and the green dragon that oversees them all. 

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Exploring with colour
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Exploring with colour

Sitting in front of a blank piece of paper one child said: my imagination doesn’t work when I can only see wall, can I draw quietly outside? He took his sketchbook and quietly sat on his own in the playground to draw and we noticed how then his ideas could flow.

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Exploring with colour
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Exploring with colour

I am struck by how these sketchbooks are the works of artists, bringing together experiments in colour, markmaking, observation and storytelling.  I asked the children how they felt now: I’m exhausted… I’m happy…. it felt so exotic… it flowed…emotions, nature amazing… there are no words.

At times in these days we are able to visit Bramblefields, the nature reserve beside the school. We take time to prepare, pulling on wellies to walk there, then arriving, breathing in the air, and lying down quietly to tune in to the birds and nature around us. Here too we invite them to take a moment to really look at the surroundings and notice new things.

On day four we revisited ‘Mosaic Hill’ (or the sacrificial Viking magic mound of treasure as some children also described it).  We each took a china chip piece that we wanted to study and the children drew observational pieces of the mosaic and sat amongst the trees to explore the shapes.

I was struck that this week the school was also celebrating Equality, Diversity and Human Rights Week. Continuing the environmental conversations we had been having at Bramblefields, I wanted to help the children think about what diversity meant and the importance of it:
The biodiversity in nature that gives us life and inspiration,
Diversity in humankind that gives us different cultures, stories and history
And diversity in imagination that gives us creativity, new ideas and inspiration.

We gathered our sketches and ideas and went back to the classroom to embellish our artwork with colour and stories. We created whilst listening to a recording of birdsong at Bramblefields and reflected on our morning: It’s so overgrown – it feels like an adventure… I was calm… I was free… I was a bird… I was a cloud… I am nature.

What is nature for?

07/05/21

Shea: We are nature.
Bea: Everything is nature.

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Blue painting hand and two drawings of hands

(by Caroline Wendling) We have now spent three wonderful days with Badger class (a mixed class of years 3 and 4/7 to 9 year olds) at Howard Primary School in Bury St Edmunds as co-researchers on the Eco-Capabilities project.  We have created connections with nature and experienced a sense of wellbeing. We have been making art inspired by being outside the classroom, often in a part of the school grounds the children don’t go. Every morning unlocking the big green gate feels like opening our portal to special place. There are screams of joy and excitement and one child commented I am in heaven. It is a place that children associate with ‘camping’. They run behind the line of leylandii trees where the school is out of site and onto a large area of grass encircled by a line of trees on three sides. 

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Children by the gate
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Children running to our place

As a group we are tuning in to a sensory and tactile approach to nature. We invite the children to notice things and ask questions. After Jack R. asked why is grass so spiky? we all found ourselves touching the grass and trying to describe how it feels. I noticed how the children enjoyed shutting their eyes for what seemed ages, focussing on their olfactory sense and listening to the sounds with amplified attention. Ben described how he could smell honey and hear the sun burning on my back.

The children are eager to explore the site. A fascination with sticks took us on a journey of discovery on one of the days. I enjoyed how if together we described the shape, colour and texture of a stick, then attention was greater and drawings became more intricate and observed. One drawing grew horns to show its rough texture. Mia said that it helped to draw it again …the first drawing looked like a love heart and the second one like a real one. When the children were asked to collect natural things in small envelopes, Elwin placed a stick taller than him in it!

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Path and rabbit hole etc

A week later sticks became the medium to make large drawings on the field. Children chose their own partners and decided between themselves what to draw. Millie, Evie and Lola drew a shape together with three different interpretations: a lake, a rabbit hole, a road to school. I admired their open-minded spirits and imaginative interpretations. The same drawing was appropriated later by Jack C. who commented how I am making a big stick by filling in the shape and reducing it as necessary.

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Branches on grass

The contents of these envelopes have become subjects for many art activities during the classroom time in the afternoon. We are showing the children how to mix paint to get nature’s colours. With incredible attention they are discovering the alchemy-like secrets of paint. Bea got lost mixing an abundant quantity of colour swatches. Children are consulting with each other on how to best proceed, helping each other by suggesting specific mixes and expressing their satisfaction when contented with their efforts. We witnessed many complex discussions, attentive minds and a sense of achievement. No one got annoyed, bored or gave up.

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Bea Swaps Artwork
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Charlie swaps Artwork
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Colour of nature Artwork

And what happens when you give children the permission to ‘design’, ‘paint ‘, ‘draw’ and ‘tattoo’ their hands inspired by nature? Well, they have such fun. Even those reluctant to colour their hands and offered an alternative changed their minds! Some managed to paint two hands and some had to be asked to stop as we had reached the end of the day.  Over the three days nature had been a perfect companion! I can’t wait to meet the children again.

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 Bea's & hands
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Elwin Hands
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Hands
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Jack Hands

Drawing into Nature

04/05/21

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Shirley playground

(by Sally Todd) We have started on our long awaited project with Year Four at Shirley Community Primary school, using art and creative exploration to engage with local outside spaces and the nature around us.The children remembered us from last year and their responses to my first question ‘what is art?’ felt like a clear sign we were ready to begin:
Art is really beautiful and magical because it’s full of bright colours.
Art’s a poetic way to describe nature and the things around you.

Outside on ‘the field’ at Shirley we lay down in the grass, using all of our senses to attune to the rhythms and textures of our surroundings. I felt calm and relieved….I felt so relaxed I could feel the grass moving.  We invited the children to do mark making in response to the sounds around us, then draw something in the landscape without looking at the drawing to free up and energise the lines. Some children were initially tentative or self-conscious with their drawing, though with encouragement became emboldened.

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Sound marks
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Drawing without looking

The school grounds also include a small ‘orchard’, a vegetable garden and a nature area. We settled in the nature area, slowing down to observe closely. Some children focused on drawing the shapes and details in a leaf, blossom or bird’s feather, adding colour with dandelions and grass. For others there was a desire to keep moving and explore, finding tadpoles in the pond and of course the climbing tree.
Look tiny insects they’ve got so many legs.
These are animal markings I know.
I saw a number three pattern on a tree.

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Drawing into nature
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Feather and nettle
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Feather detail

After lunch we returned outside to experiment together with graphite, charcoal, pastels and more dandelions on a giant piece of paper. Suddenly distant smoke transformed the skyline and the children’s charcoal marks intensified, creating swirling ‘black holes’ and ‘villages’ covered in a charcoal ‘smoke’ through their embodied experience.

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Charcoal smoke drawing
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The 'village'

On our second session, we ventured out of school to explore the nearby and surprisingly expansive space of Bramblefields, the local nature reserve next door to the school.

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The pond area
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The ceramic mound

We made bird mapping drawings, carefully watching the movement of bird flights above us in the sky. Look how much I got, I saw ten…I want to be a bird because there are no rules when being a bird.

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Bird mapping drawings

We visited the contrasting spaces of the trail area, with a canopy of twisted trees, and the open scrub and grassland, with the bio-diverse habitats of the ponds and the dry hill. The hill is covered in tiny recycled crushed ceramic pieces and was created by the ecology team at the City Council to offer a dry micro climate for plants and wildlife. It became known by the children as pottery hill, rat hill and the toilet chips and captured their imaginations in many ways - maybe it was a cafe…..it looks like the stars and the galaxy.

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Stars and galaxy

Back in school, the children made nature slides and imaginary drawings with ‘Shirley colour’ inspired by their visit to Bramblefields. The hill had now become layered with secret stories of creatures and treasure under the ground as if a portal to another world.

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Nature finds
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Nature slides
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Tree drawing
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Tree drawing
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The hill
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Under ground
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Ladybird and tiger
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Ancient treasure