Giving Children the Space to Play!

Harvard early childhood education expert Dr. Louisa Penfold on the importance of materials in sensory-based play, designing for children and boosting their emotional well-being as society opens up

by Laura Minca, 20th May 2021

01_Image credit_Paigen Muller Photograph
About Louisa
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Early Childhood Education Expert

Dr Louisa Penfold currently works at Harvard University as a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Early Childhood Education. She has always been passionate about supporting children's creativity through contemporary art and play with materials. Her PhD research, undertaken as a partnership between Tate and the University of Nottingham (United Kingdom), looked at the design of young children’s play spaces at the Whitworth Art Gallery and Tate.

In 2016, Louisa founded 'Art Play Children Learning', a blog that has quickly gained her an international following. The platform aims to set the grounds for a new form of dialogue that can help parents, artists, and educators improve communication lines with children while guiding them through the sensorial exploration of their environments using imaginative play and contemporary art. Nevertheless, Louisa's mission extends far beyond the young audience her work is focused on - her biggest passion is to make art accessible to all and 'give people an opportunity to explore and connect with it in their own way'.

Meet Dr. Louisa Penfold

Coming across Louisa's research and her blog Art Play Children Learning was both refreshing and inspiring. As an architect and the mother of a three-year-old, I feel her work can help many of us step into the world of children and give us the tools to explore it through their eyes. I am so grateful she agreed to share her time with us! In our conversation we touch on topics such as her motivations for working in early childhood education, engaging young children with play materials and how to help children overcome the pandemic’s effects.  

“I read a lot of architecture books so my work is very architecturally informed. I think it's very important that children use their bodies and sensory systems. We need to design these play spaces for kids to interact in.

 

Spaces need to be designed so they have all these manipulable parts and are responsive to children's interests, creativity and experimentation. I feel there's a lot of overlap between early childhood education and architecture.” 

Becoming an early childhood education expert

When did your passion for child development begin?

My interest in childhood development has grown as I have grown!  I always had such a connection with children as I was growing up in Australia. I used to babysit for everyone in my neighbourhood, and I would always be thinking out all these activities to do with them. I studied Visual Culture for my undergraduate degree, and in my third year, I got a placement at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where I randomly got put into the kids' section. This turned out to be the most wonderful experience as it was my first time assembling creative content for young audiences - I absolutely loved it.

After spending a year in France, I decided to do a Masters in Museum Education and received a grant from my university to travel to the United States. I then spent around two months travelling to different art museums looking at inter-generational family programs. I observed how many of the children’s activities were done as a secondary thought or tag on to the 'adult' exhibitions. Many of the activities were paper-based craft or a workshop in a separate area, and so it got me thinking: 'This is a bit... boring. I think we can do more.'

When I came back to Australia, I worked as the curator of a children's art museum programme at the Ipswich Art Gallery which is located on the outskirts of Brisbane in the north of Australia. What was different about this gallery was that we designed large-scale, immersive play spaces for kids. These were exhibitions that would be mostly free to attend and open to the general public all day.

All our work was based on spatial design, materiality, thinking about how we can scaffold children's learning over time and focus on an extended type of creative engagement instead of a quick, craft-based activity. Also, this particular gallery was located in one of the most disadvantaged, socio-economic communities of Australia. Looking back, I'm so grateful to have been exposed to that type of environment as it deepened my understanding of the potential of the arts to facilitate social change through education. I then got offered my PhD position in the Learning Department at Tate Modern/ Tate Britain and moved to London in 2015.

Was your PhD the catalyst for your interest in sensory-based learning?

Early childhood education experts bridge or bring together the theory and practices of working with young children and explore their application in different contexts. A big part of my PhD looked at how the different material practices of artists and designers can be used to support children's learning through play with materials. I spent three months at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, where I worked closely with the exhibiting artists and early childhood coordinators.  We studied the different artworks in the collection and looked at how we can shape them in a way that children can then easily interact with. I also knew that I needed to put together a set of tools and resources to help teachers and educators look at the artwork, select different concepts, tools, questions, vocabulary and then use these as a framework for designing their play space.

All the time spent researching and reading different early childhood books during my PhD enabled me to truly learn the essence of child development and the importance of sensory-based learning. It is up to us, the adults, to set up the conditions for children’s creative interactions with materials and spaces. From a childhood development perspective, that is how they learn.

It is materials that give people an opportunity to articulate feelings, and dispositions and ideas, that can't be communicated through words or numbers.

How can sensory-rich materials help children learn?

Having studied art, materials have always been a huge part of my life. When you play with a material, you can also explore concepts through that interaction with the material, and so, the relationship between cognition, emotion and the material comes together in one experience. I think materials are so important because not everything can be articulated or expressed through words. And it is materials that give people an opportunity to articulate feelings, and dispositions and ideas, that can't be communicated through words or numbers.

Why did you decide to focus your research on the specific 0-5 age group?

 

I guess I have always been drawn to this particular age group. I have such enthusiasm and curiosity for life and I feel like young children often match that energy. I also love working with young children because of their honesty: if they'll like something, you'll know, and if they don't, they will simply walk off. I love the challenge of keeping a 3-year-old's mind, for instance, so intrigued and engaged that they just want to continue playing in the space we set up. It's a matter of staying curious, asking questions and exploring all the opportunities that can help us make their experience deeper and more meaningful.

I would also like to mention there are also a lot of play-based philosophies and ideas developed for early childhood education - such as the Montessori and Reggio approach - that have been developed and put in place for little kids. I actually think they are relevant for all ages though! Artists play all the time, they have this joyful way of experimenting with things, and I think that there's definitely a congruency between how artists see the world and early childhood.

Should the creative arts play a more prominent part in the educational curriculum alongside literacy and numeracy? Do we need to challenge the structure of the standardised syllabus?

If we look at this issue from a more profound, philosophical standpoint, literacy and numeracy are forms of knowledge that can be easily measured as opposed to subjects such as arts or the humanities, where the specific learning outcomes are more complex and open-ended. This is one of the reasons they tend to be more 'valued'.

Generally speaking, I think there has been a big global trend where the arts have been marginalised from many school curricula or have been weirdly integrated through STEAM education. Sadly, creative subjects still sit in a 'lower' position, with science and technologies overriding their importance.

Unfortunately, particularly in the United States and the UK, and increasingly so in Australia, standardised testing around literacy and numeracy takes top priority within the school curriculum. As a result, the type of learning opportunities that kids are given are focused on learning outcomes instead of looking at the creative and critical thought processes that lead to that outcome.

People should acknowledge the fact that the arts support children's creative thinking in terms of helping them access multiple ways of experiencing the world. They help children understand that there are different layers to people, ideas and history. Ultimately, they facilitate that empathy towards others and give kids the tools to use their imagination to understand other people's realities.

The arts are so important in offering tactile learning opportunities, facilitating interaction with different materials, and opening up different learning pathways. In addition, from a democratic and cultural engagement perspective, it is the arts that often give children a voice and allow them to express their opinions and to have their thoughts heard.

Getting hands-on

What motivated you to create your blog and how does it complement your research?

My biggest passion is taking art and putting it into a form so that people who would usually think that art is not for them can take it, explore it and connect with it in their own way. Blogging is such a fantastic way for doing just that. It's such a brilliant way to connect with other people – something I love - and I think that ultimately, a lot of the innovation in this world happens through these people who are on the fringes and say: 'Let's just do this!'.

Having worked in museums and with teachers, I was acutely aware that there is a gap in knowledge-sharing. There are a lot of art books that are written for kids that are focused on craft-based learning, and at the same time, a lot of the art education focuses on dead white male artists, missing out on these amazing, contemporary, cutting-edge people who do incredible, innovative work. The school curriculum doesn't have a lot of contemporary art in it and there's also very little design and architecture.

So, I knew I needed to produce something that's not in existence yet. I love writing about art and education, but when you work in academia and you write a publication, it usually doesn't get released until twelve months after you've actually written it. Whereas with a blog, it's immediate, and so is the response to it. 

Can you name some materials that are essential to have in our children's arts and crafts toolkit?

 

The interesting thing about different materials is that they can be used in different ways when connected to other artworks and different concepts. For instance, say you take the material of 'light' - you could do an activity related to reflection, shadow or colour-mixing. Generally, I gravitate towards recyclable materials since they're both sustainable and accessible - they can be just things lying around the house and keep in mind many professional artists use random materials that just come their way. So, I've done a lot of work with natural materials, recycled cardboard and paper, light, recycled plastics and paint.

I think it's essential for children to understand that art materials are not just expensive things you buy from the shop, but resources that are all the time around us. Don't spend money on rolls of cellophane that kids use once, and then it's done. If you have a limited budget, think about investing that money into something that can be used over and over again.

How does the dynamic between the parent and the child change/evolve when engaged in experimental, open-ended play?

I see adults as facilitators of children learning, so I think adults hold a vital role in setting up the initial structure and opportunities for playing. Nevertheless, I think it's very important that they take a step back and observe, allowing the kids to play and explore their own interests and curiosities. For example, if you are observing a child when they are playing, you could ask them: 'can you tell me more about what you are doing?' or 'I saw that there are other sticks and stones here, how can we use them in your artwork?'.

 

Let's zoom in on construction play. In your opinion, why are toy blocks such powerful learning tools? How can building exercises, for instance, expand the child's growth beyond spatial reasoning?

Blocks are such a huge part of learning. When you look at Froebel's kindergarten in 1800s Germany, wooden building blocks were one of the first things he put into that space. And all the kindergarten block corners that we see today were essentially influenced by that. I think they are the ultimate open-ended material. When children build, they learn about gravity, measurement and size, shape and space, and they are able to explore all that phenomena altogether.

Blocks are also a material that children can do a lot with at quite a young age since they don't need a lot of technical skill. For instance, drawing can require advanced fine motor skills to get a good product, whereas, with blocks, you can get a pretty good building out of. The Froebel Foundation in London is a great place to start if you want to find out more about how to use and play with blocks. Keep an eye on the Smithsonian Building Museum - they do some fantastic stuff in terms of/on architecture and building workshops for children.

I think blocks are the ultimate open-ended material.

When children build, they learn about gravity, measurement and size, shape and space, and they are able to explore all that phenomena altogether.

Could you tell me more about how the quality of the physical environments/spaces holds the potential to influence how children learn? And how can we as parents, educators, creative practitioners or policymakers build learning into the environment to encourage, stimulate and help young minds thrive?

I have been greatly influenced by the work of Simon Nicholson and his 'theory of loose parts'. The son of two great British artists - Barbara Headworth and Ben Nicholson, he was originally a landscape designer. He wrote the 'theory of loose parts' in relation to architecture and talked about the need to have materials that can be moved around, manipulated and used to construct and destroy. I think that gives us a fundamental understanding of how to make an environment meaningful to kids - it's important to integrate components that they can rearrange and make it meaningful to themselves.

I would also recommend reading the books of Mark Dudek, whose projects are excellent examples of high-quality, early-childhood architecture learning environments. When designing for children, we need to keep them at the forefront of our mind and integrate surfaces and objects that have a particular height, cater to children with different learning abilities - there are so many layers to it.

Can you name three qualities such a space should have?

Flexibility is key in terms of the 'loose parts'. But most importantly, the space also needs to have the ability to integrate the children's voices into it - I'm actually a fan of classrooms that are quite bland when you first walk in - white floors, white walls... the vibrancy and dynamic energy all come from what children create.  I believe the classroom should essentially be a blank canvas, and then it's the children's voices that bring in the colour.

Tables, chairs, windows and the height of artwork should be designed and spatially arranged so that a 3-year-old knows it's for them. Then, when they sit down, they should feel comfortable and think - 'Yes, I belong in this space!'. Art museums are not good at doing that, they're great at catering for adults, and there's a lot of work that can be done there.

Do you have any advice for the parents on how to guide the sensory explorations of their children? Where do we start?

If you think of really good teachers, they don't just do Montessori or Reggio, but they draw from what they need and cater to the needs of their children. It's really important to look at the child first and then, as you research, identify what could work for them. You can extract many ideas from different education theories, but it's key to understand that kids also have specific tastes and interests.

You can do something in the bathtub or on the beach or you can embark on this huge sensory experience such as a family excursion to an art museum or science centre - eventually, all of these experiences start to add up - it's just a matter of trying a lot of different things.

Current perspectives

How do you think the pandemic has impacted play and how can parents help their children overcome the limitations of this period?

Ever since the pandemic started, there's all this talk about having this summer of 'academic catch-up'. Unfortunately, adults tend to forget that kids have had their sensory systems deprived and social interactions limited, so now, more than ever, they need this opportunity to reconnect, regenerate, play and simply be around others. They need to boost their mental and emotional well-being, so I think that now, more than ever, they need those creative opportunities.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on children's learning and development and the truth is that we won't know the extent of its impact for a few years to come. My concern with all this focus on kids having to catch up academically is that we might see bigger issues arise in terms of social, emotional development, and sensory-based learning over time.

Over the past twelve months, many teachers have been able to adapt the academic curriculum to remote academic teaching and have done an incredible job at it. But the social and sensory-based learning has just come to a grinding halt. When we talk about their hierarchy of needs, children need to be feeling that the foundational criteria around emotional well-being have been reinforced so that they can regain their confidence and ability to re-enter the community. So just let these kids have fun again!

... and give children space to recover gradually and process?

I think the arts have always played an important role in coming to understand times of trauma. And we have been through trauma.

While I don't think art is a way to solve really complex psychological issues, I do think that when you make art in response or alignment with that experience, it somehow balances out the energy and helps to facilitate this kind of healing. I think art is a great tool to make sense of it all.

I think the arts have always played an important role in coming to understand times of trauma.

Recent studies indicate that parents have been buying more toys during the pandemic than ever to keep their little ones busy. Do you have any advice on how to choose the right products that could spark a child's long-term interest beyond a passing moment of joy on receiving the gift?

That's a question I get asked a lot by parents.

I think that a bit of 'trucks and dinosaurs' are great in children's lives, but I also think it's important for them to see everyday things around them as creative resources. This is why I've always been so attracted to using recycled and everyday materials. Children should understand that creativity is part of their everyday life and the resources are everywhere; there's no need to wait for someone to buy them for you.

For instance, bringing a basket to your local park and collect some sticks and stones that have fallen on the ground. Or grow a collection of recycled boxes in the laundry room. I love some store-bought tools such as the Make-Do products, Duplo or Lego, and wooden blocks, which by the way, can often be found in charity stores too! In terms of technology-based resources, there are also some really great apps out there - I really like the Osmo games that are nicely open-ended. You want that prolonged engagement with a resource, not just something that will keep kids engaged for 2 minutes.

How has observing and working so closely with children impacted your views and general approach to life? How have they inspired you in your practice?

I am constantly inspired when I'm around children. The honesty, energy and immediate responsiveness are inspiring.

When you work in public education on early childhood education projects, you are exposed to kids that come from the full spectrum of society, and you come to deeply understand the issues around social inequality in all its complexity. Looking at the children experiencing this, we just want to solve it! And while there is no easy solution or answer, we do need to keep working at it and keep partnering with the right people.

I also love designing these play spaces, especially the challenge of not knowing what children will do once they enter the space itself. They often help you see an environment, activity or material in a completely new light. It's not until the children enter it that you realise you forgot something, or the layout can be improved or rearranged. They are an essential part of the creative process.

​I understand you have a book in the pipeline. Could you tell us about it?

After finishing my PhD and starting my job at Harvard, I wanted to write a book for parents on how to cultivate children's creativity using contemporary art. This has been my big pandemic project and it will hopefully be released next year!

The book is a cross between a parenting publication and an art book for kids. The content is structured around eight or nine different materials. Each section discusses how artists have explored these materials and gives suggestions for families to do at home that connect to this. The book also includes tips such as how to use questions to support creativity, how to engage kids and information about different places in your local community where you can go for family excursions. I am writing the book with children between eighteen months to 8-9 years old in mind.

All the activities in the book are designed so that kids of different ages can do them together - I think that's how families learn, as one big group. School separates kids out into age groups but family learning has a very different dynamic.

Following our talk, Louisa was kind enough to share a selection of resources to guide and help us make the most of the time spent with our children. Have a look and get inspired!

 

  • Keep an eye on:

The Froebel Foundation in London


Smithsonian Building Museum

Tate Learning: Vision and Practice