Enabling Environments - Visits & Visitors: Part 6 - Art of discovery

Tessa Fenoughty
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The surprising delights of visiting an outdoor exhibition and creating art from the inspiration back at nursery are explored by Tessa Fenoughty.

Spending the day at an exhibition of contemporary sculptures may not be the obvious choice for an annual summer outing for three-, fourand five-year-olds. But for the past two years we have enjoyed taking the children from our Foundation Stage Unit on a very successful trip to Newby Hall near Ripon, North Yorkshire, to visit the outdoor sculpture exhibition.


Like many stately homes, Newby Hall has had to diversify and offer visitors a range of attractions. So, each year it commissions a number of artists to create and install large-scale and small-scale pieces of contemporary art in its extensive grounds.

The sculptures are created from a range of materials, such as twisted metal, wood, chicken wire, willow withies, glass, ceramics and plastic. They are cleverly positioned along a circular woodland walk, and it is clear that several artists draw their inspiration from the immediate surroundings to create unusual and abstract pieces of art.

Some pieces are instantly recognisable, such as enormous metal dandelion clocks and willow woven birds' nests suspended high up in the trees. Other pieces require more reflective interpretation.


Strolling through the woodland in small groups, sculptures emerge from the trees and undergrowth. Children rush up to them, ahead of the accompanying adults, eager to make their personal discovery, to catch the first glimpse and to wonder and speculate at their forms.

Although each sculpture has a title and explanatory note provided by the artist, during our visits we preferred to encourage the children to create their own stories and interpretations. 'I wonder what this could be ...?' or 'Where did it come from ...?' is often enough of a prompt for the children to offer their ideas and theories.

At the start of the walk, some of our parent volunteers began reading out the labels to the children and explaining what materials were used in the construction, until we explained that the aim of the trip was to encourage curiosity and creativity through first-hand investigation. As Carlina Rinaldi of Reggio Children says, 'the potential of children is stunted when the endpoint of their learning is formulated in advance.'

Each group had a digital camera, clipboards and pencils so they could photograph and sketch their favourite sculptures, as well as jot down notes. We were planning to create our own sculptures on return to school, so having a record of what we had seen was part of the experience.

On returning to school, the children used their sketches and photographs taken on the trip as a stimulus to create their own artwork. Over the following weeks the sculptures gradually evolved until we had enough items to hold our own outdoor exhibition, and put them on display to parents during our end-of-year Teddy Bears' Picnic.


Sometimes we underestimate children's capacity for wonderment. On receiving information about the trip, some of our parents were initially sceptical about its suitability. 'It doesn't sound much like fun - wouldn't they be better off going to Flamingo World on the rides?' one mother remarked. But children do not need the rides, TV characters and manufactured plastic fun that prevails at children's theme parks. Their imaginations and ideas are fresh, uninhibited and honest and even the ordinary everyday things can spark off spontaneous joy and excitement in every child. It only requires sensitive adult support to draw out their amazing ideas.

When parents see their own child's sculpture and the level of creativity achieved, it takes little effort to convince them of the value of the trip. Indeed, one parent last year reported to us that over the summer holidays they took their whole family back to the sculptures at Newby Hall, with their four-year-old acting as tour guide!



Throughout this series on Visits and Visitors, many readers might have noticed that the Learning Outcomes section has grown with each article! To be honest, when each of these visits or visitors is being planned, I have one eye on the learning intentions. We generally wait to see what happens and only after the event do we feel that we are in a position to identify the real learning that has taken place.

Children know what they need to learn. If we trust their instincts and really take time to notice what interests them, and provide appropriate opportunities for them, the learning follows effortlessly. We have run this trip twice now, and both times we have seen how the same trip and subsequent artwork project can have different learning outcomes.

Personal, social and emotional development

  • - Developing increased confidence in linking up with others as they explore and investigate the sculptures
  • - Expressing feelings about which sculptures they prefer and why
  • - Enjoying being with and talking to adults and other children
  • - Adapting their behaviour to being in a new situation and a change of routine
  • - Operating independently within the new environment and using their own initiative to discover sculptures located along the woodland trail

Communication, language and literacy

  • - Using a widening range of words to describe the sculptures' materials, such as ceramic, metal, withies, chicken wire, nuts and bolts
  • - Interacting with others, speaking clearly and audibly with confidence
  • - Using talk to organise, sequence and clarify thinking, ideas and feelings about the sculptures
  • - Writing for different purposes, such as brief notes to accompany sketches

Problem-solving, reasoning and numeracy

  • - Noticing shapes and patterns
  • - Beginning to use mathematical names for solid 3D shapes and flat 2D shapes
  • - Using everyday words to describe position, such as 'We can climb into this sculpture!'
  • - Developing mathematical ideas to solve practical problems such as 'they build the stones up so high because it's big at the bottom and little at the top - I can't reach the top!'

Knowledge and understanding of the world

  • - Investigating objects and materials used to make sculptures
  • - Looking closely at similarities, differences, patterns and changes
  • - Constructing their own sculptures and selecting appropriate tools and techniques to shape, assemble and join materials they are using
  • - Finding out about their environment and talking about those features they like and dislike

Physical development

  • - Using a range of equipment such as digital cameras to photograph sculptures; construction of own sculptures using a range of material such as modroc or papier mache
  • - Walking around woodland trails to visit all sculptures, about a mile in total length

Creative development

  • - Talking about their own sculptures and how they are going to construct them
  • - Communicating their ideas, feelings and thoughts by using a wide range of materials and suitable tools to construct their own sculptures
  • - Exploring colour, texture, shape, form and space in two and three dimensions
  • - Using their own imaginations to explain the artists' sculptures
  • - Drawing their ideas and inspiration from their environment.

Tessa Fenoughty is foundation stage teacher at Middleton-in-Teesdale Primary School, Co Durham


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