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Learning through play

Hannah Coxeter and David Allistone run Exploring Senses, a Community Interest Company dedicated to play-based learning. Based in Brighton, Hannah and David run ‘toy hacking’ workshops with groups ranging from pre-school age to post-pension, helping people from different backgrounds reep the emotional and motivational benefits of making things. I caught up with them at their studio at BACA Falmer for a chat about creativity and the curriculum.


Excuse the expression, but what’s your Exploring Senses elevator pitch?

DA The two straplines we have are ‘we embrace optimism through creativity’ and ‘we believe happy people make positive actions’.

So how does happiness connect to making stuff?

DA Play! Playful learning. I guess in parallel to school, we’re completely the opposite. We’re like: here are some materials; here are some tools; this is roughly what you might do, and everyone does what they want. There are no rules, it’s more of a process.

Do you find that sometimes backfires? I’ve done a tiny bit of teaching and I found that, occasionally, when you give students a broad brief, they’re so used to the kind of linear academic way of doing stuff that they don’t know where to begin.

HC I think, because of the nature of the materials, firstly there’s the sense of re-use, these things were going to get thrown away, so people aren’t as precious. But I think also, especially when using toys, there’s something nostalgic about it. People instantly get quite playful. Toys tend to bring out reminiscences from when you were younger, and people relax.

DA You’re using different parts of your brain as well… Given paper and pen, a lot of people freeze… Not everyone is into drawing, but people think with their hands. It is in that association with objects. All of these objects we’re not unfamiliar with, so you’ve already got something to start with, and the fact that you have an abundance: you have a hacksaw, you’re allowed to cut things up, be a bit subversive… It’s about being allowed to be destructive to be creative, learning that you can break something to make something, because these are playful objects anyway. The outcomes are always different, always unique, and when people make something, you’ll see their identity. I guarantee you.

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Does what you do just happen to fit into the area of ‘kinesthetic learning’ or has it been a conscious decision for you to fill that gap?

HC I think there’s definitely a value in process.

DA Process is more important.

HC Because we’ve come from being makers… we have spent a lot of time doing these processes, and we really value that connection.

DA Also, these weren’t actually processes that were being encouraged [at school]. It was always about drawing. [Exploring Senses] was really a bit of a rebellion against it all having to start from a drawing. That’s not the only way, we’ve found that lots of people – illustrators, graphic designers, loads of artists, don’t do that. When I was at uni and I tried to bring objects in to make moulds out of them I was advised not to. Eek, I should have done it!

I asked the question at a photography event, ‘do any of you draw?’ and the panel almost unianimously said ‘no!’. It’s surprising how many visual people don’t actually draw, or maybe our definition of drawing is too narrow.

DA Yeah. Especially when you’re trying to get people to be creative. I mean, a lot of people at school have problems, because [Art and Technology] is quite a narrow subject at school … if you’re not that [accepted] kind of artist, maybe you feel like you’re not an artist, you don’t have that ability.

HC Yeah, we definitely hear that from a lot of teenagers, ‘I’m into Manga but they said that’s not a valid art form’.

So students carry that insecurity.

DA Yeah, of course, and then it manifests. Perhaps they miss a jump point. What we’re targeting is really the jump points. Somebody said to me a happy eight-year-old is a happy adult and that’s true. You don’t have confidence at eight, it’s a really fragile age, it’s when you’re starting to make your own decisions and I think that’s why it’s important that people still play. There is a point where teenagers sometimes think it’s a bit childish, then they do it and they decide it’s not. It’s about bridging that, stopping that fear of having to grow up too quick, being creative and playing, it’s really important.

HC It is interesting, with the different groups that we do it with, some people come in and just go ‘yeah!’ and others are like, ‘what will other people think?’. When they get started they think it is really fun, but there’s also an inhibition. You’re so worried about what everyone else thinks, that’s what your focus is: trying to look cool. But actually, people realise, when they let go, that they’re having fun and none of that actually matters because you’re in a process and having a laugh and creating funny things.

DA If you really want to talk about something that means something, firstly, you need to be entertained… I guarantee we could probably talk about the most serious things that people don’t want to talk about within five minutes, because a. people are having fun; b. they’re dropping their guard down and c. it’s the time to solve problems… That’s why we believe happy people make positive actions.

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I read an article in the New York Times recently about design thinking and how it can help you solve psychological problems. A lot of the comments underneath are like ‘oh shut up, you’ve just rebranded it, this is what we’ve been doing forever and ever’. But maybe it does help to be consciously creative, in terms of helping people problem solve in their lives as well.

DA It does, when you’re all together and doing things with people in a communal process.

HC If you connect through a shared experience, that enables people to relax… I was thinking about this earlier. You say to people, go and play, and it’s always like, as an adult, I’m not allowed, it’s not considered a valid thing to do. “Oh gosh, when would I get time to play?” Unless you start to call it recreation, which is horrible, what do we consider ‘play’? Hobbies? We try to formalise play, and I think that’s why we try, instead, to create a playful space.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done?

DA Jousting on bikes was quite funny, cringey but funny, in cardboard outfits…

HC We were inspired by Fluxus.

DA Yeah, we were looking at the Fluxus stuff… the idea of ‘the unplayable’, so we created a series of events and got people to make outfits, trying to make games unplayable… One that really worked was jousting on space hoppers with swim needles. It was really funny. That’s probably the most ludicrous thing.

I’ve read about people in the States doing similar things with play-based learning. How does the UK measure up internationally, and do you look to other countries for inspiration?

HC Caine’s Arcade was a big thing… There are big maker events in America, but a lot of our connections have come from stuff David has done in Berlin. There is stuff going on here but it doesn’t feel…

DA It’s not valued as much. The arts world is a bit frosty in England, I think, let’s be honest.

HC …and there are barriers with the use of space.

DA There’s a space in Eindhoven which is just amazing. Basically, the UK is about five years behind mainland Europe. We’re always flagging because of our Englishness, which we can’t shrug off.

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You mean although we’re renowned for our sense of humour, we’re maybe lacking in fun?

DA I wouldn’t say we’re lacking in fun, I think we’re lacking in making things happen. American people are different, they’re like, we can do it.

I wonder whether that suggests that the type of education they get in the States is more open-ended?

DA Well [the USA] has STEAM for starters: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths. In England we have STEM, so we don’t include the arts. In Europe there’s an initiative called STARTS, Science, Technology and Arts… You put artists in the mix and bang, there’s an explosion of ideas. It’s about trying to triangulate the technologists and the artists to create more applications, that’s really important.

Creativity is not the centre of the curriculum here… the Conservatives just don’t understand creativity, they just don’t get it, there’s no magic. It’s like having a lightbulb in the room and not turning it on, full of people stood in the dark. Maybe if we turned the switch on they could all see each other, but everyone’s happy just standing there.

HC There’s a secondary school in Rye where the head teacher has forced art to be a bigger part of the curriculum, based on some findings on how it impacts on other subjects, how being creative allows you to problem solve. By keeping the art in, the other results have gone up… It’s a solid fact that it’s all part of a bigger equation, all of these things need each other in order to work better.

Art is a way of contextualising all sorts of different subjects.

DA But it’s so hard to measure! That’s the problem: everyone wants to measure everything. You can’t measure creativity, it’s impossible; it’s sometimes there and it’s sometimes not. It’s not like a running baseline of ‘I know the answer to that equation’. It’s not as simple as that. Scientists and artists are very closely linked. We’re open-ended, we might think that there’s a theory or a hypothesis that we can prove, but we can almost guarantee that what we think is going to happen will change.

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Do you feel optimistic about the next five or ten years?

DA You’ve got to be haven’t you? You can’t not be. It’s proven that when things are depressed, everyone starts to be more creative anyway. Either way, it’s going to happen. Maybe it’s better that we are having a struggle, because out of struggle comes good things.

HC I also think, the more organisations and different places we partner with, you see within these spaces there are radical people who are like ‘yes, we totally value it’.

DA If people are saying creativity shouldn’t be in [the curriculum], it’s basically because they’re ill-informed. They don’t understand it. You can’t blame them because they’re a product of their environment as well… There’s the idea that if you’re really familiar with the classics then you know art. How about we just tear that up and start again? It’s the future that matters, not the past.

Yeah, it’s a bit back-to-front. Art History is valuable, but it’s probably better for more mature students, whereas commonly you start off by doing this kind of copying by wrote at a time when students can’t see the purpose of it.

HC It’s weird because you go into different secondary schools and they’re doing the same, ‘we’re focusing on pointillism’ and everyone’s sketchbook is the same. You feel like we’ve moved forward, but it’s the same. Young people are saying they want to look at this and that, but then they’re told it’s not valid.

DA Everything is really upside down… If I go out and I’m looking for that thing that I need to complete me, I’m not going to find it… it’s the same as saying to a child, ‘we’re going to prepare you for work, you’re going to get that job and you must do this and that to fit into a narrow gap’. It’s probably not going to work for the majority of people and it doesn’t.

If the emphasis was on going out there just doing stuff, then actually, if you’re interested in something then you’re going to learn about it, because you’re interested. Simple as that… I think everything has to be about education. It’s so much of value. It’s not about going and getting a job. If we were focusing on training people, getting them to be the best that they can be with their skills, natural hobbies and interests, then we’d have an amazing workforce, because everyone would be doing what they want to do… It’s a harder process, harder to measure, but I guarantee over a twenty year window you’d see a massive transformation in society.

Photographs of Exploring Senses ‘Toy Hacking’ workshop at Spark Festival, Sept 2015


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An edited version of this interview was published in Viva Brighton, Feb 2016

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