Pencil Drawing: An artistic response to multidisciplinary research into children’s movement at a playgroup

Post by Rachael Hand, Artist

The art installation Pencil Drawing was made as an expression of my collaboration with the ethnographer Abi Hackett and the epidemiologist Pete Dodd in the University of Sheffield as part of the Crucible project Kindergarten Safari, studying children’s movement in a playgroup. It is a three dimensional, tangible object, made in response to a study in which objects and touch were vital elements.

At first glance Pencil Drawing looks like a child’s play-table. It is narrow and low, with bright blue sides and chunky wooden legs. Drawing closer, a clattering noise becomes audible, followed by a pause, and then further rattling. Looking at the surface of the table, the noises are revealed to be the sound track to a video, visible in the table top. Life-size, vividly coloured pencils are repeatedly flung down, as though onto the table, left untouched for a few seconds, and cleared away. The surface oscillates between being an empty white tabletop, a screen playing a video, and a light-box showing a still composition.

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Exploring the space between research methodologies

The aim in creating the artwork was to materialize the concepts of our project, bridging the gaps between methodologies, and unsettling preconceptions. This was quite a challenge as three of us came from very different disciplines, brought together by our common interest in movement: Abi’s interest being in the children’s movement as meaning-making, Pete’s in mathematical models of contact patterns and infectious disease transmission, and mine in visualizing ephemeral, everyday experiences through drawing, film and photography.

The first visual material we produced together was a postcard for an event where possible Crucible projects vied for supporting votes from members of the public. The card included three visual references that influenced my thinking right up until the creation of the final piece:

Top right: A diagram from Pete showing contact patterns

Top left: Taken on a morning Abi and I had spent with some children at the Winter Gardens, photographing wet footprints as traces of their movements.

Bottom left: A ‘walking map’ created by Abi to visualize one child’s movement through a museum, making a drawing in space and time.

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Once funding was confirmed for ‘Kindergarten Safari’ Abi, Pete and I used a variety of strategies and techniques as we worked together. Conversations between all three collaborators were crucial, as collectively and separately we read, wrote, made ethnographic observations, experimented with imaging techniques, and made drawings, films, photographs and books.

As the project progressed, it became apparent that our relationships to the visual material we were producing were complex and multi-layered. On one level, we were experimenting with novel ways of collecting data. On another, I was continuing my usual creative practice, collecting material, both visual and theoretical, to inform the making of a ‘final piece’ of artwork.

It gradually emerged, however, that we were also exploring the differences between methodological approaches, which I started to see as being embodied in the physical artifacts we produced. This included the final artwork, the thinking process behind which will be the focus of this piece of writing.

Contact with the Playgroup

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In the Spring of 2015, Abi, Pete 
and I started our research in the playgroup, which catered mainly for under-two year olds. The group had a friendly atmosphere, with music playing, and the room was set out each week with four distinct areas: a quiet corner, a snack table, a soft play area, and a craft table. The sessions were also structured in time, with a snack served roughly half way through and nursery rhymes sung at the end.

The children’s movements were rapid, complex, and challenging to record and interpret. They had little direct contact with one another, 
but spent a lot of time in contact with objects and surfaces. This was a particularly interesting observation as it disrupted the focus on person to person contact represented in the contact models that Pete usually works with. We therefore started taking photographs of the objects, and thinking about the different ways the children interacted with them. We also started to ask ourselves what we meant by a ‘contact’. Which part of the body? Onto what type of surface? For how long? What had started as a simple binary became much harder to quantify.Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 09.50.30.png

As I attended to the children’s tactile engagement with their environment, I started to see their actions as purposeful investigations into the world around them. Items such as food, toys or crayons might be sucked, squished, carried from place to place, arranged next to each other, put inside another object, or built into a stack and knocked down. The soft play area was particularly busy, with children scrambling up and down the big blocks and in and out of the tunnel.

I also tuned into relationships between the children’s movement, touch, and sound. In the ‘quiet area’ there was a set of naturally resonant, hollow building blocks. The children would bang on these with various toys, amplifying the noise. 
A great clattering was also made by the impromptu game of flinging dried pasta or pencil crayons from the craft table onto the floor, and tidying them away again. At nursery rhyme time soft toys such as Incy Wincy Spider were pulled from a bag, and then the appropriate rhyme sung, with accompanying actions.

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At singing time, the relationship between sound, motion, touch, and the children’s language development was clear to see. I began to sense, however, that the children were also deliberately ‘sounding out’ their surroundings in the free play time, and that the touch of vibrating air on the skin of the ear-drum was intimately connected to the touch of objects against other parts of their bodies’ surface. By chance, on a visit to Tate Liverpool, I heard a small child calling out to test the echo of a large, hard- surfaced gallery – and felt a twinge of regret when they were ‘shushed’ by the adults.

My thinking about sound and
 touch was influenced by attending an exhibition and conference on ‘Listening’ organized by the Site Gallery in Sheffield. This had an emphasis on listening as an active activity with spatial, temporal and tactile qualities. I also read Chris Athey’s book about children’s learning ‘schemas’, from which I took the notion that the traces created by children’s movements create sensory feedback, which connects those movements with the resulting patterns, allowing both the movement and its external result to be repeated and refined.

Abi had begun working with post human theories, which are interest- ed in de-centring people, and focus instead on what arises in between people and the material world. Abi’s book Children’s Spatialities (4) is about the role of place in what children do and how they decide to communicate, both verbally and non verbally. Abi has written an article arguing that movement is part of children’s communication (1), and Kuby et al, have written an article arguing that intra acting with materials is literacy (5).

At this point, there were so many abstract ideas in my head that I needed to give them material form so I could hold onto them, and then handle and develop them. As a start, I put together a montage of ‘things we have made’, so I could see where we had been.

Creating the Artwork: thinking through things and thinking things through

At the end of our visits to the playgroup we created a short book summarizing our observations, to present to the community as part of our feedback to them. To illustrate the book I took some photographs, and, as I poured pasta out onto a table in my studio, I heard once again what a fabulous noise it made. This vividly evoked early childhood for me – the rattle of Lego blocks being tipped onto the oor having been a repeated soundtrack. The coloured pencils made a similar noise, and also a strong visual composition.

Handling the children’s playthings for myself gave me a connection that observation alone had not. Without making a conscious decision, I suddenly knew I was going to make a film of things falling onto a surface, the soundtrack of which would be
a vital element. Soon after filming, I was asked to present a rough cut at a University event. Having to come up with a working title, Pencil Drawing, forced me to articulate and make explicit an idea that until then had been hovering at the back of my mind:.

Presented with a set of colouring pencils, rather than making marks on paper, the children had sometimes chosen to walk o with them, or ing them at the table or oor. I did not see this as ‘naughtiness’, but rather the children making drawings with their bodies, or with the composition of the fallen pencils.

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In this, I was influenced by Abi’s previous research (1) and memories of the morning she and I had spent with children making wet footprints in the Winter Gardens. One little girl in particular had shown me how, for her, drawing was as much about action as trace, when she showed me how to draw bunny hops, by hopping like a bunny:

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For children, painting and drawing are as much verb as noun.

With this theme now explicit, I re-edited the film, freezing each arrangement of fallen pencils for a few seconds. This non-naturalistic editorial disruption to the original timing was intended to emphasize the status of the children’s transient compositions as artworks in their own right.

Possible readings of the work

When Pete and Abi first encountered the completed work, they reacted
in di ffrent ways. Pete’s immediate reaction was to physical aspects of the work; the convincing illusion that the screen is just an empty table when it is blank, the contrasting colours. He then went on to watch the film: the moving images reminded him of the complexity of movement of children in the study, and the stills of contact pattern diagrams. Abi’s attention was drawn straight to the film. Her interpretation employed a linguistic metaphor, describing the pouring of the pencils as a ‘tipping point’ whereby children start to take control of their surroundings. This also reminded her of our morning at the Winter Gardens, when what had started as being controlled by the adults (wet sponges decorously applied to the soles of shoes) had ended with the children setting the agenda (playing in the fountains outside, and show- ing us how to do footprint paintings, their way).

Talking about the artwork with my collaborators helped me to gain new insights. The contrasts within the work could be read as an embodiment of the differences between our three disciplines. The small field of view and heavy frame around the film were deliberately intended as references to the tight framing of a scientific question, but why the jarring elements of the artificial pause, and the hands pouring the pencils being those of an adult? (I could have made the film with the pouring hands off camera, and only those clearing away being visible).

I was aware that the use of moving image was potentially problematic: for someone like Pete, working in a quantitative discipline, video’s role is as evidence. In contrast, within ethnographic methodology, a piece of footage is more of an aide-memoir; a fragment to be gathered up with others to paint a much larger picture. I had intended the constructed nature of the images as a distancing device, to prevent any interpretation of the film as ‘data’ – the hands of the artist are literally visible, creating the work. However, on being pushed to offer an explanation, I realized there was an alternative narrative. We encountered an unexpected development at the playgroup when many of the families with whom we were familiar left to take up free nursery places being offered to two year olds. Fortunately, by this stage we had made the planned number of visits, but having been immersed in the richness of the children’s play at the group, I felt frustrated that this would not continue. The absence of children from the film and the underlining of their creativity could be read as a plea to let them play.


In offering these attempts at pinning down meaning, I have grappled with the relationship between verbal and non-verbal ways of thinking. In answer to the original brief, Pencil Drawing is neither a map, a diagram nor an illustration, but a contemporary artwork. In response to the contextual, ephemeral, non-verbal meaning–making in the children’s play, I offer an object which ‘speaks’ non-verbally in a way that is open to interpretation and creation by the viewer, in the time and context in which they engage with it. Without the gloss provided by this article, the propositional thinking that informed the artwork is likely not to be apparent to the viewer. Likewise, an observer might not see children’s play as meaningful or literate, until provided with writings by authors such as Abi Hackett (1) or Candace Kuby (5). This relationship with an expository text should not, however, deny the reality or richness of the original non-verbal experience.

I posit that Pencil Drawing therefore offers both an evocative fragment of experience and also, by its very nature as an artwork, an exemplar of the slippery nature of non-verbal communication.

I would like to thank my collaborators, Abi Hackett and Pete Dodd for their generosity both during the ‘Safari’ and in commenting on this writing.

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  1. Hackett, A, (2014) Zigging and zooming all over the place: young children’s meaning making and movement in the museum. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 14 (1): 5-27.
  2. Site Gallery (25 April, 2015) The Listening Body, Conference held in Sheffeld.
  3. Athey, C. (2007) Extending Thought in Young Children, A Parent-Teacher Part-nership, Second Edition, Sage, London.
  4. Hackett, A, Procter, L and Seymour J (eds) (2015) Children’s Spatialities.Embodiment, Emotion and Agency, Palgrave, London.
  5. Kuby, C. R. Gutshall Rucker, T. & Kirchhofer, J. M. (2015) ‘Go Be a Writer!’: Intraactivity with materials, time and space in literacy learning. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 15 (3), 394-419.

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