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Artscapers: People of all ages being and becoming creative 

A sustained arts-in-nature and place-making programme in Cambridgeshire

Artscapers discover their new neighbourhood. Credit: Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination

This case study tells the story of a place-making arts project connecting with primary and secondary schools to place children in the role of researchers in the community. Written and led by Cambridge Curiosity & Imagination.

This is one of 25 case studies highlighting the value of arts in schools and education settings, curated by arts education researcher Sarah B Davies. The suite of case studies illustrates the research The Arts In Schools: Foundations for the Future, by Pauline Tambling and Sally Bacon, due to be published in 2023.

About the project

Artscaping is the practice of artist-led exploration and creation in nature developed by Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination (CCI). The practice was initially shared in 2016, inviting primary school children and teachers to explore the site of a new neighbourhood as archaeologists, artists, builders, and botanists. Contemporary Art Society and Insite Arts commissioned CCI to develop an art-in-education programme with funding from the University of Cambridge NW Development Company. CCI named this programme Artscapers and invited children from 3 nearby primary schools to creatively respond to and engage with their rapidly changing landscapes.

Driven by the enthusiastic response from schools, Artscapers has become a standalone place-making initiative that continues to foster curious and critical thinking about what lies outside our doors. CCI extends Artscaping invitations, often in the form of commissions from partners, to explore and create in nature to both primary and secondary schools in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Their innovative partnerships include: mental health organisations such as the Fullscope Consortium and the Cambridge Acorn Project; developers like TOWN and U+I;, and continuing research collaborations with universities including Cambridge, Anglia Ruskin, GoldsmithsBath Spa, and University College London. Most recently, Artscaping has been supported by a unique joint fund from the Medical Research Council, Arts and Humanities Research Council and Natural Environmental Research Council working together for the first time through the National Centre for Creative Health. Schools remain at the heart of every partnership.

Over time and through careful reflection and documentation, CCI has established the value and purpose of Artscaping for schools seeking to support all children and their wider communities. Today Artscaping can be experienced through a range of activities including school-based workshops, accessible printable resourcesevents in the local community, exhibitions, staff and volunteer professional development and family days.

What worked well

Artscaping creates opportunities for children and young people to go out, meet the outside in new ways and then imagine, build, design and redesign together. Guidance and careful support from artists ensure Artscapers can explore and develop their own attentive and imaginative responses to local landscapes. The artists share carefully calibrated materials and model a different way of being. As described by artist Filipa Pereira-Stubbs:

“It is never enough to wander in wonderment, there needs to be clear steps to help ‘see’ and help become immersed in the work – to help ‘be’. Far from a prescriptive and narrowing use of imagination, much thought and work goes into developing paths of exploration that will help the children develop their innate ability to fathom and develop multiple perspectives on the world around them.”

The experience supports the whole child and helps children and their communities renew their relationships to their environment and each other.

The investment in time to develop Artscaper paths of exploration leads to a rich variety of place-responsive outcomes and achievements. Recent examples include a giant paper sculpture co-created in one day by over 300 children; a Museum of the Wild and the Wonder, curating found treasures from landscapes in and around the University of Cambridge Primary School; and a commission from developers TOWN and U+I that funded Artscapers to explore and share their ideas about place and then re-imagine the future.

Artscaping offers powerful long term learning for all involved. Children and young people experience a sense of freedom, independence and ownership when Artscaping, as captured in a conversation between three Artscapers:

“[Usually] we always have to copy someone else’s idea and get our work to look like theirs.”

“When you’re an Artscaper, you use your own idea and then show it to others.”

“Actually, you show it to yourself too, because it helps you to sort out what your own brain is telling you.”

Teachers and school leaders notice a deep attentiveness, ease and calm that settles over children in the less overtly structured, more open-ended learning environment. Educators learn new ways to use outdoor spaces in and around their schools – and rediscover the crucial value of having time and space to observe and listen to children:

“This is different – a joint thing; everybody’s experience is valued… children have learnt loads about themselves and working with friends, but it hasn’t felt like school and teachers haven’t felt like it’s teaching.” – Paula, Head teacher

Artists develop their commitment to co-creation and are inspired by their time with children and young people:

“I arrived every day excited and ready for a new adventure and came away stimulated, humbled and enthralled at the imagination and originality of the children – their farsighted vision for a future, their imagery and ability to embrace creative thinking, take risks and push their own boundaries.” – Susanne Jasilek, artist

Artscaping nourishes a connection to nature that grounds children and adults in their own worlds. It offers a more holistic approach to learning and wellbeing rooted in the cultivation of a reciprocal relationship to one’s environment.

What was challenging

A key challenge for the programme is the erosion of the value of the arts and creative partnerships in schools. In the current climate of continued austerity, performance and data driven metrics, CCI is offering a different way of being and learning that many teachers have not yet encountered in their training. As a result, CCI adapts to the unique needs of each school and often offers teachers time to be Artscapers themselves. Deep ongoing relationships with school leaders, funding partners and research collaborators are crucial to making Artscaping accessible for everyone.

One way to give more children and young people the opportunity to be Artscapers is by advocating for the value of the practice. By bringing the story of Artscaping to wider audiences, and communicating its impact through a range of channels, new partnerships are being created and existing collaborations strengthened. Artscapers themselves have advocated for greater creative freedom in their learning during two All-Parliamentary Group meetings for colleagues at Westminster. They have also shared their thoughts on play, nature, and public space at an exhibition to developers, architects and city planners. Whether planning cities, parks or curriculums, communities need to develop sustainable relationships with their environment – as Frances Wright of TOWN developers says, “Children and young people are often so much better than adults at imagining a different future”.

What can others learn?

The Artscaping journey began by thinking about one particular space and how children and artists can help to create a sense of community there, both now and for the future. Since then, the programme has been nurtured by the formidable arc of partnerships involved over seven years. Sustained relationships to time, place and others has made Artscapers a transformative experience. One school has even been inspired to reshape their curriculum and commit to a year-round, non-negotiable half-day of outdoor learning each week for every child.

CCI is now focusing on three core questions: how can Artscaping be introduced to new schools; who else can facilitate the process; how can we all be Artscapers? In response, a research project called Branching Out was awarded funding from UKRI and Lottery funds through Fullscope to bring together CCI, the Cambridge Acorn Project and Fullscope with academic partners at University College London and Anglia Ruskin University. A pilot scheme is training teachers, teaching assistants and volunteers to deliver elements of Artscaping in 6 primary schools in the county. To support the trainees, CCI has created a Companionship Compass to share key directions and bearings that help Artscapers find their way together. The Compass captures lessons learnt and key prompts that we can all use when we work with each other in our communities. Fullscope has adopted this as their manifesto for creative co-creation.

Ultimately, Artscaping is about learning to care for – and take care of – ourselves, our communities, and our natural worlds, from the ground to the sky. As CCI’s patron Robert Macfarlane has said, “We find it hard to love what we can’t give a name to and what we do not love, we will not save.” Carefully curated creative pedagogies enable young people to be active citizens, participating locally and globally in all aspects of their future and speculating together about the future of their community and environment. Never has it been more essential to equip children with the possibility of being active in their own environments, of experimenting, of taking risks and of being imaginative so that they can ‘look at things as if they could be otherwise’ (Dewey 1910, p. 19). Never has it been so important for us all to be Artscapers.