Playing with Art & Architecture


By Helen Barry

Playing with Art and Architecture was a new six-week contemporary visual art course for children within Project 20/20. This was a new partnership with the Centre of Talented Youth in Dublin City University. The course focused on offering a practical hands-on approach to exploring contemporary art but it also aimed to build-on the childrens visual literacy skills and to increase their confidence in talking about and discussing contemporary art. The 16 children, all in 5thclass were nominated from 8 DEIS schools in the Dublin1 area.

Prior to facilitating this course I had just completed Visual Thinking Strategies training with DCC Arts Office and The LAB Gallery. I was eager to integrate this with the making aspect of the sessions. Visual Think Strategies (VTS) is a methodology that invites the viewer, children and adults to explore artworks through a line of questioning that is based on their own experience and understanding; they become much more invested this way than by being given facts, figures, context and history by someone else. It shows children that they have the means and the where-with-all to interpret art themselves thus demystifying the gallery experience. This approach works in sync with my approach to working in collaboration with children an intrinsic part of my own practice.

Session One – ‘Watching the Dynamic’

Playing with Art and Architecture was primarily based in DCU itself but the first and last sessions were held DCC Arts Office on Foley Street. I was aware that for many of the children that this would be their first experience of a contemporary art gallery. Session One would be a first on many levels. It would be the first time that the 5th class children would meet each other and the first time that I would meet them.

Capturing the character

The session started in The LAB Gallery’s larger exhibition space on the ground floor with the focus on a practical activity within the space. Using the large windows as their canvas I gave the children clear directions as to what they were required to do allowing the exhibition to be stumbled across almost accidently. Leaving the exhibition in the background allowed the children to look at the work in their own time. I hoped its content would evoke the children to ask questions or make comments about the work. So Through The Singing Land He Passed, Sabina Mac Mahon, was the exhibition installed in the gallery in April and it was both intriguing yet perplexing and I was unsure of how and what the children would make of it.

As the children drew portraits of each other through the glass panes their laughter echoed throughout the space. Not the giggles and sniggers brought about by the classical nude sculptures of museums but roars of laughter fell about. This was the first time I had attempted this particular approach to portraits. We all learnt a little about looking, perspective and drawing but the most successful elements was the laughter. It was at that moment I noticed how the presence of laughter is to set the group at ease allowing the children to take in what they were surrounded by.

As directed by the VTS approach the children were invited to look at the work and they were encouraged to ask questions if they had any. As the children drew they explored the work asking many questions and offering comments. These I responded to on a one-to-one or smaller group basis. One of the children wondered whether one of the pieces of work was finished and whether it was or wasn’t why do galleries only show finished work? She had a point I have been wondering on this question since?

We looked briefly at John Beattie, curated by Sheena Barrett and Donal Maguire the second exhibition in The LAB Gallery. The dynamic of the group was eager and open and here again the children looked and asked many questions. This show used slide projectors of the old fashioned type rather than digital technology. An element of what the children saw was an artist’s use of small sketchbooks to record the artist’s daily observations. It was these two particular elements that we worked with, integrating these ideas onto the portraits we took upstairs with us. They worked quickly and eagerly as I observed their dynamic and listened to their chat until it was time for the children to go back into the rain with new sketchbooks in hand and enthusiasm and intrigue in their minds.

The childrens drawing skills were at a strong level and many were interested in drawing emojis, cartoons and fantasy. My plan was to introduce thinking and building in 3D, using ourselves and the buildings in DCU as our starting point. Based on the strength of questions asked by the children throughout this session I felt confident that the children would be able for and enjoy this task.

Session Two – ‘Rethinking’

My collaborative work with children is an intrinsic part of my practice. Where possible the children and I set the direction and content of what we would do together as the sessions progress. For Playing with Art and Architecture I had designed the course prior to meeting with the children. Architecture and space would create a focus point and we would work on scale, constructing both on a miniature scale and on a very large scale the latter would demand that the children would work together possibly creating two large pieces of work. Session Two allowed me to pitch my ideas to the children and to figure the logistics of the space we were be working in.


As with all groups of children embarking on a new course the participants may change a few times, Session Two offered a few new faces. We started with a couple of simple drawing exercises, self-portraits on a reflective surface and life size body mark making on a 8metre roll of paper placed on the floor. From here we took the 2D nature of the drawing to 3D. Using tape, string and our bodies we connected together creating forms and shapes. Initially we worked as one group but we divided into three smaller groups. Some of the children seemed to be quite self-conscious as we drew awareness to the body. At this point I asked the children to come out of the pieces and find other anchor points within the room to build their sculpture pieces, shortening this activity. On reflection the concept of this activity was perhaps too abstract and quite challenging for the children to grasp for a second session.

Unfortunately the technology on the day failed us and we were unable to look at the digital images of 3 contemporary art works I had brought with me. Instead we discussed my ideas and their ideas for the course. The children were particularly interested in learning how to build the 3D structures that I had suggested, on their own and not in groups. The children also wanted to expand their knowledge of and skill level in the drawing styles and themes of their choice. I also observed that many of the children were very driven in developing creative projects in their spare time and not in school time. I wanted to be able to integrate their ideas and choices with mine whilst broadening their exposure and understanding of contemporary art. The logistics of the space itself also impacted on my initial ideas hence I had to rethink my approach.

Session Three ‘Constructing Our Ideas’

My approach to exploring contemporary art with children is to identify a core experience or feeling that evokes a response from the child. This may take the form of laughter, mischief, the recollection of a story or event, annoyance but essentially what happens is that they identify something specific and unique to them. I believe that their ability to explore and understand a concept is to ensure that it can be connected to an experience of their own. This also transfers to work they will create themselves. Work created by the child based on their own experiences will delve far deeper delivering a much richer experience for the child that is reflected in the quality of the work they produce

Testing the structures

Session Three was all about making a building in 3D in a world of fantasy or fiction that would host a character and that character needed a narrative. The children were familiar with comics and story boarding in 2D but this task asked them to think about how this would work in 3D. I had brought a variety of materials with me of which many were transparent and suitable to write and draw on. Within the structure of their buildings the walls, floors or windows would provide a canvas for developing or depicting the narrative within their buildings. I wanted the children to understand that contemporary art often incorporates lots of different forms from text, to sound, to pages of the artist’s sketchbook to using found objects; there are no limits to what and how something can be used.

I worked one to one with the children discussing their ideas as the sketched. As the ideas formed we looked at the construction and materials. Lots of attention was given to the technical construction of their pieces, I wanted the children to focus on finding solutions for their constructions whilst learning practical skills. I was also aware that the children would need to see the beginning of their ideas realized in 3D before the end of this session. Each piece was completely different from the next and this demanded a lot of extra support that came from Natalie and Roisin. The buildings started with a polystyrene block that is easy to build up from and quickly the structures rose from the white blocks. I was quite astonished at the speed of which some of the children worked both in their ideas and their constructions. As the children worked I discussed the narrative for their characters with them. I noticed that the boys in particular had begun to delve quite deeply into the personality and scenario of their chosen character. I asked the children to develop this aspect for the next session and I took a long list of materials that the children felt they needed for their work for our next session.