Visions of childhood

Penny Hay is an artist, educator and researcher. She is Director of Research for ‘5x5x5=creativity’, an arts research charity and is a part-time Senior Lecturer in Arts Education at Bath Spa University. Her doctoral research was focused on how adults can support children’s identity as artists.

Thinking about childhood and the imagination, it seems that we have the opportunity to reconceptualise how we nurture children’s natural drive to learn, especially through the arts and in the natural environment. Care, compassion and empathy developed through respectful relationships are essential conditions for creative learning, happiness and well-being. Investing in creative learning and children’s wellbeing means we will have happier adults and a happier society. The attitudes, values and skills that we learn in childhood stay with us for the rest of our lives. The future belongs to our children.

Engagement with the arts, creativity and culture plays a crucial role in the development of our emotional intelligence and imagination. They are vital ingredients in the wellbeing of children and adults alike, but we need to protect the special place the arts have in children’s lives. Habits of mind are developed through learning in and about the arts – to be curious, playful, intuitive and sensitive. Through being able to express themselves in “a hundred languages” (art, dance, movement, drama, music, writing, numbers and many more: Edwards et al,1998), children’s imaginations are stimulated and they learn to be even more creative. Children spontaneously and creatively connect all forms of thinking and expressive representation, demonstrating their use of the ‘hundred languages’. These are life-wide creative skills that can enhance all our lives.

Children learn more effectively when they are happy; when learning is focused on individual interests and dispositions; when they feel connected to the people around them. Children are born to be curious, to ask questions, take risks and learn how to learn alongside others who care. The independent arts-based action research organisation, ‘5x5x5=creativity’, is focused on exploring children and young people researching and representing the world together, with adults supporting them. The research is based on a view of all children and young people as creative and competent – the adults see ourselves as “researching children researching the world”: learning alongside children and young people. Everyone’s worth and contributions are recognized – everyone’s ideas heard and supported. Creativity is seen as a human right. ‘5x5x5=creativity’ places emphasis on giving children the freedom to find and follow their fascinations and discovering children’s intrinsic motivations to learn. Children quickly show that they are more self-motivated, engaged and confident.

Play and playing in nature is also a basic human right. A connection to and understanding of the natural world is central to a child’s educational development. This is integral to developing children’s sense of responsibility and stewardship for nature.

As long ago as 1962, Rachel Carson wrote this in her seminal book, Silent Spring: I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which seeds must grow. The years of childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love – then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

Play is thought in action – learning though playing and playing outside. Children often continue their play outside indefinitely, learning through first-hand experience and with absorbed concentration. Often, away from the classroom and the curriculum agenda, children can reveal their true selves through play. Playing outdoors liberates children and offers permission for infinite creative possibilities. Taking risks in a safe environment is also part of this process. As Margaret Ouvry wrote in her Early Years report, Exercising Muscles and Minds: “Being at the edge of what they can manage is where learning happens. It is when the environment that we set up for children enables them to be adventurous and show physical and social courage that children can begin to understand themselves and others.

Children’s ability to think conceptually is also heightened – they ask big questions about the sky, the horizon and the universe. In ‘5x5x5=creativity’ we witnessed a three-year old child’s reflection on why she wanted to bring the outside in and take the inside out. This led to a philosophical debate with children and adults about the very concept of what makes the outside different from inside and what qualities each holds.

In Reggio Emilia in Italy, the environment is described as the ‘third teacher’ (the first is the parent; the second, the educator). The natural environment invites children to play with deeper concepts of freedom, space, context, culture, time and change as well as specifically offering children both solitude and community, and an aesthetic sensibility: “The unstructured outdoors is so wonderfully rich in possibilities for children to be scientists, builders, collectors, historians, explorers, storytellers, scene designers, artists. It is a richly textured learning environment – a place where all modes of learning are possible and can flourish in a different, extended and complementary way to learning indoors.(Bancroft, Fawcett and Hay, 2008)

Playing freely with natural materials, following the seasons, experiencing weather, the rain on the face – two-year olds and their families made a film called We all feel the same rain that follows the fascinations of very young children through indoor and outdoor spaces. Noticing and observing children playing and exploring outside without intrusion can be liberating too for adults – to see the value of children being self-sufficient in using their imagination in the natural environment.

The Forest of Imagination

The Forest of Imagination is a four-day pop-up interdisciplinary contemporary arts and design event that runs in Bath, UK. As Andrew Grant (Landscape Architect and codesigner of the event) writes:

The Forest of Imagination is a place where everyone can explore their own creativity. It offers a re-imagining of a familiar space into a fantastical world to inspire intuitive play, imaginative thought and to heighten a sense of nature in the city. Part landscape, part city, part gallery, the Forest engages everyone in a seriously playful and alternative experience of nature, contemporary art, landscape and architecture. The Forest is a wild place, a metaphorical retreat from the everyday urban world, with delight and darkness, colour and light, re-purposed, natural and intelligent materials, to share the innate creativity of human nature.

The Forest of Imagination is an opportunity – not just for four days in the year – to help professionals, parents and children think differently about the way we conceive childhood and to imagine new possibilities. The Forest is therefore a metaphor for our collective imagination. Now in its third year in Bath, the Forest creates time and space for children and adults to explore nature in the city through their imagination. The Forest creates a context for exploration – familiar spaces are reimagined for exploring the urban and natural world as well as the internal world of the imagination.

Children readily play with fantasy and possibility through their imagination and creativity. They play with these ‘magical objects of transformation’ and make imaginative connections between objects, with stories and magic. Children move between reality and make believe with ease … inhabiting new spaces and places in their own ways. Portals surround the forest and immediately create permission to suspend reality and enter into a magical world. Creativity and play are at the heart of the event – engagement, playfulness, ingenuity, joy and laughter permeates the Forest.

A forest is one of the best classrooms. Children, playing outdoors, learn through first-hand experiences and in cooperation with others. They play with ideas, thoughts and materials in a safe environment to explore ‘self’ in the world – what it means to be human. The Forest of Imagination invites children and adults alike to explore their deep human connection to nature through their own imagination.



‘We wanted to create a mini ‘Universe of Play’ with four distinctly different worlds and an atmosphere of fun. Over the weekend, the Forest of Imagination exploded into an entire galaxy of delight. Ingredients of enormous and tiny, light and dark, living and dead, old and young, sun and cloud, colour and sound all contributed to the special ambience. …it has been both humbling and exciting to witness the latent capacity for play and community coming alive in the spaces we helped shape. In particular it was fantastic to witness the ingenuity of children. Who would have thought a set of different sized plant pots could be translated into a seat, stepping stones, a shell, a house, an outfit, hats, armour and an outer space escape pod?’

(Andrew Grant).


Making a real and lasting difference to children and young people is a central theme of the Forest. We believe that creativity can enhance wellbeing and transform lives, communities, cities and economies. And the Forest is a natural realm for exploring the bigger themes in the world around social purpose – issues of conservation and the environment, creativity and responsibility. In short, we want to engage with contemporary creativity, imagine new possibilities for the way we live and create thoughtful and imaginative spaces for everyone to enjoy. The Forest of Imagination brings a message of hope for children, for their rights and their future.



‘Do we want to live in a future where our contact with wild nature is limited to rare trips to distant lands and high definition video programmes or do we want a future where we deliberately bring the inspirational experience and sensations of wildness to our doorsteps? I propose Forests of Imagination as a new type of urban space created to evoke a sense of primal landscape. They can be permanent or temporary but their purpose is to reconnect us with the moods and meaning of wild nature and to inspire creative thoughts. I would like to see every community having easy access to such a Forest. We need to rewild ourselves before we can rewild the planet. We need to create places in cities that inspire and feed the future creativity of our children. We need to make places where you feel part of the natural world and where you feel and see the urban landscape is working as a piece – holistic, balanced, alive. Forest is the home of Imagination. Imagination is everyone’’.

(Andrew Grant)


References and links

Bancroft, S. Fawcett, M. and Hay, P. (Eds), Researching Children Researching the World (5x5x5=creativity, Trentham Books, 2008).

Carson, R, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962)

Edwards, C., Gandini, L. & Forman, G. The Hundred Languages of Children – Advanced Reflections (Ablex Publishing, 1998)

Griffiths, J. Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (Hamish Hamilton, 2013).

Ouvry, M Exercising Muscles and Minds: Outdoor play and the early years curriculum. (National Early Years Network, 2000).

Monbiot, G. Rewild the Child, (from )

Penny Hay and 5x5x5=creativity:

Forest of Imagination:

Andrew Grant:


This article was previously published in the Unspsychology Journal June 2016

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