Monday, 8 February 2010

Hats off to ... the Children's Trail, Leicester

The Leicester Children's Trail is a collection of public artworks on permanent display in the city's 'cultural quarter' of St George's. Each piece was made and installed by civic artist Jo Dacombe following hands-on consultation with children, and the result is beautiful, imaginative street art. Most art projects involving children result in work created by them - which can, of course, be both exciting and fulfulling for them. But the Children's Trail is different. It is mature art produced by a professional artist. Inspired by what interests children in order to invite them in to the urban environment, it is nevertheless designed to be appreciated by all. The children's ideas have been taken seriously for the impact they can have on everyone - which shows children a very inclusive kind of respect.

Think about the design of city centres. There are shops and restaurants, usually lots of cars, gyms, pubs, clubs - and loads of offices. But what is there for children? There aren't many climbing frames or calm streets at the heart of the city. Museums, perhaps, or the odd amusement arcade, but not much to do on the way from place to place other than endure it. I remember once taking my son to London's Covent Garden when he was two, and people kept walking into him. Nobody expected anyone quite so short and unsteady on his feet to be there. That's because children do not 'belong' in the city centre - they 'belong' in the suburbs, in housing estates, in residential streets, parks and schools. And because they don't 'belong' in the city they are generally left out of the planning.

So it's refreshing that Leicester City Council has funded a project aimed at drawing children into the city. The 'cultural quarter' is not, perhaps, part of the city's core business district - but neither is it a dedicated children's space relegated to the outskirts, and that's a real start. Here's what Jo Dacombe says about bringing children into the city, along with more detail about the Children's Trail - taken from an article on citizenship that I published in Nursery World on 2 April 2009 (link in sidebar on the right).

'Towns and cities are not very child-friendly,' says artist Jo Dacombe. 'They're full of shops and activities aimed at adults. If you want children to spend some time in town, you must have something that is for them and which makes it their space.'

This view led her to propose the idea of a Children's Trail to Leicester City Council. 'I thought, if I can put beautiful things in St George's - an area of the city that is full of industrial history - perhaps children will spend some time in it.' She was delighted by the council's response. 'They were commissioning public art in general and liked the idea of having something specifically for children.' The project was funded jointly by Leicester City Council and the European Regional Development Fund.

Although Jo Dacombe has worked on many projects enabling children to make their own art, the Children's Trail is a completely new venture into public art for children driven by their interests and created by a professional artist. Her consultation for the Children's Trail has its roots in her collaborative work with other artists in enabling children to express their views about their neighbourhood.

To create the trail, she ran a series of consultative workshops with children aged between five and ten. Following detailed research into the history of the St George's district, she borrowed several objects from the county museums for the children to consider. They included a bus conductor's ticket machine, tiny printing blocks with individual letters, a stocking stretcher from the days when Leicester produced woollen stockings, and an Imperial typewriter that was made in the city.

'The children started by trying to guess what each of the objects was,' Jo Dacombe explains. 'After all, how would you know a bus conductor's ticket machine if you've never seen one?' She noticed that the children particularly liked small things, that they were interested in detail and were drawn to numbers and letters.

Later on, a walk around the district enabled her to gather more information about what interested them. 'The children liked looking up and they noticed some small details, even if they were quite high up. They noticed a Victorian drain with a cast iron detail at the very top of a building.'

The result of this consultation is seven inspiring pieces of work that were recently installed in St George's as the Children's Trail. 'Each is a reworking of a real historical object,' Jo Dacombe explains. 'They appear as ghosts in their environment because they are solid objects made of clear plastic with a blue light glowing inside.' The artworks relate to the surrounding buildings and children can try to imagine how those things were once used in that place.

'The trail is contained in a relatively small, quiet public space, less than a square mile,' says Jo Dacombe. 'It will soon be pedestrianised and so will be very accessible for children and their families. That's what I was after.'

Thanks to Jo Dacombe for the picture. She sent me more, and I wish I could have worked out how to get them all on to the blog page without jostling each other.

For detailed discussion about how children experience city life, see Christensen, P. & O'Brien, M. (eds) (2003) Children in the city: home, neighbourhood and community. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

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