how does the physical environment impact on familiesâ€™ perceptions of an arts event? A research paper commissioned by Wild Rumpus
Rowan Hoban & Sarah Bird, Wild Rumpus directors Our initial inspiration for setting up Just So Festival, and the thing that underpins everything we do is our deeply held belief that when families engage in the arts in inspiring natural landscapes something quite amazing can happen. After visiting both festivals and arts events in formal spaces with our own familes, we were often left feeling flat, either sidelined as a family audience, or restrained by buildings we were in. We hoped that by creating an immersive creative arts weekend just for families in a spectacular natural landscape, families could share an experience that would leave them with a sense of wonder, of possibility, and that they would take away memories that would change the way that they felt about the arts as a families. As we move into the fourth year of the festival, having brought additional events into our repertoire, we were keen to delve a little deeper into the anecdotal evidence from our festival audience that experiencing a diverse range of art forms in a beautiful natural landscape changes the experience, creates a unique creative atmosphere, and can impact on the way a family engages in the arts. We hope that this report will inspire discussions about the whole family as an audience and the enormous impact that a natural environment can have on their engagement in the arts.
Contributors Project Management Jim Ralley - The Big Art People Abigail Gilmore - Institute for Cultural Practices Field Research Lottie Clarke Paul Mayfield Jenny Oakenfull Jemma Oâ€™Brien Tracy Simpson Literature Review Ginger Carlson Documentation Drew Forsyth Jake Ralley
contents Research Aims and Objectives - p.01 Methodology - p.02 Literature Review - p.03 Spellbound Forest - p.12 Context and research interests Field observations Post-event survey Just So Festival - p.18 Context and research interests Field observations Post-event survey Focus Group Findings - p.23 Discussion - p.29 Bibliography - p.31 Research Team - p.35
The importance of unpredictability and flexibility to play has been linked both in Play for a Change as well as in other literature to environments that provide opportunities for diverse play forms and a degree of risk (2008, p. 23; Lester and Maudsley 2006; Wells and Leckies 2006). While many different kinds of environments provide these factors, much research has emphasised the particular suitability of natural spaces as “optimal settings for children to engage and actualise their drive to play” (Wells and Leckies, Play, naturally: A review of children’s natural play, 2007, p. xiii; Fjørtoft & Sageie, 2000; Thompson and Travlou, 2009; Thompson, 2011; Moss, 2012). James Gibson’s concept of “affordance” has been utilized in much recent literature on landscape experience (Wells and Leckies, 2001, p. 7; Aspinal, 2011; Gibson, 1979). Affordances are properties of environments, of all types, that indicate the possibilities of their utility. Essentially, the concept of affordances emphasizes how types of environments might encourage or support certain activities, for instance, small twigs might afford a variety of experiences, such as grasping, throwing, drawing, digging, and so on (Thompson and Travlou, 2009, p. 14-15). In terms of play, Wells and Leckies have argued that it is precisely the diversity and complexity of natural environments, which offer a wide range of possible interactions that makes nature so suitable to play interactions (2001). Research by Fjørtoft & Sageie has also convincingly demonstrated the affordances of natural environments to play activities. Their study, which focused on how a kindergarten group described and interacted with a forest indicated a strong relationship between the structure of the landscape and different play functions. For instance, woodlands and cliffs were used for climbing, whereas smooth topographies with open space and shrubbery were used for more traditional games like hide and seek (2001, p. 92). Further research by Fjørtoft has indicated that natural outdoor environments have numerous benefits: for example, children become more creative in their play and demonstrate better motor skills than children who play in a traditional playground (Fjørtoft, 2001; Maynard, 2007, p. 326). The beneficial relationship between outdoor environments and play has been utilized across the UK at what are called Forest Schools or Nature Schools. Originating in Scandinavia, Forest Schools involve regular interaction with natural landscapes over an extended period of time (O’Brien, 2009). The Forest School Network has defined Forest Schools as an “inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self esteem through hands on learning experiences in a woodland
environment” (Forest Education Initiative, 2007). As of 2009, O’Brien recorded over one hundred Forest Schools in England and twenty in each of Scotland and Wales, a number which is steadily increasing (p. 45). The expanding literature on the benefits of interaction with outdoor environments and the increasing number of Forest Schools points to a changing understanding amongst governmental and non-governmental bodies of the potential of natural spaces. This potential is not limited to young person’s development, however, as is evidenced by a number of studies which examine the relationship between access to natural spaces and the activity, physical and mental health, and quality of life of a variety of ages, ethnicities, and social groups (de Vries, Verheij, Groenewegen, & Spreeuwenberg, 2003; Kim & Kaplan, 2004; Mitchell & Popham, 2007, 2008; Thompson, 2011). Thompson’s 2011 paper, for instance, drew from a wide variety of sources in order to investigate patterns of woodland use by various groups across a wide range of UK contexts and found that access to green and natural spaces correlated with higher levels of physical activity, health, and quality of life (p. 254). Other findings have indicated that participation in wilderness results in positive benefits such as enhanced self esteem and is of beneficial use for therapy, education, and leadership development programmes (Friese, Pittman & Hendee, 1995). The beneficial impacts of participation in outdoor spaces has been the subject of much recent research. Equally, the kinds of physical techniques that are carried out in natural environments have also been of much interest to researchers. For instance, how natural landscapes afford certain physical activities has been examined by studies that focus on “green exercise” (Pretty, Peacock, Sellens, Griffin, 2006; Barton, Griffin, Pretty, 2011). Green exercise refers to formal and informal activities that are carried out in natural settings. According to a number of studies, green exercise contributes to positive short and long-term physical and mental health and wellbeing at a much higher rate than similar exercises completed indoors (Pretty, Peacock, Sellens, Griffin, 2006; Barton, Griffin, Pretty, 2011; Thompson Coon, Boddy, Stein, Whear, Barton, Depledge, 2011). Further evidence suggests that maintenance of physical activity is most likely to occur in unstructured “natural” environments rather than formal structured facilities (Hillsdon, Thorogood, Anstiss & Morris, 1995). Pretty, Griffin, Peacock, Hine, Sellens & South (2005) identifies three levels of engagement with nature that include: viewing nature, as through a window or work of art; being in or nearby nature, which includes nature study, walking or cycling in a park, or outdoor arts activities; and active participation with nature, such as gardening, camping,
trekking or farming. Pretty et al. demonstrate that each of these levels have the potential to significantly enhance individual and social health and wellbeing (Pretty et al., 2005; Physical activity and health alliance, 2007). In spite of the benefits of interaction with outdoor spaces, much literature has found notions of perceived risk to be a powerful hindrance to the use of natural environments (Gill, 2006). In a review of the literature on barriers to young peoples’ use of the outdoors, Travlou (2006) identifies an almost unanimous consensus that points to notions of risk, such as safety and injury, bullying, getting lost, etc., as the primary hindrances towards use. These notions are powerful contributors to what Gill (2006) has called a growing “culture of fear” and which he argues strongly influences “the shrinking horizons of childhood”. It is important to note that these conceptions of the outdoors are not uniform across cultures, as for instance, in the case of Scandinavian countries in which there is a long tradition of emphasizing the value of interaction with outdoor environments (Gill, 2007).
Artistic Programming and Natural Environments The publication of Francois Matarasso’s Use or Ornament: The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts Programmes, was the first large-scale attempt in the UK to bring together evidence of the social impacts of participation in the arts. The study considered some 90 projects, including interviews and questionnaires by over 500 people, and identified 50 social impacts of participation in the arts (1997). Use or Ornament provided a definition of the potential social benefits of the arts sector and a methodological approach for the assessment of their impact and was influential toward the publication of academic and policy literature that further considered the importance of the arts and culture to the wellbeing, personal growth, and social development of the individual within society (Hallsworth, Levitt & Krapels, 2008). A recent study by Ramsden et al. revealed that participation in arts activities have a number of beneficial effects, including, enhanced health and wellbeing; increased self esteem and self confidence; improved communication and social skills; and the development of leadership skills (2011, p. 10). The beneficial impacts of the arts on health and wellbeing are perhaps the most common and most publicized effects of participation in arts activities. According to a 2007 report by Arts Council England (ACE) entitled The Arts, Health and Wellbeing, “there is increasing recognition that people’s health and wellbeing is influenced by a range of interconnecting factors” and that “the arts have an important part
to play in improving the health and wellbeing of people in many ways” (p. 4). The report further argued that the arts should be integrated into health policy and funding. In a review of medical literature, Staricoff (2004) cited almost four hundred peer review papers that demonstrated the benefits of arts participation on a wide variety of health outcomes. As Ramsden et al. identify in their study on the impacts of grassroots arts activities on communities, “arguably the most contested and most difficult impact to measure is that of aesthetics” (2011, p. 30) Indeed, as Eleanor Belfiore and Oliver Bennett (2007) conclude in their study on the impact of encounters with the arts, “it is not possible to develop a rigorous protocol for the assessment of the impacts of the aesthetic experience that can be boiled down to a handful of bullet-points and a user-friendly ‘evaluation toolkit’” (p. 262-263). Despite the epistemological complexities inherent to notions of the aesthetic, much research has examined the relationship between aesthetic encounter and experiences of natural landscapes. A 2009 report prepared for the Forestry Commission, for instance, identified a wide range of philosophical and theoretical approaches to landscape aesthetics and perception (Thompson and Travlou). As defined by Gobster and colleagues, landscape aesthetic experience includes “a feeling of pleasure attributable to directly perceivable characteristics of spatially and/or temporally arrayed landscape patterns” (Gobster et al, 2007, p. 964; Thompson and Travlou, 2009, p. 5). Gobster further acknowledged however, that “differences remain on which characteristics of landscape are considered directly perceivable and on how extensive, immediate, and direct a role cognitive processes and acquired value systems play in landscape aesthetic experiences” (Gobster et al, 2007 p. 964; Thompson and Travlou, 2009, p. 5). As identified by Thompson and Travlou, perhaps the most divisive debate in landscape aesthetics concerns the “objective - subjective divide”, in which the extent to which aesthetic response is objectively or subjectively based is questioned (2009, p. 5). Gibson’s concept of affordance has been further developed by Harry Heft in order to bridge the divide between these two conceptions of aesthetic experience (2010). According to Heft, affordances are neither mental constructs that a perceiver imposes on environments nor are they interpretations located in the “eye of the beholder”. Rather, affordances are “properties of the environment that are both objectively real and psychologically significant” (Thompson and Travlou, 2009, p. 6). Heft’s conception of landscape experience is thus located in immediate experience of landscape, in which aesthetic and other responses to nature are “dynamically perceived... in the context of action” (Heft, 2007, p. 22).
As identified by Thompson and Travlou, most empirical research on aesthetic engagement with nature is focused on visual dimensions and affectual responses, the latter of which are usually expressed in terms of like or dislike (2009, p. 11). Although some recent work has experimented with computer-generated visualizations, behavior patterns, and public engagement approaches, including focus groups and interviews, more research is needed in order to properly consider the aesthetic dimensions of natural spaces (Thompson and Travlou, 2009, p. 13; Jensen, 2006; Ode et. al, 2009; Moore and Cosco, 2010). Aesthetic engagement with outdoor spaces might be further encouraged through the implementation of artistic programming in natural environments, as in the case of public artworks, sculpture parks, and sculpture forests. The Forestry Commission, for instance, has collaborated with artists since the late 1970s, when it began to initiate artist residencies in Grizedale forest (Forestry Commission Scotland). A 2007-2008 report by Dave Pritchard provides the first national overview of the Forestry Commission’s artistic programming and gives a detailed account of the arts activities that occurred up until 2007 (Artistic License). Although the report acknowledges that initial study of the benefits and outcomes of the Forestry Commission’s artistic programming has been underdeveloped, Pritchard collates a wide variety of external and internal research in order to ascertain some potential outcomes, which he divides into: social and cultural values of woods, social inclusion and community engagement, communication and education, health and well-being, perceptions of risk, attracting visitors, economic impacts, forest design and aesthetics, and artistic achievements. Under these headings Pritchard identifies a number of positive outcomes that link previous research on both engagement with art and with green spaces, especially in regards to benefits to health, personal and community development, social inclusion, and well-being (2007). As Pritchard puts it: It seems clear that the Forestry Commission’s arts activities add in unique ways to people’s awareness, understanding and valuing of trees, forests and woodland. They can be effective in addressing intangible values such as “sense of place”, cultural history and identity; and they help with reassessing the relationship between nature and society, and in rebuilding some of the lost connections (2007, p. 5).
Families’ engagement with the outdoors and with arts programming Research examining characteristics of family leisure have consistently
demonstrated a positive relationship between participation in family leisure and family strength (Holmon 1989; Orthner & Mancini, 1991). It has also been suggested that leisure has become the most important variable in the development of healthy relationships between a married couple as well as between parents and their children (Couchman, 1988). Green spaces and parks provide easily accessible and cost efficient opportunities for the building of cohesive family relationships. Just as research has shown that engagement with nature has positive individual effects, so too does it positively benefit family groups (GreenSpace, 2011). In 1997, Potter & Duenkel explored the meaning and structure of families’ residential camping experiences through qualitative research. Their findings suggest that such outdoor recreation programming is capable of enhancing the wellness and cohesiveness of the family unit. In 2002, Freeman and Zabriskie brought together two studies that explored the relationship between structured outdoor programming and family cohesion. Through an examination of the studies’ findings, Freeman and Zabriskie demonstrate a strong positive correlation between structured outdoor family recreation programming and family strength, a finding that further builds on research that has consistently demonstrated that participation in family recreation and leisure activities can strengthen families (Hawkes, 1991; Zabriskie, 2000). While much research has indicated that engagement with the arts has a variety of benefits, as Shaw notes in a literature review on the arts and neighbourhood renewal, “there is a lack of research into the impacts of the arts on family life” (1999). A recent study by RAND Corporation offers some insight into this shortcoming. Entitled Gifts of the Muse – Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts, the report brings together a wide variety of literature in order to ascertain, evaluate, and improve current understanding of the effects and benefits of participation in the arts (McCarthy, Ondaatje, Zakaras & Brooks). McCarthy et al. provide a comprehensive analysis of the literature in order to consider both instrumental and intrinsic benefits of the arts and offer recommendations for their continued development (2005). The report’s valuation of intrinsic and personal benefits along with instrumental benefits offers a broad understanding of the impacts of arts participation (2005). In moving away from an understanding of the benefits of artistic programming through purely measurable outcomes and towards one that acknowledges the complexity and diversity of art experiences, the study underscores the importance of sustained involvement in the arts and its relationship to both instrumental and intrinsic benefits (2005). Importantly, MCarthy et al. identify that although there has been a wide body of research that makes the case for the arts’ instrumental
outcomes, the lack of research that considers intrinsic benefits such as pleasure, creation of social bonds, and cognitive growth, points to a “missing element” in the understanding of arts effects. As McCarthy et al. put it, “people are drawn to the arts not for their instrumental effects, but because the arts can provide them with meaning and with a distinctive type of pleasure and emotional stimulation” (McCarthy et al., 2005, p. xv). This point is particularly revealing when the lack of research on the impacts of the arts at a family level is considered. Although studies have repeatedly shown that one of the primary reasons for attending arts events is related to family interests, the relationship between arts activities and family experiences remains under researched (Walker, 2002) This research paper aims to contribute to that small body of research, given its importance for countless arts organizations working with the arts, children, young people, and families.
Key points to take forward into analysis of the field research The findings from the literature review highlight the relationships assumed by families participating in arts programming in outdoor settings and natural landscapes, and point to a range of evidence of the benefits and effects this participation may have. These include the impact of the aesthetic and physical structures of natural landscapes on the different play functions which these environments support, leading to greater creativity in children’s play, and better motor skills. Greater in fact than in play which takes place in other environments. Access to natural spaces is related to increased quality of life for a wide variety of ages and social groups, including enhanced self-esteem and therapeutic, educational, and leadership development uses. ‘Green exercise’ – physical recreation outdoors – is found to have greater wellbeing impacts than indoor activity. Whilst there is clear evidence of correlation between play/recreation and wellbeing/quality of life, the benefits of focusing only on measuring instrumental outcomes are questionable. Instead, the research suggests there should be more focus on creating environments for playful and recreational activities, through policy initiatives and programming which take advantage of the affordances of outdoor, natural landscapes. Research suggests there are three levels of engagement in natural landscapes – viewing, being in, and active participation – and associated benefits with all
three types. The cognitive process and aesthetic experiences associated with the affordances of environments are linked to the active participation of individuals. They interpret their environments through interaction and engagement, looking, touching, and other sensory experiences. There is also a wealth of evidence about the social and cultural impacts of arts engagement, particularly in relation to health and wellbeing factors. Indeed, causal relationship between the arts and their benefits (and potential negative impacts) to society has been a central theme of cultural policy since the writings of Plato. There is less focused evidence about the experiences of families and their relationship to the arts, although there is a growing understanding and confirmation of the importance of family-based practices and familial role models in the on-going participation and tastes of children as they grow up. Barriers to increasing families’ outdoor arts participation are predominantly concerned with perceptions of risk – safety, injury, fear of getting lost. These perceptions are cultural (in the wider sense) in that some societies – in this research most notably Scandinavian countries – have more established practices and infrastructures which encourage engagement in the outdoors, and widely different perceptions and concerns about risk. Arts programming in ‘managed’ natural landscapes – like Forestry Commission sites - is actively encouraged by the research which demonstrates a wide range of impacts and values. This includes extrinsic benefits to individuals and to the localities of these sites (for example through visitor economies), as well as highlighting the unique properties and affordances of natural landscapes that make these impacts possible. We now turn to the empirical research undertaken for this project to explore these findings further.
“I believe in fairies.” “First time I have seen my Dad smiling!!!” “I liked spending the day with my mummy.” “I saw the tree and it had an eye.” “I loved doing crafts” “Playing in the muddy puddles.” “Hill sliding on my bottom” “Meeting prince Fredrick.” “I’m free.”
context A new day-long event for 2012, Spellbound Forest took place in Delamere Forest, Cheshire on the 19-20th May. Families entered on a timed ticket, and were directed to three separate paths through the forest. Each path took participants through a different traditional English fairy tale. The stories were told in a participatory manner, through theatre, music, spoken word, writing, and dance, employing actors, dancers, creative writers, willow-weavers and other creative practitioners alongside conventional event staff to produce an immersive environment which encourage families to collaborate in the story-telling. There was a two-circuit route for the timed journeys through the stories, along the paths of the Delamere Forest, which ended in the in a picnic area with food, drink, and dancing. It was anticipated that most families would spend 3-4 hours in the forest. Entry was £12.50 per adults and £7.50 for children aged 3-16. Children under 3 were free. Spellbound Forest was designed as an immersive, magical, participatory, whole family experience. Participants were invited to step out of their ordinary lives into a fairytale world with characters from the page who came to life, who were clothed by children or spied running through the forest. There were multiple structured and semi-structured participation opportunities which were offered by the Spellbound Forest, which included: • Reading text extracts dotted around the forest, which drew participants along the path of the stories; • Interacting with the actors – answering questions, and acting out parts on request; • Adding ‘tatters’ to Tattercoats dres; • Co-producing an English fairytale by writing elements and drawing characters, in a project supported by Manchester Metropolitan University; • Dancing with the Princesses and playing hide-and-seek at the Fairy Ball; • Making hobbyhorses and wands from found branches and twigs and other materials; • Making and adding to the origami crane birds in the Earl Mar’s Daughter story • Listening to the sounds and music in the Forest, including a specially commissioned piece, ‘The Book of Imaginary Beings’ which was written by composer James Stephenson
Ahead of the experience, parents could ‘prepare’ their children for the event, through listening to and reading the the four English fairy tales that formed part of the event. These can be found at http://soundcloud.com/wildrumpus-1 They could also follow-up the event by contributing to a crowd-funded and crowd-sourced brand new English fairy-tale which brought together the contributions from children during the two event days.
Specific Research Interests The design of Spellbound Forest was such that it presented a number of interesting elements which posed new questions for the empirical field research. • Duration of participation: Participants were engaged for a short amount of time relative to the Just So Festival, but a longer amount of time relative to other arts activities which families might usually attend (workshops, stories, films, etc) • The outdoor environment, natural landscape and opportunities to engage with the forest: The event took place in a public, outdoor space, where families may ordinarily undergo more ‘mundane’ types of participation and recreation – walking, nature trails, and so on. – There were predefined paths along which participants were directed but which they did not have to take • The uniqueness and difference of the kind of experience (relative to more familiar participation experiences): The stories that formed the core of the experience were relatively unknown compared to traditional fairytales, and although the craft activities may have ones familiar to children at home, the context of outdoor forest setting where the materials are ‘found’ and which relate to elements of the stories, may have a role in producing the immersive experience and bring particular benefits to participation.
at the event Field Observations, Informal Interviews, and the Memory Tree
N.B. Verbal consent was attained for all interviews at the event, and no names are used. Three field researchers attended the Spellbound Forest event. They observed the actions and interactions of participants, asked questions in as unobtrusive a manner as possible, and captured everything in written form on the day. They also ran a Memory Tree exercise that aimed to capture immediate impressions and feelings about the festival from adults and children. The event was also photographed and filmed for further post-hoc observation. The comprehensive set of field notes have been condensed into a series of themes and quotations that aim to give the impression of Spellbound Forest from a research perspective.
During the event, the forest was alive with the movement of families following the trails of stories, the design of which led to ‘pulses’ of groups moving through the different staged activities. Some of these were timed – by the narration of actors or by the time it took to undertake a task or make something before moving on. Other areas were free-flowing as children and adults were engaged in activities almost ‘outside of time’. The opportunities for structured participation proved hugely popular, with clusters of families grouped around these areas and taking time out from their paths in the stories. Some parents revealed their surprise at the amount of time they stayed in forest, particularly around the Fairy Ball in the centre. There was a gender divide in some of the modes of participation, for example, boys were observed to be more likely to run off and play in the woods, and less likely to stay engaged in the stories (which were generally performed for the children by the actors in promenade theatre style). This divide was most clearly displayed at the Grand Ball area, where the dance floor was full of girls dancing with the princess, and the boys were climbing up the banks and hiding in the woods. In general, for the structured activities there seemed no difference between the enthusiasm of boys and girls for taking part. Despite the encouragement to engage with the natural environment offered by the location, and the use of natural materials, most families appeared to engage in the Forest as part of the event rather than in and of itself. They were fully invested in taking part and staying predominantly within the boundaries created by the stories. This was noticeable in observation of people’s use of mobile phones, where there seemed a reluctance in allowing phones calls and other uses of digital
technologies to intercede in the forest environment or interrupt engagement. There was widespread observed use of cameras, and of smartphones for photography. The dressing up, props, and characters provided many photo opportunities, and the chance for memory making.
Participants described the event with words like “lovely, simple, magical”. They recognized and supported the aims of the event, and could explicitly relate them to their own objectives for parenting and for their children’s experiences. One parent discussed memory making with a researcher, explaining the importance that fairy stories had played in her life, and how she was keen for her children to “capture these things at this age”. The immersive experience was therefore supported and co-created by parents. They were complicit in the suspension of disbelief, helping to create the ‘magical’ environment for their children by encouraging attention on the objects they were making, keeping their roles in the performance going, and helping children to participate fully in the artifice of the stories. Often they covered for lack of response to actors, embellishing links to the stories. Grandfather to Grandchild: “Look! There is something in the swamp! I’m sure I saw something move out there. Have you got your tasers?” The event management and grouping/coding of the activities encouraged this collusion, and the cracks that inevitably appeared in the make-believe (missing props, high-viz jackets, phones ringing) were generally either papered over or ignored. Many children were clearly immersed in the experience. One researcher observed a boy between activities retelling the story he had heard up to that point. The stories were real and exciting to him. Similarly the exchanges between parents and children, often led by the children, were concerned with preserving the continuity of the story and/or the interpretation of what to do in the forest – “I’m just going to put some magic dust on my horse to make him real”; “Ah. The horse is tired, put him up on the pushchair so he can sleep”. Children were also really instrumental in explaining elements of the story back to their parents - “he has lost his daughter and that is why he is sad” (re old Lord in Tattercoats). Engaging with the Environment Several parents commented on the safe atmosphere, and also that they felt like
they were amongst like-minded people. In conversations with the researchers, parents remarked on their own reference points – articles in the Guardian, their membership of the National Trust, their own childhood experiences of Enid Blyton, which signaled shared symbolism as well as socio-economic and political demographics. The activities in the event enveloped and worked with the natural landscape. There was little engagement with wildlife as the properties and activities of the event took over. However, there was some spontaneous adaptive use of the affordances of the environment: sword and den making specifically outside of the structured activities. Most families were prepared for the natural environment, and many embraced it by setting up picnics en route to or around the Fairy Ball, eschewing the on-site catering outlets. One father expressed concern at the impact that this event would have on the natural environment as he noted the bark shavings down in the Grand Ball area. His three boys “loved the outdoor environment” and were hungry for more active engagement with nature. They mentioned that dens dotted around the central area would have been nice.
Management of the Environment
Managed risk was obvious around the Grand Ball with its high banks around the stage. As mentioned above, boys were scrambling up the slopes and playing, whilst some of the characters were playing hide and seek in the trees with children, which although enjoyable was a clear source of concern for some parents who wanted to keep children in sight. On the second day these banks had been roped off and site management were denying children access to them. The risk element had been taken out of the experience. Not all participants were as happy with being given the responsibility for self-direction and self-management offered by the event’s emphasis on co-creation. The style of the event led to some comments about the lack of signage, or clear direction. There was also some frustration with the freedom allowing disjointed groups to arrive at performance areas in stages. However this is balanced by the overwhelming response of engagement, and in many cases awe shared by families – as borne out by the comments from the post-event survey discussed below.
“The pitter patter of rain on our lovely tent :)” “I’ll remember banging out the beat with the samba band.” “Cooperative atmosphere and everyone was relaxed.” “I learnt to play an Abba song on my brand new ukulele with the man from St. John’s Ambulance.” “Had the most amazing time dancing with my 73 year old mum, who discovered her inner belly dancer thanks to the Gypsies!” “I love to dance, even if children did steal my croc all night.”
Just So Festival
context This was the third annual Just So Festival. The two previous festivals have been very successful, with the 2011 festival winning the Green Parent Best Family Festival award. In 2012 the festival moved from the 65 acre forested Barnswood site in Staffordshire to Rode Hall Park in Cheshire. The festival took place from Friday 17th to Sunday 19th August. Families could buy weekend tickets or day tickets, and they could decide to camp, stay in a yurt provided by the festival, bring a campervan, or not to stay at all. Over the three days there were 124 scheduled activities in 11 designated areas, covering much of the Rode Hall park and garden land. The event tagline is evocative, and indicative of the emphasis on an immersive transformative experience that Spellbound Forest aimed to create: “Take your family on a journey of the imagination…a magical weekend of creative adventures.”
Specific Research Interests
The festival has four principle aims that helped to frame our field research, survey analysis, and subsequent write up. These are: - To embed the arts in a natural landscape, a wild, woodland space. Giving children the freedom to engage freely with no pressure. - To challenge expectations of the arts, by allowing spontaneous and impulsive engagement. Children should be allowed to respond immediately without the restrictions present in galleries and concert halls. - To offer an intense experience for families. Enabling full immersion in an artistic landscape, in an environment designed to surprise and inspire at every turn. - To encourage a legacy of active participation in the audience. To involve them in making events, performances, and artworks spectacular. There are some challenges for participating families embedded in this value proposition, and which raised research questions for the field researchers. How will families respond to the encouragement offered by the affordances of the environment to be spontaneous and impulsive? What is the capacipty of parents and families to sustain participation over a 3-day event? This would be some families’ first experience of a festival, and others would be quite accustomed to the format. - How did the experience of daytrippers differ from that of weekenders? What are the implications for experience of time and routine? Unlike Spellbound Forest there was no cohesive set of narratives drawing the activities together. How were notions of risk and uncertainty apprehended by parents (and children)?
At the event Field Observations, Informal Interviews, results from the Postbox, and Have Your Say N.B. Verbal consent was attained for all interviews at the event, and no names are used.
Active Participation As with the Spellbound Forest, and with the Just So Festivals in previous incarnations, the structured and semi-structured opportunities to participate in arts, creative and recreational activities proved hugely popular – and the vast array of tents, workshops, areas, and interactive environmental materials (dressing up clothes, play areas, circus skills equipment, stone-balancing, and many more) were constantly animated by those taking part. Some of the activities which were familiar to previous attenders were alighted on with delight and recognition – for example, the popular ‘Fairy Queen’ – whereas others engaged new audiences with new activities – for example, pirate training and saw violin playing. This popularity sometimes meant queuing and running out of workshop materials, however, the wide range of timed performances and activities in the different locations meant the variety and proximity of opportunities to do, listen, and watch others was sufficient to exhaust the hardiest of active participant. Alongside the many curated activities, workshops and timed activities, ‘active participation’ also took the form of co-presence with other families, in festivalgoing character, complete with face-paint and suitable clothing. Participation didn’t necessarily need to take the form of the festival workshops prescribed – a lot of time and interest was devoted to bubble-blowing (and popping) and to skimming stones in the lake. A performer commented that he experienced a “genuine feeling of coproduction”, that there were few restraints placed on him by the management/ creative team. There were also observed instances of ‘performed parenting’ – the act of getting involved in activities but with an element of self-awareness. These were external signs of commitment to taking part in family/children activities, for example the ‘performing dads’ who dressed up, wore face-paint, and get stuck in physical activities. For some (for example, those who took part in the moustache competition) this commitment was quite extensive highly visible and began outside of the bounds of the festival event
Participants and performers agreed that the atmosphere is unique. One commented that it is “more like a village fete” in feel than a festival. The lack of powered sound systems and pressures that other festivals have creates this atmosphere. Some participants were clearly delighted at the fact that they just “happened upon things” whilst wandering around, and the incidental affordances of the different zones and layout within the festival allowed for surprises and hidden treasures (most notably in Wild Things and the High Seas, which was the hardest place to locate). There was also observation of the mild anxiety of parents who weren’t able to navigate the festival site and some frustration that they wouldn’t be able to get their children to the places they wanted to visit or to timed activities. To properly experience the festival, one father said that you should “try to fit with kids’ time, not adults’ time”. The design of the activities and space does allow for serendipity, but he wasn’t sure this worked for adults, who try to stick to a schedule, take part in timed activities, and fully ‘participate’ in the programme.
Engaging with the Environment
Festival-goers articulated the participants’ experience of landscape and environment - the festival was described as a place that “wasn’t the city”. The perception of the environment was that it wasn’t a “planned” space, and in that it promoted freedom of action and freedom of thought. As a natural environment, some areas presented ‘natural dangers’, being home to piles of logs, patches of nettles, and areas of thistles. Participants and volunteers perceived the lake as the area of highest risk
Management of the Environment
As with the 2011 festival, some people were frustrated at the basic camping facilities, and the lack of water for basic hand washing and washing up. Contrary to this, many people also commented very positively about the camping facilities, saying that they were much nicer than anything previously experienced.
One father commented that there is a pervasive feeling of fear about children roaming free in today’s society (echoing the ‘culture of fear’ described in the literature review above). The festival space as a managed space, with event staff on hand to support and help with any problems, mitigates for these fears to some degree. However many parents are understandably loathe to let their children out of sight (a reason often giving for not attending ‘regular’ festivals). The management of the site for Just So provides opportunities for parents to take part or to sit close by and watch as children take part freely in play in a more managed and open environment, however, and the ‘crowds’ are made up of families with similar interests and concerns. Some liked the ways in which the site had been managed to allow them to navigate nature with small children in pushchairs – e.g. through the tarmac paths. The ‘risks’ proffered by engaging in new experiences – camping, outdoor festivals, particular types of participation, were also evident amongst some comments from families in relation to their expectations. One family, who were regular campers, were disappointed with what their experience of the site, based primarily on what they felt it should facilitate. They were critical of the camping facilities, and that they had been prohibited from riding their bikes, and commented that there wasn’t enough for their older children. In general, responses from the families were articulate, knowledgeable and also judgmental, particularly in relation to the elements of the festival experience they felt they should expect. This was most notable in relation to Just So regulars, who used their previous experience at Barnswood as a benchmark for Just So 2012. They were consistently appreciative of the Just So ‘offer’ and knew what they felt they could expect in terms of activities, places to visit and find and facilities, and used these experiences as frame for judging this year’s festival, placing a focus on the differences between sites and environments. It became clear from the consistency of answers that Just So regulars want to (re)create similar or the same experiences – they wanted to know that a Beach was available or that there would be a midnight feast.
The non-intrusive participatory activity that the research team implemented at Just So Festival was a giant postbox. Children and adults were given a gold coin and invited to vote for their favourite area of the festival. They were also given the chance to “have their say”, by standing on a box and shouting across the festival with a megaphone.
focus group findings As part of this research into families’ experiences of arts activities we interviewed four women who had attended Just So Festival 2012 with their families. They were recruited to two focus groups through the Wild Rumpus email list and through existing contacts made at the festival itself. Full consent was granted by all participants for us to transcribe, use, and paraphrase their responses to the discussion. We have made the findings anonymous, drawing out key themes that emerged in each of the groups. They were conducted as semi-structured conversations, with some prompt questions used to focus the participants. But they were not rigidly facilitated. The conversations flowed in relation to the women’s specific experiences, family dynamics, and interests. Below we gather together the emergent themes, using some commentary to support quotes. Our headline question is: “How does the physical environment impact on families’ experiences of an arts event?” As with the field work, it is useful to unpack this question, looking at: • The physical environment, specifically looking at the natural environment • The idea of the family and how that is a definition constantly in flux • Experience, and how different people experience different activities in different ways based on their previous knowledge and expectations • Arts events. Asking if there is a substantive difference between an ‘arts’ event in a natural environment and any other kind of event, or indeed any other kind of environment In breaking the question down like this we aimed to approach the research question in this context with as little bias as possible.
The families in the focus groups were clearly divided along age lines. The first group had children aged between 9 and 13 yrs, and the second group between 2 months and 5 yrs. Their experience of the arts and family activities in general is defined by the age of their children. They all spoke about how the types of activity they can do as a family changes over time. “There was definitely a window when we could all do whole family things together. Maybe it’ll happen again when they’re all teenagers.”
For families with younger children there was the expectation that they would be able to do more with their children once they were older. And for families with older children the main concern was that they would grow up too quickly. One participant spoke about how her son was starting to take a really active choice in his own arts participation, but that this meant he sometimes declined an offer to do something with the family. They spoke about a constantly shifting idea of whole family participation, with activities rarely catering to the oldest and youngest members of a family: often being slightly too advanced or basic to keep everyone fully engaged.
Environments and Activities
In addition to Just So Festival (and for some, Spellbound Forest) we asked what other kinds of activities the participants did as a family. They were generally highly engaged, visiting art galleries, museums, theatres, and more commercial events. Several locations were mentioned several times throughout the focus groups: Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), National Trust (NT) properties, Imperial War Museum North (IWMN), and The Lowry. They found out about events and exhibitions in these locations through a wide variety of sources: email, word of mouth, Facebook, Twitter, flyers, with no real preference for any one. Opportunistic attendance was clearly common, meaning that they would look for events that coincided with a trip to a specific city or visit to see a relative. Each environment has affordances that make it conducive or not to families’ enjoyment. Broadly the YSP was seen as the most enjoyable space from this point of view for some of the families. “I think freedom is a massive thing for (the kids). Something like the YSP hit us because it wasn’t age specific. It’s awesome. Not weather dependent. It’s hands on.” The freedom, and the serendipitous discovery of huge, man-made objects in a natural landscape was commented on by all of the participants. They liked that their children could run and make noise without them having to ‘parent’ them. For the parents with the younger children, National Trust properties offered similar experiences to both the YSP and Just So Festival.
“It’s probably the most comparable experience to Just So. It combines outdoor roaming around, parents like it, in a beautiful place, and it’s accessible. If you want to go for a walk and you’re not a walker, or you have a pram, they’re great. You know there are going to be toilets and you know that you can get a cup of tea. We go to specific kids events at NT properties too. You can involve grandparents, and you can go again and again.” NT properties, like the YSP, are beautiful managed environments. They are safe spaces with clearly defined boundaries, where parents can let their children run free without fear of losing them. It was though, the outdoor element to both NT properties and the YSP that the participants thought appropriate for family activities, not the indoor elements. In such indoor spaces they spoke about how they felt they do more parenting. About how being in a gallery or museum space brings with it inherent rules and restrictions, and expectations on calmness, order, and quiet. “It’s the adults who feel awkward that their children might be upsetting some other people. You’re tense which you pass on to them.” The Imperial War Museum North (IWMN) was mentioned in this respect, as a space with lots of interesting and engaging objects, but nothing for children to touch or play with outside of the ‘handling table’. “Surely they could have a few things? They should have some kind of experience there that allows them to be children.” There is a clear expectation here from the parents that public galleries and museums should cater more to families, and specifically more to children. That they should provide objects for children to touch, and spaces for them to run around and be loud in. “At the end of the day an art gallery really is a runway, and they just want to leg it down there.” It is not, however, just the fact that the experience of IWMN is indoors, that the parents were critical of. They all talked positively about experiences at The Lowry Theatre, and how their children of all ages were captivated by the magic of immersive performances in a really traditional theatre space. This raises some interesting questions about the design of spaces and experiences for broad and narrow audiences, and how that might impact on programming and curating. The Lowry is a sit-down experience, but one where the content of each performance is highly tailored towards an audience and an age-range. Galleries
and museums choose to cater to a broad audience, and their exhibitions generally focus on their core, adult visitor. This is why ‘family friendly’ arts activities are generally programmed alongside the core exhibitions. The YSP and NT properties in contrast are open spaces where families, children, and adults of all ages define their own activities. As a kind of hybrid of all these, Just So Festival aims to engage with whole family groups of all ages through structured and semistructured activities, in an open, natural, and managed environment. In terms of how the physical environment impacts on these experiences, it is clear that the activities themselves both shape and are shaped by the environment. The environment is not a wholly determining factor on the kind of activity that might take place, though it is a restricting factor in terms of the freedoms that programmers might have. Families have expectations of what organizations and spaces are going to provide for them, which are determined through communications, through previous experience, and through word of mouth.
Letting Children Be Children
All of the focus group participants camped for the full weekend at Just So Festival. They had all also camped before, and in more basic conditions than were at the festival. Whilst not an arts activity, camping (and similarly, trips to the beach) made possible the kind of open, whole family experience that the YSP and NT properties afforded. “Camping is good because there’s that freedom again. Children do revert to being children if you take away the things that stop them being children.” Freedom is the key idea here, and one that was repeated many times during both of the focus groups. The children and families look for a space in which to play. They want something out of the ordinary. They talk about camping as a kind of voluntary disconnection from the everyday world where children aren’t allowed to be children. An exploration of this idea of what children ‘should’ be acting like is outside the scope of this research, but it’s interesting to reflect on what these ‘things’ are that stop children from being children, and how a parent’s idea of what children should be and do might be different from a child’s own conception of this. In addition to freedom, the participants talked about the sense of responsibility that being in an open, natural environment gave to their children. In a on-linear and relatively unrestricted setting they have agency to choose their own activities
and create their own fun. In the case of camping, children can choose to play an integral role in the family’s experience, within the safety of a semi-structured framework. “There’s a responsibility, we’re cooking over a stove, we’re all in it together.” At the Just So Festival parents can choose to hand over a similar level of responsibility to their children, to structure and define their own experience of the event. There is no one correct way to ‘be’ or act at the festival, as there is such a variety of activities and workshops to attend, and experiences to be had. As mentioned briefly above, parenting emerged as a recurrent theme in both of the focus groups. They were very self-aware about the amount of parenting that they do, and feel they have to do at different kinds of events and in different settings. Indoors where there are more tacit social pressures they do much more active parenting, as opposed to outdoor environments where they’re much happier to do less. They were frustrated by the role that a parent often takes in managing a child’s experiences of the arts. “Who’d want to be an adult? We had festival anxiety [at Just So] about not being able to do everything.” They were relatively self-critical regarding this, citing the difficult balance between looking after their children and giving them space to explore in natural environments. Clearly the age of the children makes a huge difference, with parents of older children being much more inclined to let them go off alone. For parents of younger children they demanded much more of the environment, of the organization around an event or public space. “I think those practical things make everything a bit easier, they mean that you can just throw yourself into it and enjoy it. You need to have the infrastructure there to be quite seamless, for everyone to get quite relaxed.” These parents want to be given the opportunity to relax, and to not feel like parents.
A final theme that emerged, mainly from discussions around the Just So Festival in particular, was that of co-creation, and the increased level of engagement that children have with activities where they are encouraged to participate. This links strongly with the ideas of freedom and responsibility that are key elements of engagement in arts activities. Many of the structured and unstructured activities at the festival are designed so that the children alter the environment around them.
This might be by doing some messy free-drawing on a giant easel in a communal space; creating something out of recycled materials and hanging it in a tree; sculpting a face out of clay and embedding it into a tree trunk; or building a lantern for use in the nighttime lantern parade. Handing over responsibility to the children to augment the physical environment around them, and giving them the freedom to do so in whatever way they chose, is hugely empowering. The challenge with co-creation is to effectively structure an experience so that children can bring their creativity to bear, and that whatever emerges is broadly successful as a piece of collective â€˜artâ€™.
discussion This research has explored the relationships between families’ experiences of the natural outdoor environment and their experiences of creative encounters and participatory arts in different settings, through desk research and qualitative methods, including ethnography and interviews. It was commissioned to further the understanding of the positive relationships between arts programming in outdoor environments and events, in order to produce the best outcomes for all participants. It has found these relationships to be complex and contingent on the prior experiences and expectations of families involved, as well as their capacity to invest and collude in events through their active and collaborative participation. Aesthetic and other responses to nature are “dynamically perceived in the context of action”. To get the most out of families’ encounters with natural landscapes, the affordances of the natural environment – the things that they allow to happen through their own innate properties – can be enhanced by the encouragement to physically interact and engage with these properties, fostered through creative activities and play. Responses to nature are both cognitive and affective - it is important to know that rain pours, nettles sting and bees buzz from both recognition and experience, so events in outdoor environments offer the opportunities to discover and learn, to collaborate and co-create as well as corroborate existing knowledge and experience. Different benefits are related to different types of engagement in natural landscapes – namely, ‘viewing’, ‘being in’ and ‘active participation’. Arts programming in natural landscapes can provide ways of facilitating these different types of engagement, to maximize the benefits of the environment and the structured opportunities for taking risks, experimenting, feeling free, getting your hands dirty, losing your sense of time, becoming or watching others become fairy tale characters and co-producing shared memories and spaces. The outcomes of these experiences are also dependent on parents’ and children’s’ perceptions of the settings for creative engagement – including both the implicit rules of the kinds of behaviour permissible in different environments, and the physical and creative possibilities which environments provide through their tactile, material qualities and conditions. So the role of the outdoor arts event is to be facilitative rather than regulatory – to manage the risk and enhance the freedoms of the great outdoors, by inciting hands-on creativity, imaginative experiences and time and space for reflection. It also provides families with the opportunities to perform their different family roles outside of the ordinary routines and spaces, have conversations and shape formative memories which can be returned to through repeating arts engagement.
Through the Spellbound Forest and the Just So Festival, Wild Rumpus produce and manage outdoor environments in which families actively take part in creative activities together. They provide: • A focus on providing suitable environments for free play, which encompasses the important functions of unpredictability and flexibility • The management of natural environments to highlight and promote their particular affordances for certain activities, e.g. the use of small twigs in a variety of experiences, such as grasping, throwing, drawing, digging • The promotion of access to green and natural spaces which correlates with higher levels of physical activity, health, and quality of life, and other positive benefits such as enhanced self esteem • The management and understanding of perceptions of risk and the mechanisms to address and propose changing the ‘culture of fear’. For example, providing safe spaces for ‘risky’ and extraordinary’ behavior, new experiences in arts participation, and changes in experience of time and routine • Providing environments which emphasise the positive relationship between participation in arts and cultural programming, family strength, and wellbeing. These relationships are enforced concurrently through shared memory making. There are significant opportunities for active collaborative participation which highlight the importance of shared memory at both events – like the chance to draw and display your family portraits at Just So, and the memory tree and photo opportunities at the Spellbound Forest. These events display the aspects and properties – their own affordances – which, according to our research, influence the likelihood of positive benefits and experiences for children and their families
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Taken at the fantastical photobooth in Nowhernow Jim Ralley Director, The Big Art People firstname.lastname@example.org +447928 119686 Skype: jimralley @jimrali
A detailed evaluation report and appendices are available from email@example.com
Wild Rumpus CIC commissioned The Big Art People and Abigail Gilmore (Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester) to research...
Published on Jan 17, 2013
Wild Rumpus CIC commissioned The Big Art People and Abigail Gilmore (Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester) to research...