Wearhead Primary School

What started as a light hearted ‘Best Bird Box in Britain’, developed into a long standing relationship with a primary school, high above the tree line, in the Wear Valley.

In collaboration with Creative Partnerships, which places design professionals into schools as an ex curricula activity, the brief from Durham City Arts was to make a bird box for the riverside peninsula around the world heritage sites of Durham Cathedral & Castle. On discovering the diversity of both the bird species and land ownership, we created 25 boxes in order to promote an awareness for the landscape’s future.

We were subsequently collaborated with psychologist Brian Edmiston researching ‘Dramatic Inquiry’, which seeks to further a child’s development through learning in imagined narratives. We created a series of timber-slatted boxes that could be assembled into any number of volumes and enclosures. These were used as a background for an imaginative landscape.

The Bird Boxes evolved into something far greater than anticipated due to their community participation and were awarded a D&AD Yellow Pencil for Environmental Design & Public Environment & Community. Although the boxes were only a small intervention into a historic landscape, which has changed very little for over 200 years, their impact was extraordinary and really caught everyone’s imagination. With the help of the children and the RSPB, each bird box differed in size and were tailored to the specific requirements of each species found in the region. The boxes have been fitted to trees and buildings without harm by using a simple canvas trap and buckle. By giving one bird box to each of the land owners, we managed to create an awareness for the landscape’s future by allowing these ‘temporary’ structures to bring often complex common land management issues into debate whilst being under the radar of normal conservation constraints. The aim was to create a common sense of awareness. During Architecture Week, we ran a ‘treasure map’ competition to see if anyone could discover them all within the full leaf tree canopy around the World Heritage site.

We were thrilled to discover how the children could engage with the opportunity and promote such strong ideas.  They seemed to have such an open minded view of the world, perhaps accentuated by their uncluttered upbringing in such a stunning moorland landscape. They were the perfect kids to test our ‘dramatic inquiry’ building blocks. The making of dens and stories was second nature to them. ‘Dramatic inquiry’ is not just talking about the people and situations in the imagined worlds we discover in stories. It is also the imagined spaces where children and adults can enact imagined events in dramatic action in order to reach some form of revelation or experience. It temporarily suspends the idea of front to back classroom teaching in favour of seeing the space as a blank canvas for a new imagined landscape and narrative. As such, our blocks could help promote at any one time the idea of a story or context, whether it be parts of a ship, such as the hold or the captain’s cabin,  or an oil platform and a rowing boat.

The child psychologist studied the children’s ability to interact and engage with each other and their environment. The blocks, made of simple primed plywood were heavy enough that they required co-operation and organisation by the children to move them, and offered a multitude of possible arrangements and options. The blocks formed variously the landscape, the buildings, the vehicles, and the tools for the scenario as the children developed their story.

Dramatic inquiry lies on the continuum between dramatic play and dramatic performance. Like dramatic play, dramatic inquiry is rooted in children’s love of narrative as well as their desire and ability to pretend to be other people who live elsewhere. Like all play, dramatic inquiry is always voluntary. Children choose to play along. In our final project we developed a storytelling pavilion for their playground.