the Ball Run factory

Earlier this year Roma Patel and Louisa Penfold were approached by the Lakeside Arts Centre to develop a children’s creative play environment that embodied the theme of ‘invention’ as part of the annual Wheee! International Children’s Theatre and Dance Festival (June 4 & 5 2016). We were interested in constructing a space that people of all ages could explore through collaboratively making and playing. The parameters of the family festival required us to design an activity that could be accessed at multiple levels of complexity and therefore relatively open-ended in nature.

The idea of building a Ball Run Factory came to us after seeing the work of the Tinkering Studio and makerspaces that design creative activities for children at the intersection of art, science and technology. We also thought it could be a fun to explore the concept of a ‘creative factory’ in Nottingham with the strong industrial history of the East Midlands. We were particularly interested in exploring these ideas with an early years and art-based framework.


In our practice as artists, and within our PhD research, Roma and I have both been drawn to Simon Nicholson’s theory of ‘loose parts’ [1] in which artists and architects construct a creative environment which includes an assortment of materials which can be used, transformed and manipulated in a large variety of ways.

Ball Run Factory was split into two parts. The first was a dedicated area for babies and toddlers featuring a cardboard ‘factory’ with tubes and plastic pipes extending out of it. The pipes and tubing were designed in such a way that children and their parents could move them and roll different balls down, allowing for the space to become a place of continuous transformation. The second area of The Factory was a much larger space where older children could use recycled and quirky materials such as cardboard tubes, plumbing pipes and wooden tracks to design and construct ball runs. We wanted the activity to be intuitive so that when children walked into the space they could have a look at the demo model and what other children were doing and immediately understand the essence and possibilities of the activity with little verbal instruction required.

In the weeks leading up to the Children’s Festival Roma and I collected an array of materials from our recycling bins, charity stores, discount shops, Roma’s daughter’s toy box and the Scrapstore in Nottingham. We also got our friends, family and colleagues to collect materials from home such as cardboard rolls, plastic food containers and cardboard boxes. This allowed us to accumulate a large amount of materials in a short period of time and within our limited budget.

Over the festival weekend we were amazed to see the large variety of ways in which children appropriated the materials. The simplicity and limitless possibilities of the materials and objects seemed to trigger children’s imaginations (pictured below):


We also loved observing the ways in which people’s creations provoked even more eccentric and creative responses from others. For example, on numerous occasions we observed a family complete their ball run and leave the space. Another family would then enter the space and start adding and changing the previous family’s run to make new constructions. The focus of the space was not on the creation of a particular physical thing but rather for children to explore the creative process, develop their own learning strategies and collaborative practice alongside their peers and adults.

It was fantastic to observe how children creatively problem solved the unexpected glitches in their runs. For example, many children experienced the issue of the balls being too bouncy and discovered that placing soft materials and fabrics along parts of the runs created enough friction to slow down the ball and prevent it from bouncing off.

After the festival, Roma and I met again to watch over the visual documentation we took of the children. We used video and photography to critically reflect upon our initial intentions and how children’s appropriation of the materials reaffirmed or challenged these notions. Whilst reviewing the footage, we talked about how the children used the space in unexpected ways. For example, the baby and toddler area featured three different sized balls and three different sized pipes. The toddlers in particular spent a lot of time investigating which balls went down various pipes. When we were making the initial selection of the balls, we did so based on their sensory qualities (i.e. one had bells inside and made jingly noises, another was soft and squishy and the third had soft plastic spikes) and did not really consider their size. In out next iteration of Ball Run Factory, whenever that may be, we would like to explore this idea further to see what other sized pipes and balls could be included.

Overall the construction, delivery and critical reflection of the Ball Run provided a fantastic opportunity for us to explore the construction of a ‘creative laboratory’ in a site of informal learning. We have plans for future of Ball Run Factory and the development of new ‘creative laboratories’ in Nottingham in the future.


Roma Patel is a scenographer currently undertaking her PhD at the Horizon Research Institute and is based in the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham.

Louisa Penfold is a children’s curator currently undertaking a PhD in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham in partnership with Tate (United Kingdom). Her research is investigating the construction of child-centred practice in early year’s immersive environments in art galleries. Louisa blogs on creative environments for children in art galleries.


  1. Nicholson, S 1971. How NOT to cheat children – The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, p.30-34.


Further Links

The idea of a ‘marble run’ has been explored by many scientists, artists, engineers and children. Here are some links to help create and inspire making your own runs at home or at school:

The Tinkering Studio at The Exploratorium

Instructions for how to build the wooden frame of a ball run:


Rube Goldberg

Rube was an American cartoonist who drew cartoons of crazy contraptions that perform simple tasks in very complicated ways. His pictures have inspired many people to create their own contraptions, including these:

Pythagora Switch

This popular Japanese TV show always starts with a Rube Goldberg-inspired contraption. Here is a sample:

‘Raceways: Having Fun with Balls and Tracks’ by Bernie Zubrowski is a great introduction to marble runs and track making:





thinking research at schools day, tate modern

We weren’t the only ones interested in what the children and teachers made of the event

On Thursday 16th June, Becky Parry and I (Pat) went to the opening of the new Tate Modern extension. The entire gallery was closed to the general public and the only visitors were 3000 school students. They’d come from all over the country, many nominated by the regional contemporary art galleries that are part of the Tate Plus Network. The students were of all ages and stages – there were lots of very young children – and included special schools, and schools that served communities struggling to get by in austerity Britain.

It is very unusual for a gallery to give itself over to children. The new Director of TM, Frances Morris, told Emily Pringle and I about a gallery in Barcelona which opens in the morning, every weekday, for schools, and the public is admitted at lunchtime. While this won’t be possible at TM, it is nevertheless clear that the experience of ‘the children’s TM’ has given everyone at the gallery something to think about.

My particular interest on the day was to think about what might be learnt from hanging about looking at what children and teachers actually did in the gallery.

I ‘ve been thinking about extending the ethnographic work I’ve been doing with the Schools and Teachers team. We’ve speculated whether it would be worthwhile investigating booked school visits to the gallery. The Schools and Teachers team are interested, as am I, in how the gallery is used, and how the resources supplied to teachers are actually deployed on the day.

There are clearly a couple of options for how this could be done:

  • I could hang about with a school, shadowing the students through a visit
  • I could choose a particular room and watch what students do in it over a series of visits. It would be possible to cover three to four rooms in a single day and then repeat this activity several times with several different schools.
The day began with reading a manifesto 

However, both of these options depend on the researcher, me, having some idea of what she is looking for – or at. So the TM schools day was a good opportunity for me to hang about and look.

Emily Pringle, who not only directs the learning teams at Tate but is also a special prof in CRACL, was able to spend the day with me and we talked about what we were seeing, and what this suggested about research observation. I always find that talking things over at the time is a pretty useful thing to do. And as it happens this has been a year when Ive had less of those conversations, so it was a real treat to just hang about with Emily all day.

I also took some photos with my phone just to see what I might ‘get’ using images as part of an ethnographic project. Fortunately, all of the schools and parents had given permission for the children to be filmed: those who’d refused were wearing big yellow dots on their clothes so that the two film crews working on the day would know not to include them in any filming. I avoided the dots too.

Emily and I concluded that some of the questions that it seems possible to ask and answer simply through observation/listening in the gallery are:

  • What works in the collection are the students drawn to? Do they read the labels and at what point? Do they talk to each other about the works? Do they talk in front of the work or elsewhere? What do they say?
  • How many students do the activity that is on offer? Who doesn’t? What do they do instead? What level of sustained activity is there (may need individual children to be selected)? What could they do in the activity? What do they do? What resources do they seem to be using – are they bringing in ideas from school or outside, and if so what? Are they working individually or together? Do they talk to each other? How often? About what? Are they asking questions or offering interpretations?
  • How “school-like”is the activity and/or the responses?
  • What is the teacher doing? Are they using supplied resources or have they set their own activity? If so what? What kind of introductions do they make to the activities? What scaffolding do they provide? Modelling?  When do they intervene and about what?
  • How comfortable are the children in the building? Do they move around freely? How much of this seems to be about learning gallery behaviour as opposed to engaging with the works and activities?
  • Are the students taking photos? Of what? Are they sharing the photos, talking about them with each other face to face or with others elsewhere?
The usual rules about behaviour were stretched. But who could resist going under the spider?

There is no doubt that some judicious questioning could also be helpful. I did a little bit of this just to see whether the students would be comfortable talking to me. However it was such an unusual day, with so many adults about, that this wasn’t really a good test.

It does certainly seem possible to find out, through a very quick chat, what kind of preparation has been done at school and what will happen after . This could be one line of casual questioning. There could also be a bit of informal chat  about whether the students had been to TM before, other galleries etc. And certainly a bit of conversation about what the students make of some of the activities and works. We did notice that it was the teachers who were likely to strike up a conversation with us. But the real and most important issue is how much this research questioning and chat would cut into the gallery experience and disrupt the integrity of the visit.

This initial foray is certainly something to talk further about as part of the process of deciding what and where to continue the research in the gallery. And I’m looking forward to that, as well as going back to explore the new hang and the new works by myself.