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:





a visit to Lillian de Lissa Children’s Centre

This is reposted from Louisa Penfold’s PhD blog Art. Play. Children. Pedagogy.

We live in a world of great cultural, social and political diversity. Recent politically-motivated attacks have led to increasing concern, fear and distrust between members of our community. Yet the central pillar of a democratic society lies in a nation’s ability to value the richness of diversity and to allow its citizens to express their beliefs and opinions through various means.

Within an early years education setting, designing for flexibility allows children to encounter educational experiences from diverse levels of knowledge, backgrounds and interests. This then paves the way for the possibility of collaborative learning, understanding, respect and friendship between people.


This week I spent two days at the Lillian de Lissa Children’s Centre in Birmingham (UK) working alongside their artist-in-residence, Lorna Rose. 90% of the children attending the nursery are from an ethnic minority, over half speak English as a second language and among the 90 children in attendance, 28 languages are spoken. The ultimate goal of the nursery is for the children to leave with a sense of curiosity about the world.

Lorna has been working as the ‘atelierista’ (an artist who works in an education setting) at the centre for over 10 years. This post features an interview with Lorna in which she discusses her approach towards designing creative experiences for children – one that is built upon child-centred practice, flexibility and collaborative reflection.

Further Information

Bragg, S & Manchester, H 2011, Creativity, School Ethos and the Creative Partnerships Programme Final Report, The Open University , UK.
Lorna Rose website (2016),, viewed March 16 2016.
Plant, S (2009). A Celebration: Creative Childhood Project 2009-2010. Lillian de Lissa and Belgravia Children’s Centre, Birmingham, UK.
Rose, L 2009, Strength in Diversity, EYE – Early Years Educator, Vo. 11 (1), pp. 36038.
Rose, L & Carlin, A 2011, action creativity – working with boys in ‘.’ In: Elkington, R (ed.) Turning pupils onto learning: Creative classrooms Routledge, Oxon. pp. 39-51.
Thomson, P & Rose, L 2010. ‘When only the visual will do.’ In: Thomson, P & Sefton-Green J (eds.) Researching Creative Learning: Methods and Issues. Routledge. Oxon.
Thomson, P & Rose, L 2011. ‘Creative Learning in an Inner-city Primary School (England).’ In: Wrigley, T; Thomson, P & Lingard, B. Changing Schools – Alternative ways to make a world of difference, Routledge, Oxon.
Vecci, V (2010). Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the Role and Potential of Ateliers in Early Childhood Education, Routledge, London.

engage conference

Louisa Penfold and Nicky Sim attended the recent engage conference in Glasgow. Nicky Sim ran a workshop in collaboration with practitioners from the Whitworth, Manchester. The Whitworth are part of Circuit, which is the research context for Nicola’s PhD on partnerships between galleries and youth organisations. Nicky posted a storify about the workshop on the Circuit website. Louisa writes about her conference experience here.

Peer-led. Disadvantaged. Youth. Collaboration. Co-production. Participation. Partnership, Engagement. Experiential. Unlearning. Agency. Flicking through the conference brochure, the key themes of the 2015 Engage conference were immediately apparent.

conf15 header Tessitura.jpg

The scene was set in the opening speech: the growth in diversity in communities across the UK has come at a time of increased funding cuts to arts organizations across the sector. This has resulted in many arts organizations and galleries struggling to incorporate the broad demographics that reflect the diverse communities in which we live. The arts have been increasingly marginalized in the school curriculum meaning that sites of informal learning, such as art museums, need to play an increasingly important role in providing arts education in the community. As a doctoral student who has recently relocated from Australia to the UK, my interest in the attending the conference lay not so much in hearing about the dire state of youth and funding in the arts, but about what individuals and organisations were actively doing to address these complex concerns.

Central questions presented to attendees included: how can organisations make equitable relationships with youth that authentically project their voices through partnerships and programs? Is it young people or institutions that benefit from such peer-led programs? How does involvement in arts organizations help youth make decisions outside of these institutions?

Key-note speaker Darren O’Donnell, Artistic Director of Mammalian Diving Reflex, presented on the company’s human-centred threatre/activism/arts performance projects. Boarding on the line of utopianism, O’Donnell advocates for breaking the cycle of social concern leading to excessive precautioning and safeguarding of children. These result in a standardized formatting of what children and youth are able to do in society. Learning is the result of different people coming together and creating new knowledge. The solution being children’s and youth programs to be built upon a framework of human-centred experience. Projects O’Donnell discussed included Haircuts for Children, a performance piece in which children are paid to run a hair salon in which they give free haircuts to the public. Through the design of the performance, the relationships between children and adults is reformatted, creating a new social space and dynamic between individuals.

I found the findings of Dr. Esther Sayers’ doctoral research into youth programs at Tate in the mid-2000’s particularly noteworthy and slightly disheartening. Her research found that much of peer-led programming excludes youth voices and rarely diversifies gallery audiences. Dr. Sayers’ pointed out the complex challenge of creating equitable relationships between youth and art galleries as a result of hierarchical structures within institutions and amongst peer groups. In order to genuinely integrate youth voices into institutions, alternate hierarchies that place youth as an integral part of the structure need to be put in place. Such fundamental reconstruction of institutional hierarchy calls for a need of support from directors. I couldn’t help but notice the lack of gallery directors attending the conference.

However perhaps the most substantial and detailed research on the experience of youth and arts institutions is yet to come. Dr Roz Hall presented on her research on the experiences of those working on the Circuit program. She called for the need to incorporate the evaluation process of youth programs from the conception of the project and not just a ‘tag-on’ at the end. Such research requires the involvement of everyone working within the project (managers, junior staff, artists, youth, directors, audiences) and not just those with the ‘loudest voices.’ Evaluation does not need to assess the outcomes and impact of a project against specific criteria but rather seek to identify what we know about youth work and how we know it. The dissemination of findings amongst the broader community is crucial to help inform the programming of other institutions in the future. As a sector we need to work collaboratively to share our challenges, experiences and successes in order to make relationships between youth and organisations more authentic, ethical and meaningful for the community that they aspire to serve.