Reflections from Sightlines

Catherine Reding from Sightlines initiative, ( a national early years charity promoting and supporting a creative and reflective approach to early childhood education, shares her observations after spending an afternoon with us.

On 5th April I spent a wonderful afternoon visiting Baby Saturday, part of Baby Art Club, at Manchester Art Gallery.

A studio space in the gallery was transformed into an exploratory play-space for babies and their carers. Artist Naomi Kendrick has created an interactive installation titled invasion of the soft, inspired by Joana Vasconcelos’s current exhibition in the gallery. Soft fabrics with a wide variety of textures, feathers, balls of wall, flour and bubbles had been arranged so they can be explored.

Artist and musician Najia Bagi has made a musical mobile for the babies to explore. The structure is made of bamboo and has a variety of different, mostly metallic objects, hanging from it at different heights. These objects make different but related sounds. The objects include bells, wind chimes and spoons.

Najia welcomed babies and their families into the studio, where they were able to freely explore and play with the installation and sound sculpture. One of the most striking features of the afternoon was the calm atmosphere, even when the room became more populated. This was aided by the subtle use of music – Brian Eno playing quietly – and light – nearly everything was white, with careful attention paid to light and shadow effects.


Being together in play

I noticed many beautiful interactions between adults and babies, promoted by the carefully chosen materials and the calm atmosphere. This photograph shows a boy and his mother who were both very interested in their reflections in the mirror. I could see how fascinated he was, and how he watched and imitated the expressions on his mother’s face. I noticed another mother playing with her daughter, gently swinging and bouncing a suspended ball of wool.

Many families enjoyed going inside the den area, and playing games hiding underneath pieces of cloth. A variety of textures of fabric were available, and some parents thoughtfully removed their children’s socks and shoes so they had the experience of feeling these with their feet as well as their hands.

Both children and parents enjoyed sharing their delight in exploring flour, feeling it with their fingers, sprinkling it on one another and sifting it back into the bowl, and on themselves.

I saw a baby girl and her granddad played a game with bubbles that was delightful to watch. Using a desk fan as a propellant, the granddad sent the bubbles flying across towards his granddaughter who watched, entranced, pointing at the bubbles. Once the bubbles had gone, she looked at her granddad expectantly, waiting to see if he would send more. Both granddad and granddaughter were joyfully absorbed in this game for many minutes.


Light and space

Qualities of light were thoughtfully used, through use of window blinds, OHP projections and twinkling lights which could be picked up and held. One baby girl was very interested in the lights, picking them up then putting them around herself.

Reflective silver card on the floor and hand-held mirrors gave the children the opportunity to see themselves in different ways. One very important element of the installation was the space to move – I observed a father and son, both on their knees, moving and playing together in an almost dance-like way.


Playing with sounds

Najia’s sound sculpture consisted of a suspended bamboo frame hung with metal chimes, spoons, beaters and a central cymbal. The whole structure could be moved by holding onto the bamboo and shaking it, or individual instruments and objects could be explored. The sounds created were gentle and magical. Some children played around the edge, others laid inside, and some stood up in or next to the sculpture.

Najia and I talked about the difference between hanging the objects rather than placing them on the floor. We thought that when they are suspended, the inherent capacity for swinging and moving in a particular trajectory presents itself as an invitation to the children. Hanging objects also defines their place in relation to other objects and the way that they can move, which is different to placing them on the floor.

We could a see huge interest in reaching for the instruments, for example in this young girl, watched delightedly by her mother, whose expression shows her captivation with the cymbal. For her, I wondered if the beauty of the cymbal, with its shiny metallic moving surface, was the main attraction at this point.

Often babies would listen and watch intently as adults made sounds to them. This baby girl was very interested in the sounds being made above her. A few moments later she explored the chimes herself, feeling and moving them with her fingers.


Time, space and attention

During my experience at Baby Art Club I was reminded of the three elements of Time Space and Attention which underpin Sightlines Initiative’s Developing Environments of Enquiry framework. Young children and their families had plenty of unhurried time here. They were able to become absorbed in what they were doing together, without the feeling of being rushed. The space was inviting and encouraged curiosity and interaction.

Looking around the room, there were attentive babies and adults everywhere. I saw children’s attention directed to finding out about the exciting world around them, and how they could affect it with their actions. Nowhere did I see children with ‘short attention spans’; occasionally I did however see a parent try to move their child away from something they were absorbed in and onto something new, presumably because they the adult wanted a change.

I saw how important it was for the children to share their experiences with others. I noticed how they looked out from what they were doing, wanting to be seen and validated by a supportive adult, one who shares in their joy and excitement, and playfully participates in their quest for making meaning.

What is art?

During the afternoon Najia and I talked about our perception of ‘art’ and ‘the everyday’. We could see that both adults and children were taking time to experience everyday objects in ways other than their conventional functions: feeling the soft texture of flour, delighting in sounds of spoons and their reflections in mirrors; they were together in the world of play rather than that of just function. Through this context of playful, open-ended encounter, creative possibilities opened up to both the adults and children. They found what I have heard educators in Reggio call ‘the extraordinary in the everyday’.

I believe this is one of the great opportunities that ‘art’ can give us: encountering things in new contexts, taking time to wonder and feel what this means for us.

The significance of the environment

At Baby Art Club I saw many lively and beautiful interactions between babies and their families, and their mutual delight in exploring the materials around them. The encounters with the installation were unhurried, spacious and open-ended, full of life and meaning.

I wondered what the impact of the experience was for parents: perhaps they were able to see and be with their children differently in this environment?

One father told me, “It’s really different here to the usual places. The colours – they’re not all bright – it’s great. It feels calm. I might just come and hang out here myself.” A mother told me that the time she was spending here with her daughter was very special to her.

These comments led me to think of how this place can be seen in such stark contrast with many environments which are created for children, which are often busy and noisy, full of primary colours and plastic toys.

The babies and families of Manchester are very lucky to have such a wonderful resource on their doorstep: long may it continue.

Making music mobile


Musician and artist Najia Bagi talks us through the development of her musical mobile for Manchester Art Gallery’s Baby Art Club.

When Alex, Naomi and I met up to plan Baby Art Club we started talking about what sounds and frequencies babies respond to, what movements they like to make and what shapes provide stimulation. We’ve noticed that babies seem to particularly engage with instruments that are suspended on strings from washing lines in the studio and how this promotes movement as well as sounds. I decided to extend this idea and create a musical mobile. 

I wanted to make something which looked beautiful and simple and which sounded peaceful, but I wasn’t sure which instruments and sounds would capture babies attention. Naomi and I went on a research trip to Forsyths music shop in Manchester, where we enlisted the expert help of Naomi’s son Jackson 
in testing the percussive instruments there. It was surprising how 
much weight Jackson could lift, and how quickly he learnt what to do 
with an instrument to make noise. 

I then went to Johnny Roadhouse, another music shop in Manchester. The 
staff there were absolutely brilliant and I left that day with bags of 
inspiration, 20 individual Morris dancing bells and a cymbal, among 
other things! 

The next part was really exciting. After buying 20 teaspoons, some 
cane, 3 wind chimes and a host of other metallic and “soundful” 
objects, me and my stepdad built the frame and drilled holes in 
everything so that the objects could be suspended. After lots of drilling and threading we had a frame that was a pyramid shape, with lots of holes in it to suspend things from. 

When I installed the mobile the day before Baby Art Club, I was 
thrilled to discover that it looked as clean and pretty as I’d wanted 
it to. It sounded really peaceful and tuneful and importantly it also 
worked with the aesthetic of the rest of the installation which was 
designed by Naomi Kendrick. 

And the babies loved it! They explored the reflective surfaces of the 
cymbal, wind chimes and spoons and experimented with how movements create sound by interacting with their bodies. And because the sounds are so pleasant, parent and baby are spending long periods of time playing with the mobile, which we know improves communication between parent and baby. 

Over the next few months I’ll observing how parents and babies use the 
mobile and use this research to inform which sound making objects I use.   

Mini Moles at Museum of London

Guest post by Cassandra Travares, Early Years Programme Coordinator, Museum of London

At the Museum of London, we have developed a strong Early Years programme over the past few years. Each week we run high quality sessions for babies and toddlers across both museum sites and we have a different focus activity for each of our sessions which explore the different ways of learning. To do this, we alternate between gallery visits, craft activities, messy play, musical sessions and classroom explorations to keep these sessions fresh, exciting and innovative for our youngest visitors and their carers.

Chocolate Sensory Session Brenda Coyle 2013 (2)

Developing these sessions can be extremely challenging, especially when working with babies. Brenda, our energetic session leader, constantly thinks of new and exciting ways to engage babies and their carers. While she uses some of the same elements to encourage the babies learning through repetition, the sessions are kept fresh by incorporating different resources and focus activities. Each week, Brenda proves that this can be done both well and inexpensively as she transforms any number of ordinary items into sensory resources for babies. Sponges, tin foil, torches, scraps of fabric and even hair curlers have become exciting new objects which fully engage the babies.

As one parent said while attending our sessions ‘it makes you interested in doing something new, finding something that you can pull out in your kitchen and make a game with.’

Our Messy Moles session is one of the most anticipated activities of the month. As the name says, these are extremely messy sessions where the babies are encouraged to explore the different textures, colours, smells and even the taste of our messy resources.

As most babies like to explore new things with their mouths, it is crucial that our messy play is done using non-toxic materials so the best way to do this is to use food. Corn flour, jelly, pasta, oats and chocolate have all been transformed from foods to learning tools in this session. Often learning means that the babies fully immerse themselves in our messy materials; it is not unusual to see babies just in their nappies covered from head to toe in flour or jam at these sessions.

Mol messy

Besides being a fun activity, messy play is also an important element in early years learning. It helps children to develop hand-eye coordination as well as gross and fine motor skills. Crucially, they are also taking important steps in understanding the world around them as they explore the different smells, sensations and textures of the resources we use.

While the babies are learning the adults are learning new skills as well. One of our adults attending a babies’ session told us that attending the sessions is ‘teaching me how to interact with him’-and this is exactly the result we want.

MoL parents

It is important that all of our visitors have a memorable and high quality experience when visiting the Museum of London. By offering these sessions, our Early Years programme is helping the museum be an inclusive institution which caters for the learning needs of all of our visitors.

*These sessions are run at the Museum of London by artist Brenda Coyle. For more information on the sessions or to hear more about our programmes for under 5s, contact me, Cassandra Tavares on

Baby Boo Springtime!

Hello, we thought you might like to hear an update on what we’ve been up to at Horse and Bamboo in Waterfoot this week. For the last few days we transformed The Boo into a world of spring time for babies and their carers.

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We divided the theatre into three spaces. The first was all about spring, colour, fruits and sunshine. We lined baskets with moss that babies could touch with their hands and feet or climb in to with their whole bodies. We filled the baskets with oranges, lemons and limes, these were great for rolling.
We also had slices of oranges and limes to try. There were some great sour faces from some of the babies but others loved the limes and came back for more!


One basket was made into a nest with little shaky eggs and glow eggs inside. Other baskets were filled with daffodils, mint, lavender, rosemary and sage creating a lovely aroma in the space.

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We wanted to make this space as colourful as possible so we set up an over head projector and lots of coloured gells for babies to play with. We worked with Sue Auty from Whalley Range All Stars to create inflatable nests and roots that uncurled as they filled with air. We projected time lapse films of flowers growing and blooming along with lambs, birds and other spring things. The films were accompanied by bird song and interesting sounds, we even had Vivaldi’s Spring to accompany the babies as they explored.

To get them ready for the next space we had water spray bottles so we could water the babies like flowers with puffs of startling mists. There was lots of ‘again!’ from the older ones and some very surprised faces from the littlies.

The second space was all about water. We had sounds and projections of rain, rivers and slow motion splashing. We had a big paddling pool with lots of things to scoop and pour with; tea pots, sponges, funnels, bowls and shower heads. We had three little fountains and metal bowls filled with ice cubes and ice globes and lots of bubbles in all shapes and sizes. We also had a lot of towels and squidgy cloths to dry all the babies!

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Finally we went through to our last space; here we only had one thing: Clay. We had flat platforms of clay on the outside and one big mound of squidgy wet clay that became known as ‘Squidge Island.’ The sounds for this space included lots of squelching, gurgling and bit fat bubble sounds. There was lots of pressing hands and fingers into the clay and making big lump shapes. Those that were walking had a great time feeling the clay beneath their feet, and some smaller ones had a great time trying to eat it. We had lots of buckets of soapy water and sponges which became the ‘baby car wash’ with a bit of Rose Royce thrown in to the mix.

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We’ve had lots of fun experimenting with the whole thing, from deciding what to put into the space to changing things on the day to see which way around the spaces worked best. It’s been wonderful seeing how the babies interacted with all the different things and how the parents got stuck in. Our next plan is to try something new for Horse and Bamboo’s Puppet Festival at the end of May. It looks like a Baby Yurt may be on the horizon…

CBeebies joins Whitworth Music Baby!

CBeebies presenter Alex Winters and his team joined us at this week’s Music Baby. The team filmed in the first 2 sessions capturing our fantastic parents and babies playing and exploring the musical environments that we created. The footage of parents and children making music will form part of a new, interactive guide for parents on CBeebies Grown-ups that explores music and why it’s great for early year’s children. The resource will be available on the Cbeebies Grown-ups website in the summer, so watch this space!

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This week we also had a special appearance from a bassoon! Played by one of our brilliant Royal Northern College of Music student volunteers.

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We had a great time. I think William enjoyed the space to perfect his commando crawl as much as the musical instruments

Brill time!

Glow sticks and psychedelic lights… it must be Disco Baby!

From Handel’s Water Music to a taste of Saturday Night Fever, this week’s Music Baby was Disco! The blinds were closed, the lights were dimmed and an immersive magical environment was created with the help of disco balls, spot lights, fairy lights and wall projections.

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The grand piano took centre stage and babies and their parents/ carers were treated to performances by music students from Royal Northern College of Music as well as getting to have a tinkle on the old ivories themselves.

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The light projections on the walls were the highlight and went down particularly well with very young babies.

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We loved the session this week, it felt totally different to normal and my baby loved all the lights.

We have a projector so i want to try to set up the wall lighting to music back at home.

Great session this week, thank you!

This was our first time and we loved it will definitely be coming back!

Baby Play at Rusholme Sure Start Children’s Centre

While the Whitworth Art Gallery has been closed for redevelopment the Learning and Engagement Team, as well as continuing our engagement work in weird and wonderful settings around Manchester, have each taken on a different work placement. The period of closure presented us with a great opportunity to get out there and really embed ourselves within our local communities to build strong, meaningful and lasting relationships with different organisations and individuals.

As Early Years Coordinator I chose to do my placement at Rusholme Sure Start Children’s Centre. This centre is right in the heart of Rusholme and right on Whitworth’s doorstep so it made perfect sense to want to work with them.

I’ve been working with Faheema (Centre Manager) Grace and Caroline (Outreach Workers) over the last year or so to help them set up their own Stay and Play sessions specifically for non walking babies. Back in the summer Grace and Caroline visited Art Baby to start to gather ideas about how their sessions might work. I shared everything I’d learnt along the way when setting up our own baby sessions and gave them as much advice as possible about what types of sensory resources and objects work well with babies and where to source them from.

In September 2013 Rusholme’s Baby Play was born! Grace and Caroline have done a great job. Each Wednesday the space is transformed into an immersive sensory environment. The lights are dimmed and the room is illuminated with an array of fairy lights and projected lights on the ceiling. There’s a soft cosy black and white area for parents and babies to relax in, treasure baskets full of natural objects encouraging heuristic play, coloured ribbons, sand, water, den spaces and lots lots more for babies and their parents/ carers to explore. And each week there’s a health visitor on hand to answer any questions or worries that parents might have.

I love going along to these Wednesday sessions and meeting new parents and their babies from the Rusholme community. Last week we had our youngest visitor yet at just 4 weeks old! Having this unique opportunity has really enabled a strong relationship to build up with the team at Rusholme which I know will continue and thrive once the Whitworth reopens it doors and way into the future.

Baby Play is for babies who have not yet found their feet and runs every Wednesday from 1-3pm at Rusholme Sure Start Children’s Centre. For more information contact or call 0161 227 3171.