Give a child a wooden spoon and ask them to make a person - and it could all be over in minutes: two dots for eyes, a smiley mouth, a few splotches of colour. But give a child a wooden spoon as part of a countywide celebration of local history and ask them to turn it into someone important to them or to history - and you have a different level of artistic involvement altogether.
This is exactly what schools across Oxfordshire are experiencing as they join together in the "Spoon Race", a project to mark 1,000 years of the county's history. It is the brainchild of Francesca Shakespeare, an artist who came up with a vision of 1,000 wooden spoons, one for each year, transformed into a colourful pageant of the county's citizens past and present and displayed together as a collective work of art.
Primary schools, secondaries and special schools from all over the county will have the chance to contribute to this "human race of spoons". Many will be exhibited in regional displays and 1,000 spoons will end up on a sweeping "runway" table at Modern Art Oxford in the autumn, as part of the 2007 celebrations for 1,000 years of Oxfordshire.
Francesca piloted her idea at the art club at her primary school, together with other artist parents, and the team then secured a pound;10,000 Lottery grant from Awards for All to take it around the county. Schools can sign up for Spoon Race workshops for free, with members of the team, and so far some 330 wooden spoons, individually decorated and dressed, are ready and waiting.
This morning it is the turn of Northbourne Primary in Didcot, and Francesca and Doke Ostle, a fellow artist, have arrived with bags stuffed with arts and crafts goodies for a workshop session with a group of 30 four to 11-year-olds.
The tables are spread with newspaper and are laid out with all the materials you could need for a spoon person: from paints and brushes, to strips of modroc for moulding a face, pipe-cleaners and lolly sticks for arms or accessories, old clothes and scraps of material, plus buttons, beads, beans and even shiny pom-poms.
Northbourne has chosen three pupils from each class to participate, all children who the school feels would particularly benefit from an extra creative opportunity. The children have had a week or so to think about the person they would like to make: either themselves, someone close to them who lives in Oxfordshire, or a well-known local figure past or present.
The youngest children, not surprisingly, stay close to home. "I'm making my mum," says four-year-old Sadie decidedly, brandishing bright pink material with stars on. Six-year-old Kieran, with a bit of prompting, has come up with Alice in Wonderland and is cutting long white hair for her. Another boy has his spoon in army uniform to represent his grandad who fought in the war. Nathan, 10, is working on Tim Henman and a big, wire tennis racket.
The children work for nearly two hours with purpose and concentration, and as their spoon people take shape you can see, and feel, them getting more and more absorbed in the task. Francesca and Doke are on hand to offer advice or help with cutting or sticking, but it is the children who take the lead and make the decisions.
"It's not like Blue Peter - we don't do a demonstration of how to do it,"
says Francesca. "It just evolves."
Mary Burr, the headteacher, hopes to extend the spoon-craft to other children in the school. "This will be an inspiration for other activities - including looking more into the history of Oxfordshire," she says.
Other primary schools now want to do their own Spoon Race as a whole-school project. One primary went to town on Tudor local history, with children doing research and producing Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh spoons as well as a cast of lesser-known figures with specific local connections.
Another school is using nothing but natural materials, collected by the children, on their spoons.
Older boys at a special school are planning to put their spoons towards their art GCSEs.
"I think the reason it's been so successful is that it's simple," says Doke Ostle. "It's not art with a big A and the children take such pleasure in it.
"They can sometimes be quite critical of their own artwork and say it is rubbish but the children are so proud of these spoons."
RUNNING YOUR OWN SPOON RACE
* Take a theme for the spoons, to give the children something to think about: local history, a project on Greek myths, a Shakespeare play. Use the spoons afterwards as puppets to put on a simple production.
* Encourage children to collect and bring in a whole range of materials - fabrics, buttons, glitter, wool, wire - including things which might have a special significance for the character they are making. Wooden spoons are inexpensive to buy.
* Don't make too many rules about how the spoons should be decorated: give the children as free a rein as you can.
* Make sure you have enough time and space for the children to get stuck in and make a mess.
* Ask the children to write a short description of the spoon they have made and why, and attach these to the spoons.
* Display the spoons collectively by drilling holes in a plank of wood for them to stand in.