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Inside the woodshed imagination is set free

Tucked into the north side of the great central vaulted hall of the Royal Museum in Edinburgh was a small wooden shed festooned with hand drawn flags, plants and intriguing objects. Above the cluttered veranda, was a large sign announcing "Imagination's Chamber".

Inside beckoned a magical environment of fairy lights, drawings, cut-out characters from stories, photographs and pieces of writing and the chance of a journey through drawing into one's own imagination. This replica of the writing shed used by children's author and illustrator Jonny Boatfield was created originally for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was resited in the museum for the half-term holiday to provide a week of twice daily workshops for all ages.

Boatfield is passionate about the human imagination and the importance of using the mind creatively "as a way of coming at things, to extend your use of life".

His workshops began with making Official Artist's Licences, with spaces for drawing four favourite things - an ice-breaking device which threw up some surprising combinations: bagpipes and hamsters, ostriches and Christmas - and completed with rubber stamps and a photograph of each artist as a cut-out character from his multi-layered, adventurous The Twilight Book (Bloomsbury). One session had one astronaut in a warren of rabbits, all now licensed to quill.

"There is nothing more exciting than a fresh clean white piece of paper that you can do anything on," says Boatfield, encouraging the children to "scribble on the paper like looking in the clouds, and a character will pop out".

He goes from child to child, asking questions about their invented character. "Where does she live? Does she have a family?" he enquires of Gertie the Fey who makes vegetables grow.

"Do you know anything more about this chap?" he asks about a cyber goth made by the boy who loves bagpipes. "Could he carry his sandwiches on his spikes?"

It is the quality of his attention and acknowledgement of their inner world, as much as the beauty of the environment he creates, that seems to encourage their creativity. For two hours they draw intently and make a small story board book.

"Colouring in is a good time for thinking," he tells the absorbed children.

Boatfield quietly bemoans the transition from nursery education, when they can paint and draw for hours, to primary classes, where it is rationed and often harnessed to serious work.

Reading is central to the creative process, he says, and the Harry Potter books have made a great change for the better."Hurrah for them," he says, quaintly.

As for spelling, he says he has learnt a whole new language of misspelling from the inundated sessions. More than 300 artist's licences were issued, many to adults. A man of 86 came and was virtually impossible to uproot.

Christine Thompson of the museum's education department was delighted with the project's success. A 10-year-old wrote: "This takes me one step closer to being a writer. Thank you."

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