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Talking buildings

What stories can bricks and mortar tell us? Susan Thomas sets off on a quest to find out

Trained observers use all their senses to discover information from buildings. Children, too, can learn to observe closely, using a range of senses to "listen" to what buildings have to tell them.

A set of cards, each with a simple symbol drawn above a written command, can act as pointers to observation. Commands include look, feel, smell and listen, as well as those that are not so obvious - such as think (and therefore wonder and imagine). Familiarise the children with the cards in the classroom, then ask them to observe certain objects by using the sense displayed when you hold up one of the cards.

Start simply but become more demanding gradually, with ideas such as:

"Listen" to the clock, then the book (as you turn pages); "Feel" the wooden table, then the radiator (for material and temperature); "Look" at your hand and then at the window (for the purpose, view and reflections); "Think" why there are so many books in the bookcase, and then ask "Why do I like this room?".

It's good fun and, after a little practice, the children will be ready to walk around an observation trail and to use their tuned senses to explore and investigate buildings.

On the trail

First stop, the school. Start using the sense cards in practical geography and art activities to familiarise pupils with them. Make a "senses" trail around the school building, stopping at predetermined points of interest. Show or put on view the sense card you wish to focus on. Ask for the children's observations and, whenever possible, stop for a short activity, for example:

* Rubbings: use dark, thick wax crayons on thin paper. Fix the paper with tape to the item to be rubbed. Rub in one direction only. Suitable for brick patterns, manhole covers, raised letters and numbers, airbricks and wooden boards. When pupils stop to do a rubbing, you could use the "feel" sense card to prompt children to talk and make notes about the texture of materials. (You can also use the sense cards provided below (and perhaps make up others, such as "Imagine" and "Tell") to stimulate responses both on the school trail and when you take pupils outside the school.) * Compass points: sit against a wall and use a compass to show which direction you are facing. Make a sketch of the view, labelling it "Facing NorthEastSouthWest".

* Feely words: appoint a scribe to list the words that children use to describe the different textures they feel on the building. Explore the use of opposites, such as "rough" and "smooth" as well as degrees of textural qualities, such as "silky", "scratchy", "grainy". In the classroom, let them rummage among a collection of papers and other materials to find ways to represent the textures they have felt outside. The list can be part of a display of rubbings, photos or examples of different building materials.

* Brick bonds: these are the patterns made by different ways of laying bricks. Using the "Look" card, ask children if they can see a pattern. These may vary with fashion, history and builder's preference. Set up a printing activity beside a brick wall. Provide either an ink pad and rectangular stamp, or thickened paints with printing blocks made from wood or sponge so that the children can make a representation of the pattern on site.

* "What does it tell us?": this is a photographic quiz that helps children to scrutinise the fabric of the building for information. Close-up photos of locks, windows, notices, doors, airbricks and damaged woodwork, given to pairs of young investigators, can be located in the school and their positions identified. What does each object, and the condition it is in, tell us about it? Answers can be written in speech bubbles and glued onto the mounted photo or a pictorial map of the school. (Able children could make their own quiz, using a camera to take photos andor marking the positions on a plan of the building.)

The Great Outdoors

Find three or four buildings that you would like to include on a trail outside school. You will need safe stopping places so that children can view them clearly while remaining in the lead-teacher's control. A geography local area study would include a range of buildings - a shop, a home, a place of worship, a pub or cafe and a building that has had a change of use. Select sites with interesting brick patterns and a variety of materials and decorations. Work resulting from activities on or after a trail can be displayed as a group frieze alongside a painting of the road where the trail took place, pinpointed around a map or plan, or as a numbered sequence of points along a representation of the trail.


Let children discover the character of particular buildings by using a simple sheet to record their findings (see page 22 for sample sheets). It may be helpful to include the symbols used on the senses cards to encourage a varied investigation.

Give enough space for them to draw the whole building, and room to draw an interesting detail slightly bigger. A frame for the main picture allows space for labels, to be written around each sketch, to record materials, evidence of how the building is used or the child's likes and dislikes. While looking at buildings, use the "Think" card to to ask children: "What do you like about this building?"

Change of use

Find one or two buildings near you that have had a change of use. Can the children illustrate the parts of the building that have changed - the name, the notices, the door, and the furnishings? Role-plays in English or drama about the people who used the building in the past reinforce the concept of change, especially if the children have conducted some historical research into the purposes they served. You could use role-play to explore how the use has changed with time, though its function has stayed the same; for example a pub that once was a coaching inn, a small supermarket that once had counter service or a forge that once serviced horse-drawn vehicles but is now a garage. Photographs of the present building can be displayed next to children's imaginary paintings of how it used to be. These can be "antiqued" by using sepia brown for paintings or charcoal to "age" the photo. You could use the "Think" card to ask children to imagine what the building was like at various times in the past.

Looking for patterns

Look for patterns in a row of houses - numbers on the doors, layout and design of windows, porches or garage positions. Notice how people have made their homes individual, perhaps by the front door designs. Use the origami semi-detached paper house (see instructions on page 22) to decorate two adjoining homes differently, either from observation on the trail or from imagination.

Personify a building

In children's literature we find all sorts of inanimate objects given human attributes, from tank engines to teddy bears, so "Why can't buildings speak?" Use some of the evidence collected on the trail to allow children to empathise with a building and write its memories, its interaction with people or perhaps its damage during some stormy weather. Illustrations could bring the building to life - its features can become limbs and facial parts, its walls could even sprout ears. You could use the "Look", "Think" and "Feel" cards to ask children to explain what their imaginary buildings might be like to the rest of the class.

Building art

Paintings, photographs, postcards and snippets from videos can extend the activities to include famous buildings and types of homes suited to different climates and landscapes around the world. And don't forget wax: ask pupils to draw the outline and main features that shape a famous building with a very thick wax crayon.

Paint and wash, just once, over the entire page with a contrasting colour. The paint will run off the wax leaving a bold image of the building. The artist could suggest titles that reflect how they feel about the buildings.


This feature supports the QCA art and design scheme of work 2c for KS1, Can Buildings Speak?

Geography opportunities Observe and record geographical information.

Knowledge of local area Fieldwork investigations.

Use of secondary sources.

Art and design opportunities Make drawings from observations.

Represent different textural surfaces and patterns.

Use of a variety of media and techniques.

Be aware of design from different times and cultures.

History opportunities Identify changing lifestyles and changes in the local area.

Literacy opportunities Use of subject-specific vocabulary.

Choose words with precision.

Explore situations through drama.

Make plans with others.

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