The future's bright, the future's yellow

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Laurence Alster visits a centre for primary children that translates science into excitement

The revised national curriculum makes great demands on primary schools, but nowhere more so than in science and design and technology. Teachers are required to explore such topics as sound, forces and electricity in ways that will both amuse and inform young minds - scarcely the easiest of tasks. Happily, help is at hand - and from a source as inspired as it is new.

Funded by City Challenge and the local education department, the Making Place is purpose-built to translate science into excitement. Set in the grounds of Barlby Primary School in north Kensington, west London, the building announces this intention through its very appearance.

Looking more like an alpine ski lodge than a science centre, the Making Place surprises with its long wood and glass frontage supported by visible tree trunks. The roof is made of cedar shingles and grass, and the walls are insulated with recycled newspaper. From top to bottom, the greenest of architectural statements, the timber frame rests not on traditional brick, but on trunks of Welsh Douglas fir.

The interior is equally unusual. The immediate impression is of a spacious, sunny environment that promises as much fun as instruction. That promise is realised the moment children get their hands on the gadgets and gizmos set along the corridor. ("Please touch" say the bright yellow notices). Among them are a 14-metre-long speaking tube to demonstrate the workings of sound, a steel track to test degrees of friction, and wall hangings that show how very ordinary materials - plywood, say, or recycled plastic detergent bottles - can be transformed into unexpectedly attractive displays.

The head of the centre, Dr Katherine Hann, stresses that these and other objects have a definite educational purpose. "It's not only hands on, but also brains on," she says. Or, in the case of a nail-studded seat that shows the effect of weight distribution, bottoms on.

This particular favourite is found in the first working space, a bright and adaptable area that holds an abundance of educational devices, both centre-made and bought, several computers, a large television screen and video-cassette recorder.

The second such area Katherine Hann calls "The Wet and Messy Making Room". A quick look explains the name. One end of the room resembles a kitchen; the other holds rather different tackle: scissors, pliers, screwdrivers, hammers and hand drills, stored on trolleys for ease of transport.

And yellow is everywhere. Not only notices, but gadgets, chairs and fittings are partially or entirely golden, giving the Making Place an optimistic, can-do air. When working with children, Katherine Hann even wears a yellow T-shirt and peaked cap, a study in canary-coloured inspiration as she moves about a class.

Clearly, the children love the activities. Not simply because they're fun. Katherine Hann points out that the Making Place is a venue where both children and adults learn by enjoying themselves. "The object is not only to learn, but also to enjoy the experience," she says.

Hence the extensive programme of in-service sessions on such topics as magnetism and gravity, the science and technology of buildings and construction materials (a subject for which the Making Place provides an ideal example), and solids, liquids and gases. For these and other topics, all materials are provided and every session ends with a free pack of follow-up ideas.

The children always take something away with them, be it a windmill (a yellow one, naturally) after examining air as a force or, following a session on levers, a "snappy-snappy crocodile" made from lollipop sticks and paper fasteners. For food technology, it might be a bottle of home-made lemonade. Every product embodies the guiding principle of the centre: make, learn and take.

For Rebecca Hunter, a teacher at St Thomas's Church of England primary school in north Kensington, the system works a treat. Her year 5 class of 9-year-olds hasn't stopped talking about its session on practical forces, she says. "The classes were well-structured, the resources far better than we have at school, and Katherine Hann's approach was perfect." Not only did the children keep the jumping beans and balancing toys that they had made, but Rebecca Hunter came away with a booklet filled with "brilliant" teaching ideas.

Several other teachers at St Thomas's have reserved their places. The same is true of teachers all over London. It looks as though Katherine Hann's timetable will soon be as crowded as it deserves. For her and all who use the Making Place, the future looks as bright as its signature colour.

* All courses, events and workshops must be booked in advance. Cost per session Pounds 1.50 per pupil in Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea schools. Prices for other schools available on request. Prices and timetable for Inset courses and drop-in sessions available on request. Dr Katherine Hann, the Making Place, Barlby Road, London W10 6BH.Tel: 0181 964 2684.e-mail:

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