This is the text from an article in START magazine February 2004:

Dave Dyer teaches at Middle Street primary school in Brighton where he has developed an exciting and mysterious blend of real and virtual projects that capture children’s imagination and help to stimulate a wide range of creative approaches to all aspects of the curriculum.

 “I tend to use the cabinet of curiosities as an analogy for thinking about learning. Cabinets became popular in the 16th century and were used by the wealthy to display things that they considered interesting or wonderful. Many of the objects displayed were curiosities brought back from new lands being reached for the first time by European explorers. The objects were displayed, not according to any formal system of classification, but according to their owner’s tastes and sense of the relative importance of each object or group within the entire cabinet. Some artefacts were faked to fit the requirements of collectors seeking the kind of objects that they believed existed on the edges of the known world – so that cabinets came to contain unicorn horns and mermaids.

 Our cabinets at school hold all sorts of objects and provide a rolling 'show and tell' focus that at any time might contain items related to specific curriculum study or things that are just interesting such as; Victorian board games, old maps, scientific toys and curios like stereoscopes, binoculars or digital microscopes. Some of the items are more ‘provocative’ in terms of trying to establish children’s understanding of the world – when Year 4 were studying rocks, a ‘fossil mermaid’ placed in amongst the other fossils caused some furious arguments about the ‘fossil’ and discussion of how it might be possible to ‘test’ it. Many children were quite happy to accept that this was a real artefact, while others were absolutely certain that it was a fake. This kind of argument might well have taken place 450 years ago – over some strange half-understood object in an original cabinet – which is what makes the cabinets useful reminders of the arbitrary, personal and pre-scientific nature of much learning in children at this age.

Some of the optical toys have inspired art work such as producing video kaleidoscopes (link1 and link2).   Digital video cameras have also been used in a range of story telling activities. To start with the children were simply asked to make a short film using some of their favourite bits and pieces out of the cabinet. Children also made videos of themselves talking about a box of their favourite small objects brought from home – holiday mementoes, grandfathers’ medals, a snake skin. The videos show just their hands picking up each object as they explain what they are and why they are important (link).

We’ve also tried to build up collections of interesting graphics on our computer network. Some images relate to cabinets and the age of exploration – pictures by artists such as Aldrovandi, Archimboldo, Hoefnagel,  and Seba -  and other images that seem to belong in a more modern version of ‘cabinets of curiosities’– optical illusions, puzzle pictures, 3D stereograms etc. Sometimes just having access to good resources – artefacts, graphics etc – helps to inspire children. The effort involved in finding interesting pictures of fish (and converting them to a useful format) was well worth it for the pleasure of watching Maddy assemble this Arcimboldo-style horse so confidently using the computer (link).
To have a go yourself – try our on-line  ‘Archimboldo Art Producer’.

In many Primary schools there often seems to be a bias towards approaching creativity in terms of ‘art activities’. At Middle Street Primary we are also trying to allow for creativity in more technical settings by providing resources such as large remote-control cars that children can customize with their own designs of weapons and defences to fight Robot-Wars style battles; video cameras for children to record and edit their own plays, and software that allows the design of machines, towns and worlds. We’ve involved children who were finding it difficult to be involved in the school play, with solving technical design problems – how to use a pulley system to hoist the screens up behind the stage, how to back-project scenery and add sound effects to the play using computers (video of back projection link).

 Very few people want to be creative all the time! In this project we haven’t been particularly concerned with ‘producing outcomes’ but more with creating opportunities for ‘playing’ with ideas and resources.  We’ve given children space and time to use resources how they want to – some children seem to naturally alternate between researching their interests (looking up things on the Internet, using software, collecting objects) and engaging in creative activities based on their interests. Some need encouragement to try out other possibilities and discuss things with other children – which is why we have sometimes run more structured activities over several days in holiday times – for example our ‘Alien Archeology’ project which gave groups of children the opportunity to design, destroy and bury a tiny civilisation, then dig up the remains of other groups’ worlds (link).”