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Creative thinking is more than just child's play

When Katy Wilson's son was just nine months old, she discovered there weren't many fun places she could take a little chap who liked crawling around, exploring everything in reach.

CALM: Children under two get to explore in the Blue Block Studio.
CALM: Children under two get to explore in the Blue Block Studio.

"It was winter," she says, "and the indoor 'soft play' places always seemed to be in drab, poorly lit spaces - not at all inviting for very young children, let alone their parents."

Wilson decided to challenge that almost grudging, utilitarian context by devising a play area that would be calm, relaxing and appealing to all ages. The Blue Block Studio is the result: a self-contained, moveable oasis that can pop up just about anywhere, even in shopping centres, where weary adults and their equally fed up tots can chill out, wrapped in Kim Moore's atmospheric mood music. Maybe snoozing a little or maybe getting to grips with an array of carefully chosen objects, all in the name of gleeful curiosity. It's a genuinely open environment where the under-twos - and their adults - are free to play or just unwind.

"I suppose, really, it's my dream of what I would have liked to have back then," says Wilson.

In this instance, her dream has come true for other parents and little ones. Starcatchers, the Edinburgh-based organisation that specialises in producing creative projects for very young children, had worked with Wilson before and knew she had the knack of turning visionary ideas into practical adventures. Even so, it took months for the Blue Block Studio to take shape and be road-tested by a series of tiny, hands-on critics.

"We knew that safety was a priority, if the space was going to offer the kind of freedom I had in mind," says Wilson. "So everything - all the cables and connections - are tucked away behind the walls, which makes the lighting and the music happen rather magically, I think. There are NO TOYS! It's not meant to be a replica of what's at home. Instead there are lots of things - fans, ribbons, mirrors, music boxes - to touch and feel and shake and listen to.

"It's like an art installation, only no-one has to keep hauling the wee ones away from the objects - just the opposite. This is all about the connections between play and creativity, about the very young discovering for themselves - and with their parents - how much fun it is to devise your own games and just explore what's around you."

By the time the Blue Block Studio was up and running, Wilson's little boy was beyond two years old - no longer in the 0-24 months recommended age range. But just right for Xana Marwick's Yellow Valley, a Starcatchers production aimed at the two to four years age group and based on Who's Calling? a Kenyan children's book that was one of Marwick's own favourites. It tells the story of a little girl who encounters an echo, but thinks she's being mocked by another, very cheeky, little girl whom she can't see.

Marwick's voice bubbles up with such affection as she recounts this narrative that you start to imagine a performance full of the kind of call-and-response that pantos, and their audiences, revel in.

Strike that thought: Marwick has had other ideas. In fact, she's been telling her two actors to "hold back on the participation. This is about you telling the story, and about the audience listening."

There's a pause, then a chuckle. "I actually went into a bit of a panic about this at one point - because there is such an expectation that work for this age range automatically means constant participation," says Marwick. "But I really believe that listening is also participation, and that story-telling is all about engaging your audience and keeping them engaged."

She also chose to have the story told by two guys - Drew Wright and Dougie Hudson - whose musical talents were, for Marwick, an essential part of the whole experience for young audiences.

"I know, I know - a story about a little girl, and it's being told by a couple of men, but we've made this very much a musical story, full of African sounds and rhythms - and instrument that are fascinating to look at as well as listen to.

"We've used the music to create the atmosphere right from the start, with it getting louder as it goes, so by the end it's like a bit of a party. At one venue, we had a granny who was first up on her feet to get dancing at the end. It seems odd that story-telling - toddlers sitting listening and watching, just like my own little boy loves to do, actually - seems almost radical. But this is all about taking young imaginations on a journey, letting them decide what the little girl looks like - maybe becoming that little girl in their own heads. Like I did."

The future for young audiences is bright - it's blue and yellow.

Blue Block Studio and Yellow Valley are at Tramway Glasgow as part of Culture 2014 from July 23 - August 2. Times vary. see www.tramway.org

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