Program for children in rural areas aims to get them to use daily items in creative ways, Fang Aiqing reports.
Under the cloudy night sky lit with fireworks, a group of schoolchildren took a “carousel ride” to celebrate the traditional torch festival in Puge county, Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province, earlier last month.
This “carousel” was a new toy they made themselves — with 12 bicycles joining each other from end to end, and the inside space dotted with colorful solar lamps. As 12 children rode the bicycles, the bright yellow installation turned round and round — just like a carousel in theme parks.
The torch festival, which fell on Aug 2 this year, is for local Yi people to pray for good harvest. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has blocked off large-scale celebrations, the children did get a new fantasy instead.
Nan Xueqian, one of the initiators of Program Spark, called the installation Blooming Time, inspired by the strong emotional connection between children and the imaginative carousel.
It was the fourth time Beijing-based One Take Architects studio, together with Wuhan-based social enterprise Sunners, launched the weeklong program aimed to motivate “left-behind” children — 8 to 12 years old — to use easily available material to create large toys for themselves under the guidance of architects and volunteers.
“When I was at this age, I could no longer be satisfied with little handworks but always dreamed of something big enough to put myself in,” Li Hao, founder of the studio, says about his original intention of the program.
He grew an interest in the education of “left-behind” children when he worked with designing projects in the countryside in 2015. He discovered that as living conditions improved, another problem became evident that apart from their parents’ work — the majority do blue-collar jobs in cities — the children barely knew what other choices, such as more creative job opportunities, could possibly lie in their future. He then wanted to give rural children a hint starting from what an architect can be good at.
This year around 30 pupils from Te’erguo township’s central primary school joined the making of the “carousel” and some of them learned to ride a bicycle for the first time in their lives.
Before the architects set off, they had prepared for a month. They managed to get 12 bicycles out of use, designed the main structure of the “carousel” and completed the whole process for test before tearing them down again, deciding what tools the children would use and making a manual introducing the assembling steps one by one.
It was the children who took the lead in designing the canopies made from canvas and thermoplastic sheets. They collected local plants — on their way introduced names and features of the plants, which they are quite good at — covered the plants with the sheets and sprayed pigments on them to form patterns. They also pasted white tapes in the shape of Yi characters on the canopies.
The Yi characters are a set of single fonts, mainly symbolizing their meanings, with some also indicating the pronunciation. The earliest document of the Yi characters dates to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Yi families usually speak the language in daily talk, but not many children know how to write it these days.
Li says some children took the characters from books, learned from the doorkeeper of the primary school, who also serves as the children’s chef, how to pronounce the characters at first, and then taught other children as the doorkeeper got busy preparing meals.
It was not easy for the children to learn to ride, but the installation could move while being stable enough not to make the children fall. Meanwhile, it could not turn around smoothly if any of the children fell.
The architects and volunteers hoped the children could safely exercise their physical balance and coordination abilities while learning to cooperate at the same time. Not to waste other parts of the bicycles, they also painted on the fenders what their hometown looked like in their eyes and turned them into eye-shaped decorations that can be hanged on trees, while intertwining colorful threads on the surface of spare wheels that were later used to decorate the lawns on campus.
The program has always wanted to engage as multiple senses as possible. One of the trials took place in the Dabie Mountain area in Hubei province in 2019, where musician Tie Yang joined other participants to build a multifunctional theater with white and blue plastic drain pipes.
Above all, the installation Blue Daydream was a percussion instrument itself similar to old Chinese chimes. The pitch was determined by length and thickness of the pipes. Using disposable slippers as drumsticks and accompanied by a djembe, the children’s band was able to work out the well-known tune of We Will Rock You.
Just some rearrangement turned the installation into an amphitheater where the children performed a mini play in English. They even managed to make a ukulele.
During the break, the children spontaneously found the Quaffle — a red ballon actually. They designed and assembled their own clubs, and started a little Quidditch game that primed the adults for a try.
Despite all that, Li and Nan hold a further ambition at heart that they want to explore a standard replicable system to insert such lessons into more rural schools. The system, hopefully, can operate without the architects on scene. Volunteers, usually college students majoring or interested in architecture or art, can be trained online and independently guide the children to get rolling with the least intervention.
The children, meanwhile, forming teams or simply creating their own work, would design the appearance and functions of the installation or variants if any, give a presentation, discuss, vote and make the decision at last.
In fact, the team has already developed two such lessons: one to build conical shelters with thin, flexible tubes and painted plastic sheets, and the other a toy block course.
Li says they have uploaded program information online for reference without charge.
A boy attending a 2018 program in Hubei province wrote in his diary, “I enjoyed concentrating on what I liked doing today, not to ask and not be bothered, but I’m more looking forward to tomorrow’s workshop because we’re going to use drill. A real man must know how to use a drill!”
And the next day he continued, “the drill is powerful, efficient and soaked me with sweat, but then I’ve got a clue how hard my father works, in the heat and without complaints.”
As son of a construction worker, the boy says he wants to thank all the fathers who fight for their families.
Program Spark has won the innovative design award for people under 40 at this year’s China Eco Design Award held by Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation.
“With mature operation experience and the capability for relatively large-scale replication, the program can benefit more ‘left-behind’ children,” says designer Zhang Na, from the award jury, adding that from creating, experiencing, sharing to interacting, the program has created a complete solution of creativity cultivation and spiritual healing.
“Rural revitalization is not just about upgrading infrastructure, but also about nurturing the younger generation. It’s like sowing seeds and we have to wait for five or 10 years to see whether it brings positive economic, social and environmental linkages between urban, periurban and rural areas,” Li says.