Treasure Boxes

Investigating materials with early years

A partnership between Craftspace and St Thomas Excellence Children’s Centre

A small boy holds a pices of wet clay and pushes his fingers into it to make a small pot. The image shows adult hands working with the childs hands.

Working with potter Jon Williams (Photo: Marcus Rowlands)

Three artist residencies: Ruth Spaak, Jon Williams and Rita Patel. Documented by Marcus Rowlands
Saint Thomas Early Excellence Centre, Birmingham, UK
2004 – 2005

Look out for our latest families and early years project Making Together in 2018.

Project Information

Treasure Boxes was a year-long residency for very young children and their parents/carers from St Thomas Early Excellence Children’s Centre in Birmingham. Families worked with mixed media maker Ruth Spaak, potter Jon Williams and jeweller Rita Patel. Each maker created opportunities for parents and children to work together and build skills, and introduced new materials, tools and processes.

The three residencies were documented by photographer Marcus Rowlands, and the photos were made available to the group each week, as a reference point for their work.

Made for Play

Following the residency, each maker was commissioned to create an object or objects for young children to explore. These objects, along with 3 commissioned books, form the Made for Play resource. This can be used as a catalyst for creative work with very young children and also to support training for staff and parents/carers.

Projects aims

With this project, we aimed to:

  • Allow parents and carers to be directly involved in the development of a creative learning resource for them to use with their children.
  • Provide an opportunity for makers, artists and young families to work together collaboratively in challenging ways. This project will be cross artform creating new work informed by both craft processes and photography.
  • Create, celebrate and launch a touring resource potentially linking to television, libraries, schools and other community resources.
  • Explore the nature of materials and how they can be explored. To offer the participants the opportunity to expand their vocabulary associated with materials.
  • Target parents from 3 identified groups; younger families, newly arrived families and families from BME communities. The project will aim to build skills and experiences for both children and their parents/carers through a series of residency experiences.
  • Develop a new strand of work which enhances Craftspace’s exploration of making in cultural and social contexts whilst linking to previous experience of commissioning and residency models.


On the children

There was a genuine progress in the children’s approach to materials, their creativity, and their confidence. Two were quite shy initially; in the first session with Jon Williams, one didn’t want to enter the room, and at the beginning of Ruth Spaak’s residency the other would stand and watch everyone else, holding on to a single object. Both gradually became more relaxed and more confident in the group and with materials. One went on to make a massive floor, ‘squiggle’ sculpture during the last session.

Other children really explored their creativity. During Jon’s residency, one went from being very physical with the clay to becoming more focused in the later weeks, his creations ranging from ‘burger mountains’ to ‘minute detailed marks on the house tiles’. One had a rich imagination, and used Ruth Spaak’s work as a narrative, and another was comfortable with going beyond what she had been shown, copying a technique then moving on to doing her own thing.

The children became increasingly communicative – with each other, with the makers, and with their parents. They enjoyed watching their parents making things and undertaking complex making processes such as sawing and drilling.

On the parents

The parents’ relationship with their children developed greatly over the three residencies. A mother claimed that when they went home her and her daughter had something to talk about, and were in open conversation with each other. They both looked forward to coming to the next session and talked about it. Following Jon Williams’s residency some parents bought clay for home, or made a flour-water mix to achieve similar effects.

Additionally, the parents’ view of art was refined as a result of this project. After three residencies, another mother came to appreciate what makers did for a living, and all the different aspects that go into a maker’s job. She recognised the time, creativity and hard work that went into a work of art.

On the makers

All three makers were inspired by the children and the ways in which they interacted with materials.

Rita Patel observed that parents and children were very open to ideas; both had an unconventional approach, they used materials to explore rather than to make objects, and the children were fearless in their experimentation. It made her want to revisit her practice in terms of playing more with materials.

One year after the residency ended, Ruth Spaak said:

‘I feel I was privileged to have taken part in the project; that one year on I have achieved progress as a maker as a result of a different mind-set after watching and learning from everyone taking part in the project.’

Jon Williams also said:

‘It is an opportunity to take my work somewhere else.’

Images: Treasure Boxes residencies with Ruth Spaak, Jon Williams and Rita Patel (Photos: Marcus Rowlands)


  • Ruth Spaak – Mixed Media maker
  • Jon Williams – Potter
  • Rita Patel – Jeweller
  • Marcus Rowlands – Photographer

Where Next

Three clay heads of various sizes with different coloured slips, shapes and decoration applied to them.

Made for Play

The creation of interactive artworks designed for very young children.

An older man works with a young boy hammering a metal punch.

Making Together: What happened? – Metal

See what happened at the metal workshops.

An older man works with a young boy hammering a metal punch.

Making Together

Archive 2019: Read about artists discovering materials with young children and families.

A woman shows a lady how to use a piercing saw to cut a sheet of metal. They're both smiling and happy.

Making Together: What Happened? – Celebration

See the results of our work with families.


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