Children’s tactile learning in Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s crochet sculpture

Last month I was fortunate enough to visit the Hakone Open Air Museum, an outdoor sculpture park located a couple of hours outside of Tokyo.

A highlight of the visit was seeing the wonderful crochet play ‘sculptures’ of the artist Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam. The artwork, titled ‘Knitted Wonder Space 2,’ is a gigantic textile structure that has the appearance of a net suspended in mid-air. The sculpture has a strong architectural quality to it, creating an immersive and sensory-driven play space for children. 

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s crochet play sculpture ‘Knitted Wonder Space 2’ at Hakone Open Air Museum

On the afternoon that I visited, there was a tribe of toddlers and elementary-aged kids climbing, jumping, rolling, somersaulting, dangling and swinging their way through it. As the children played in the net, it moved and swayed with them, igniting squeals of delight and even more physical play.

Creating the crochet sculpture

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam created ‘Knitted Wonder Space 2’ using 650kg of nylon. She knitted the entire web BY HAND over the timeframe of a year. I get RSI just from thinking about that. She was influenced by the Spanish architect Antino Gaudi who was inspired by nature’s soft curves and organic shapes. 

This behind-the-scenes video shares Toshiko’s process of creating and installing a similar crochet play sculpture at the Museo d’arte Contemporanea Roma in Italy:

I was really impressed by two aspects of the sculpture. The first being the collaborative process that it was produced from. The second being the tactile nature of children’s experience in the artwork.

A collaborative production

The sculpture was created by a team of structural and project designers who assisted Toshiko in the artwork’s production. The artwork description acknowledged the following individuals:

Net design & construction: Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam with Interplay Design & Manufacturing, Inc. Structural design: Norihide Imagawa, T.I.S. & Partners, Tokyo, Japan. Project design: Takaharu & Yui Tezuka , Tezuka Architects, Tokyo, Japan.

This collaborative process really resonated with me as nearly all learning activities with children in art museums are constructed by a team of individuals. Everyone within such a team brings specialised skills and expertise to a project. I find that acknowledging and taking advantage of the opportunity to combine different people’s skills and expertise together to support children’s creative learning really exciting.

Children’s tactile learning

The structure, shape and form of ‘Knitted Wonder Space 2’ intentionally encourages children to physically move their way through the web. Children are not learning through looking, as is often the case in art museum, instead they are learning in an embodied and sensory-driven way.

Children physically move, swing, climb, roll and dangle their way through the web. The yarn itself – a stretchy nylon fabric – creates unique opportunities for children’s learning through tactile play.

For example, the nylon can be moved, pulled, climbed and jumped on in a really unique way. Its soft and malleable properties mean it can also be stretched and pulled in unique ways. I also think that children’s play in the sculpture is not entirely a frivolous activity. As they jump, roll and laugh their way through the nylon structure, they are also learning about concepts such as gravity, weight, measurement, height and texture.

Children’s risk-taking through play

In an interview with arch daily,Toshiko talks about the significance of children’s risk-taking in the sculpture: 

“All children can play together. They do not have to be athletic, but can still use their whole bodies for fun – laughing, giggling and screaming. They have a great time together. Often older children help smaller children. They try to dazzle each other with their ingenious and acrobatic feats.

Children need to cope with risk. They enjoy a challenge but by nature are very careful. Presented with a play structure which does not challenge them, they quickly grow bored… and then break them. If you give them a challenging play environment, designed so children can assess risk, they will not get hurt. Our structures encourage children to challenge themselves but with many routes and options. There is no program of play. There are always alternatives. Each child plays at the level he or she is comfortable with. From forty years’ experience, I have learned a little about children’s psychology.

Some groups of children come regularly to play on their own; their play is fantastic. They know what they are capable of and then stretch just a little further, becoming more and more adept. Some of their manoeuvres are heart-stopping to a bystander – but they know what they are doing. Often it is parents who are the problem. They seem to have forgotten what it was like to be a child.”

Overall, I loved this artwork!

I only wished that adults were allowed to play in it too.

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s crochet play sculpture ‘Knitted Wonder Space 2’ at Hakone Open Air Museum

Learn more

Interplay Design and Manufacturing is the design company start by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam. This website features documentation and descriptions of all the artist’s projects: https://netplayworks.com/NetPlayWorks/Projects/Projects.html

The art website Colossal also did a feature article on Toshiko, you can check out the link here:

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