Learning Materials

Gas-Air machine: exploring bodies and the senses

In 2016 artist Ella Medley-Whitfield worked with teacher Kelly Waite and Zebra and Lion class from Samuel Rhodes Primary Department on the exhibition Imagine Islington.

Gas-Air Machine

Dr Robert Minnitt developed his first Gas-Air machine in 1933. He was known as ‘the man who killed the agony of child birth’, providing pain relief for mothers during labour. The machine used nitrous oxide gas mixed with air and was designed to be used safely by midwives delivering babies at women’s homes. It was virtually the only form of pain relief for women giving birth until the 1970s.

‘I chose this object because I was working with an SEN school and thought a theme of health had potential to be sensory based and introspective.  I think that this is an important part of the children’s learning and development thinking about their own bodies and development and creatively responding to this idea. It gave us a lot of potential to creatively think about our bodies and senses.

Each of the students created a box as a representation of inside their own bodies. Together they become a collection of the children’s accounts to how they work.’


Activity 1: Making medicine 

  1. We spent a significant amount of time at the start just looking at, exploring and discussing the Gas-Air machine. We talked about what it was for, how it was designed and how it might work. We discussed the historical context and how the experience of childbirth was different in the past. We finished by linking it to the children’s experience of medicine and hospitals, discussing other machines and medicines that have been created to solve a particular condition. As well as the medicines the children hoped would be created in the future. We encourage discussion, debate, role play and performance.
  2. This led to a discussion of various home-made remedies used through history and today.
  3. We set out a range of different medical supplies for pupils to create their own medicine. These included vinegar, mustard, various fruits, vegetables and herbs, food colouring and water. Pupils had to select, cut, squeeze and measure ingredients into their bowl to create their own medicines.
  4. They then used funnels to transfer their medicines to their own medicine bottle.
  5. Pupils then designed a label explaining the purpose of their medicine and instructions for how it was to be applied.They also added barcodes, images, names and prices bringing in literacy and product design skills, giving a reason for each choice.


Activity 2: ‘Air’ Painting

  1. Inspired by the machine the pupils created their own ‘air’ paintings.
  2. We created a range of stations pupils rotated around. We placed paint in washing up liquid and blew bubbles. We placed paint diluted with water on paper and blew it, directing the movement by blowing through straws. We blew paint diluted with water around paper using a hairdryer. We even used an air pump and hoover to blow paint diluted with water.
  3. Throughout the activities we continually went back to thinking about breathing, the action of breathing, the sounds you made and how and why we breath.
  4. We finished by examining the different abstract marks, seeing if we could recognise the different techniques used and compare their success.

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Activity 3: Body box

  1. For our art installation we decided to create body boxes that explored the sounds, movement and purpose of the Gas-Air machine.
  2. Each pupil had a cardboard cereal packet sized box. The cut out the front panel.
  3. Pupils then covered the box in their ‘air’ paintings.
  4. Any gaps were filled in by the artist with acrylic plastic, but you could also use making or coloured tape to get clean edges.


Activity 4: Body diagrams

  1. Roll out a long roll of paper or wallpaper lining.
  2. We ensured we started this activity by making it very clear that there was no right answer, we wanted to see what the pupils thought and their own interpretations. This gave the group confidence in putting their ideas onto paper.
  3. Pupils lay down and drew around one another using marker pens.
  4. Pupils then labelled the different body parts and added drawings of how they worked.
  5. Throughout the activity we discussed our ideas in groups, creating imaginative descriptions that combined factual information with personal sensory experiences about how for example it felt to breathe, what noises you made and how your body changed.
  6. Each child chose their favourite diagram to add to their body box in a roll down strip.


Activity 5: Body noises

  1. We used sound cards, a special SEN resource,  but you could use any recording resource for this activity such as recording apps, cameras etc.
  2. We spent time discussing the noises our body makes for example when breathing, when eating, when streching etc.
  3. Pupils then recorded their favourite noises.
  4. This created a soundscape for our boxes.

Activity 6: sticky back plastic blood walls

  1. We spent some time discussing our blood and the role of blood during childbirth.
  2. There were a wide range of glitter, sequins and coloured cellophane to be cut up on the table.
  3. Each pupil got a piece of stick back plastic. The peeled off the cover to reveal the sticky side. They then created a design with the resources on this.
  4. Pupils then used pipettes to add drops of red ink or blood on to their design.
  5. With an adults help, they then placed acetated on top of their design, pressing down around the edges in particular so their design was sealed. You might want to add tape around the edges to be extra safe.
  6. You should be able to squeeze the blood through the design in a sensory experience.
  7. These blood wall were added to the back of our boxes.


Activity 7: casting body parts

  1. Pupils used lego bricks to build their interpretation of different body parts, using their diagrams and  making them 3D scultures. We then used clay to build up walls around the designs and poured plaster-of-paris into the moulds. Once dried we could break out the bricks, finding new accidental 3D shapes. We were left with sculptural representations of the childrens’ designs.
  2. A more child friendly version of this for a larger class would be to use fast drying clay or salt dough to make the models. These can then be painted.
  3. These again went inside our body boxes.

 Activity 8: blow pipe

  1. We used a plastic pipe and covered it in thermocratic paint. This clever paint once dry changes colour in response to heat, so when you hold it the heat of your hands should change its colour, leaving behind your hand print when you let go. You need to put the paint on thickly though.
  2. Once dry, we also collaboratively added coloured sticky back vinyl shapes to the pipe, which we cut out of the vinyl sheets, again exploring pattern.
  3. We all had a go at blowing the long pipe to make a sound.
  4. The blow pipe was added to the body box, it mirrored the oxygen tank on the Gas-Air machine.


Want to know more:

Click here to find out more about the artworks created by Blessed Sacrament RC Primary School and Sarah Pimenta as part of the Imagine Islington Project.

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