Designing with Children

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Our very own researcher Maša Šorn recently co-led a live design project at her home country, Slovenia. Eleven primary school children, one film director, an architect and two landscape architects used video to explore the world of spatial design at a series of workshops held at Primary School Spodnja Šiška in Ljubljana. Parallel to the case studies followed as part of our research, this project enabled some valuable insights into the design process, ones that only an insider’s perspective would allow.

Also a member of Pazi!park team (www.pazipark.si, a group of landscape architects and urban designers interested in participatory spatial design), landscape architect Maša joined forces with fellow landscape architect and Pazi!park member Urška Kranjc; architect Andreja Sinčič Štrukelj, designer of school playgrounds, including the existing one at Primary School Spodnja Šiška; and, film director / screenplay writer Martin Turk, author of many award-winning short films shown at film festivals in Cannes, Sarajevo, Los Angeles, Sydney, Stockholm and others. This diverse team of practitioners delivered an intense workshop over four 1,5h sessions and, together with the participating children, drafted a design proposal of improvements for the existing school grounds.

During the first two sessions, the children worked together with Martin to use video as a medium communicating their ideas about their school site and possible new uses of it. It was amazing to see how children's views of their school site were freely expressed when they were filming and interviewing each other in a playful, yet focussed way. They all proved to be very competent users of video equipment and digital editing tools – they even directed their own video about their experience of the school surroundings (see vimeo.com/96695303). Spatial designers discussed the spatial interventions proposed by the children with the help of colour duct tapes, which were used to mark and shape new spaces. Drawing on their recorded impressions and the taped-up spaces, children drafted a new master plan of the school site and built 1:1 scale models of some suggested interventions in cooperation with spatial designers.

The workshop sessions culminated in an interactive exhibition, where the whole school community, including teachers and parents, were invited to express their ideas and comments on the design proposal. Thus, on the open school day, the whole school was transformed into a vibrant collection of exhibits with almost a fairground feel to it. The ‘media-design team’ was allocated a very nice classroom, where they exhibited cardboard models, their draft proposals and comments on possible school site designs, and screened the edited video.

Special thanks to participating children Gašper Rojina, Katja Vrečar, Kim Dominko Slak, Lev Soklič, Manca Lahajnar, Maks Dečman Hibler, Miha Sinčič, Teo Delanović-Sič, Tiago Devetak, Timon Svetek Zgonec and Zarja Brzin; the helping teachers Majda Koren and Urška Gale; and the head of school Franci Hočevar for making the project happen!

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We have only recently returned from our second research visit at Wilderness Wood, East Sussex (see http://www.wildernesswood.org/about/), which left us with tons of exciting data to look at! There, we spent a day observing the Wilderness Wood team designing and building a new play kitchen for toddlers. The design team comprised eleven children aged 5-12, their parents, two building facilitators and Dan, the architect. A parallel event run alongside the design and build activity, which involved Lucy and younger children aged 2-5 decorating the kitchen and preparing recipes.

The morning of 30th May found the Wilderness Wood team identifying a structure for the play kitchen over two chalk boards with lots of drawing, improvising and ideas-sharing taking place. For the half hour that was designated to the design stage we were able to capture much excitement and brainstorming through video recordings, photographs and field notes. (It was only two of us this time; we just wished we had more hands and eyes). Constraints were discussed, solutions were found – with the children offering some great input into all these – and before we realised it was already time to get on with the building part.

For the rest of the day, we witnessed industrious building work across the site. The children were instructed how to use the tools and were then involved in every aspect of the work: strip wood off the bark, cut, measure and saw poles or, where there was no space for everyone, eagerly gather around and watch those involved. There was an atmosphere of inquiry and hands-on creativity in gaining a working knowledge of materials and tools, which the children seemed to enjoy, as adults' clear confidence in the children's abilities, which children appreciated and commented on during our interviews with them. We were able to run interviews after lunch and during the afternoon session, inside the nearby tepee, which lent our discussions a playful air.

This was a serious job to be done. And you can see the outputs with your own eyes. A big thanks to Emily, Dan and all of you who allowed us to experience Wilderness Wood!

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