Designing with Children

An online version of our paper Creativity, play and transgression: children transforming spatial design, which is pubilshed by CoDesign, International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts is now available.

Click here to read.

Posted 3rd May 2016 10:22 by Jo Birch

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Elyssa's ideas for library design, Chania, Crete.

As promised, we offer some thoughts which have bubbled out of our book writing process as we draw our project to a close. The ideas that follow arise from our case studies but they inevitably reach wider - wherever participation is discussed, wherever collaboration in creation arises, notions of whose ideas count (the most) are always present.

Overall, the children felt that they had collectively influenced the architects with their own designs and presentations and yet, recurrently across our case study sites, the children openly voiced their beliefs that the architects had their own ideas already and would be bringing those into the design collaboration.

Martin, one of the architects working with children on a department store café design in Cologne acknowledged that: it is very difficult not to project your own ideas onto children’s worlds and in the school playground design sessions in Tower Hamlets, Barbara’s firm loyalty to her nature trope and subtle management of children’s engagement to keep within the ‘letting nature in’ theme was evident throughout her session. Below is an excerpt from our researcher field diaries, written up in Chania, Crete after observing the bookcase building day in school; it illustrates how we thought about the associations between the children’s imaginations, the architects and the built or created form:

The question of how much the final design is already planned by the architects forms the subject for a long discussion between us researchers after the building day in Chania: we ask, is there a case of two seemingly conflicting positions being present in the architect’s approach today? For instance, the children are given much freedom with the materials with only a few solutions and suggestions given by the architects so that the children do feel that they themselves are coming up with a book case design. However, the building session was a little like a puzzle for the children to solve and the materials were reclaimed materials found and chosen by the architects and not connected in any way to the children’s previous drawings. The architects have said that they are interested to see if the children will come to ‘the solution’. Do they mean a pre-decided designed solution which they arrived at in the lab or a (new) solution that will be used finally in the corridors which is currently undecided?

After some thought, we conclude that the approaches are not really in opposition. Masa, with her experience as a landscape architect comments that the architects have to come into school really well prepared as ‘the experts’, the brains. They must not come in empty handed, they must have ideas themselves and they must at some point produce a product or outcome so the two positions are not mutually exclusive. Someone clutching to their expertise completely would not be able to give the children materials to experiment with and perhaps come up with a ‘better’ solution…an idea to which the architects have talked about with us.

Since that day of observation and discussion we are more inclined to understand the architects in Chania, and in other sites, feeling comfortable balancing their own ideas alongside the incorporation of children’s ideas and a sense of potential outcome. This is aligned to Jeremy Till’s perspective that ‘Interpretation clearly demands differing ways of thinking that do not assume there is a perfect answer’[i]. Juhani Pallasma also has a keen perception of the power of uncertainty for architects. Feeling architecture to be closely aligned with other artistic and creative pursuits, he makes use of the words of poet Joseph Brodsky when he warns that ‘[…] experience and the accompanying expertise are the maker’s worst enemies’[ii].

[i] Jeremy Till Architecture Depends (MIT Press:2009) p. 164.

[ii] Joseph Brodsky, ‘A cat’s meow’, On Grief and Reason, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York), 1997, p.302 cited in Pallasmaa The Thinking hand, 79/80.

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On 1st December, we enjoyed a grand turn out for our final project dissemination event at The Alan Baxter and Associates Gallery, London. We are hugely grateful to our all project partners and participants who attended and we were delighted to see familiar and new faces from both practice and academic circles. The wonderful people at The Gallery hosted us so kindly; it was a great venue for such an event.

There's nothing like the pressure of fitting 3 years’ thoughts and work into just over half an hour of spoken words. As a project team, we could really only give our audience a mere taster of what we have heard about and seen of spatial designers' encounters in working with children during the course of our study. We drew on observations and interviews with children also, because whilst our project focusses upon the experience of the adult spatial designer, a great deal of this is understood in the light of how children experience the design process and engagement sessions.

We structured our talk around the themes which form the basis of the project's forthcoming book which we understand is just over a year away from publication; those themes are:

Similar Different

Fear Freedom

Loose Structured

Imagining Making

Separate Together

The intention was not that these were presented as opposing themes that could not and do not co-exist in the experience of collaborative design process. Rather, these themes raise interesting questions about what makes design collaboration with children challenging or fruitful - often both. The contrasting paired themes relate to the process parameters that can be changed by practitioners and provide a way to give examples and accounts of the potential effects of making such changes.

Our brief talks were intentionally kept free of bullet-point led slides. Instead, we ran silent film footage from each of the four case study sites in Cologne, Sussex, Tower Hamlets and Crete - the only way perhaps to help the audience and research partners to really gauge the types of projects and design environments involved. We’d love to run that film here but we respect the consent given by some of our young participants who were happy for films to be shown in research settings and discussions but who did not wish to be visible on the Web.

We told our research findings as short (real life) stories with much reference to ethnographic data, to field notes and verbatim quotes. Talks were then followed by a much appreciated panel discussion from the 4 architects who were involved in our case studies. Again, the themes were re-visited in these discussions and we were once again reminded of the fact that, while there are similarities, there is no singular experience of design collaboration with children. Spatial designers go into their work as themselves and with the experiences and beliefs they carry which give them their designer-identities. And oftentimes, children give those designers permission to experiment and work in the ways they enjoy best.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll post some particular inspirational and intellectual nourishment (being sure to have a break for other rest and nourishment over the seasonal interlude), sourced from the evening's discussion at the Gallery and our project findings more broadly.

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'Not your usual study space' Courtesy: Marianthi Liapi, Architect at Transformable Intelligent Environments Laboratory, Technical University of Crete.

As promised, we are pleased to tell you about some publications resulting from the project. Look out for this journal paper:

Birch, J., Parnell, R., Patsarika, M., Maša Šorn (forthcoming) Creativity, play and transgression: children transforming spatial design. Co-Design, International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts.

There are also two books which have been accepted for publication by Routledge and these are expected to come out late 2016 or early 2017 at the latest. Seems like ages away but...not really.

Each book will be prefaced with the title: Spatial Design with Children and address slightly different aspects of this subject we have been exploring in different ways.

One of the books, authored by Rosie Parnell and Maria Patsarika, will have a 'how to do it' emphasis, presenting new ways of seeing children's and designers' roles and a range of different approaches to engagement.

The second book takes the next step, sharing the experiences of spatial designers who have worked directly with children and our own observations of these processes. We present architects' personal experiences without attempting to tell readers how design IS in certain terms or indeed how it SHOULD be. For some practitioners, the book will help to know what to expect when working with children; other readers will find themselves reflecting on the rich details of others’ experiences noting how they mirror or contrast with their own practice. Educators and thinkers outside direct spatial design practice will hopefully also find this book an interesting read, sometimes supporting, sometimes questioning their own understandings of children's engagement in design and in wider worlds.

Exciting stuff.

Whilst writing, we just unearthed this people-centred reflection from one of our early interviews with practitioners:

I think the beautiful things in school design are actually where it is about the people inside of it rather than the way it looks, so you have to be prepared to change your idea about award winning architecture.

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Busy times with our heads deep in data. We've been preparing papers and getting going with two forthcoming books for publication with Routledge (more on these shortly).

More particularly, we are about to have our final dissemination event to be held at 6.30 pm on 1st December 2015. Spatial design practitioners, students, those interested in wider areas of children's involvement in spatial design are all welcome to attend. Tickets are free but must be booked via eventbrite.

We will be at The Gallery, 75 Cowcross Street London for this early evening event and drinks reception. We are delighted that a number of architects and practitioners involved in our early interviews are attending and we also welcome the four architects from our case studies for discussion:

Susanne Hofmann, die Baupiloten
Barbary Kaucky, erectarchitecture
Marianthi Liapi, Transformable Intelligent Environments Laboratory, Technical University of Crete
Dan Morrish, Wilderness Wood

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This week we were excited to host Susanne Hofmann (die Baupiloten), Dan Morrish and Emily Charkin (Building for Families, Wilderness Wood) at our second event for dissemination of research findings. We spent this cold Winter's morning discussing their approaches to engaging children in design process, and after lunch our brave snow-defying audience got to try out the methods that Susanne, Dan and Emily use in their workshops with children. These hands-on sessions included exploring preferences for spatial atmospheres by creating dreamworld collages, and constructing a snow sledge from cardboard tubes.

For those who have missed the event, you are welcome to watch the talks and discussions at the following links:

- Rosie Parnell and Jo Birch: Introduction to the research project

- Susanne Hofmann: Atmosphere as participatory design strategy

- Emily Charkin and Dan Morrish: Involving all ages in the process of making a building

- Jo Birch: Early research findings

This full day seminar was organised in association with SSoA Children's Architecture Unit and the Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth, welcoming a wide array of audience from several universities, architectural design practices and Sheffield City Council.

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Follow-up discussion at Bristol event, Tuesday 13 January 2015


On Tuesday 13 January 2015 we were delighted to meet in Bristol Architecture Centre architects who participated in our research in what has been the first out of two dissemination events with a particular focus on findings from our case studies. Marianthi Liapi and Kostis Oungrinis (Transformable Intelligent Environments Laboratory, Technical University of Crete), and Barbara Kaucky (erectarchitecture) discussed their approaches to engaging children in design processes, within school and other contexts, and provided inspirational examples from their own practices.

On our part, we presented the case studies within our research project and the diverse methods used in these research contexts, ranging from field diaries to interviews and document analysis. Use of visual methods enabled us to capture designer-child communication and reflections on the co-creative process. What followed was a discussion of key insights emerging from the exploration of the dynamics and processes of co-creative design between children and architects in these four sites. The concepts of creative dialogue and togetherness were the umbrella themes enabling a more elaborate and process-focused exploration of designer-child interactions, involving, for example, turn taking and embodied dialogue. Though different in their ways of doing design and contributions into the creative process, designers’ and children’s cultures were seen to meet through respect and a sense of responsibility for one another.

Please follow the links to watch individual talks:

Dr Rosie Parnell: Introduction to the project

Dr Jo Birch: Case studies overview and research methods

Barbara Kaucky, erect architecture: Engaging children in architecture

Dr Kostis Oungrinis and Marianthi Liapi, TU Crete: Educational Pla(y)ces

Dr Maria Patsarika: Early Research Findings

All speakers: Plenary discussion and questions

We warmly thank Jodie Marks and Amy Harrison at the Bristol Architecture Centre for hosting the event and all our 32 participants – designers, teachers, play-workers – who defied the elements in this cold evening to join us! Your reflections, questions and interest to further your good practice shone through this event. And, of course, thank you Barbara, Marianthi and Kostis for coming over and sharing your experiences of engaging children in your work.

Next to come on Wednesday 21 January 2015 10:00 – 16:00, Sheffield, ICOSS building is the second part of our findings dissemination events. Susanne Hofmann (die Baupiloten) and Dan Morrish and Emily Charkin (Building for Families, Wilderness Wood) will discuss their approaches to engaging children in the design process and demonstrate methods and ideas that they use in workshop sessions.

This is a free event with required booking through

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Courtesy: Mina Rezaei

Every so often we come across interesting work that does not neatly ‘fit’ in as a project within our that sits alongside what we do, but which is worth highlighting and sharing. One such piece of work, we have learnt about is from Mina who recently contacted us to share her experience of involvement in teenager’s engagement in urban planning in Tehran. Influenced by the work of Rob White, Patsy Owens, Karen Malone and Louise Chawla, Mina Rezaei, recently completed her Masters thesis at the University of Tehran. Mina tells us that participatory planning and design is a fairly new concept in Iran and any existing work in this area rarely invites children and young people into the process. Mina’s own research broke this mould by involving eighty 15 to 18 year olds in critical evaluation of the spaces where they live around Golha, Tehran. They used online mapping techniques, visual methods, questionnaires and social networking, then went on to identify improvements in and making recommendation aimed at local planning authorities, especially around matters of limited green space and the over-dominance of traffic and parking. Perhaps this is the beginning for more planners, designers and researchers, emerging in Iran, to ask for young people’s direct involvement in making the changes.

Posted 3rd December 2014 9:34 by Jo Birch

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Courtesy: Marianthi Liapi


Courtesy: Marianthi Liapi


Courtesy: Marianthi Liapi


Courtesy: Marianthi Liapi


Courtesy: Marianthi Liapi


Courtesy: Marianthi Liapi

We thought we would stop at 3. When we found out, however, about the work that architects Marianthi Liapi, Kostis Ouggrinis, Elli Gkologkina and Ioanna Fragkaki do in the city of Chania in Crete, Greece, this soon became our 4th case study.

The three architects have been working with pupils of the 13th Primary School of Amperias, in Chania since December 2013 in a series of projects and interventions aiming to address various spatial issues that the school community faces and bring about change mainly through re-use of existing materials. During the initial phase of their collaboration with the school in early 2014, the design team engaged around 40-50 pupils in consultation (including questionnaires, collages, drawings) and hands-on design and build activities, such as re-designing the school fence or building movable structures designed to allow separate, flexible areas within the school building (see photographic material attached). This is part of a longer 3-year engagement process between the architects and the school, which is what makes this case study particularly interesting to follow.

Currently the school has identified the need for a new bookcase to be built for general school use, the underlying principle being that it is owned and managed by the pupils, rather than the school staff and management. The architects have already engaged the pupils in what they call ‘co-concept phase’, which enabled them to discuss the goals of the project and brainstorm ideas for implementation. The 6th graders are key players in this process and ambassadors to the rest of the school. Part of this work we are going to observe and explore on Thursday 6th and Friday 7th November 2014 and report back on return…

A big thanks to Marianthi, Elli, Ioanna, Ourania, Kostis, Christofia and Chryssa for enabling this collaboration.

Design team

(phase one December 2013-June 2014)

Marianthi Liapi, Architect-Engineer AUTh, MSc MIT, Research Associate TUC TIE Lab

Elli Gkologkina, Architect-Engineer TUC, Research Assistant, TUC TIE Lab

Anna-Roza Moschouti-Vermeer, Student, TUC School of Architectural Engineering and TIE Lab Researcher

Mariana Paschidi, Student, TUC School of Architectural Engineering and TIE Lab Researcher

Antigoni Kampitaki, Student, TUC School of Architectural Engineering and TIE Lab Researcher

Ourania Altouva, Student, TUC School of Architectural Engineering and TIE Lab Researcher

Sotiris Ntzoufras, Student, TUC School of Architectural Engineering and TIE Lab Researcher

Ioulia Barbouti, Architect-Engineer/MArch, Nottingham Trent University

Christofia Boudrogianni, Teacher at the Amperia School

Chrysa Terezaki, Principal at the Amperia School

(phase two-current)

Marianthi Liapi, Architect-Engineer AUTh, MSc MIT, Research Associate TUC TIE Lab

Elli Gkologkina, Architect-Engineer TUC, Research Assistant, TUC TIE Lab

Ioanna Fragkaki, Architect-Engineer TUC, MSc TU Delft, Research Assistant, TUC TIE Lab

Ourania Altouva, Student, TUC School of Architectural Engineering and TIE Lab Researcher

Christofia Boudrogianni, Teacher at the Amperia School

Chrysa Terezaki, Principal at the Amperia School

TUC: Technical University of Crete

TIE Lab: Transformable Intelligent Environments Laboratory /

TIE Lab Director: Konstantinos-Alketas Oungrinis, Asst. Professor TUC School of Architectural Engineering

Posted 5th November 2014 12:39 by Maria Patsarika

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We have been fortunate enough to find another case study (long search) Barbara Kaucky and Sarah Clayton of erectarchitecture are working with school council children and head teacher Oliver Woodward at Columbia Primary School Tower Hamlets, London to make alterations to an existing playground around the edge of the school's city site.

Last week, two of us observed a busy morning workshop involving the architects and thirteen enthusiastic 6 to 10 year olds. The theme of 'nature is taking over the playground' was brought in by Barbara to stimulate the children and elicit new ideas; she and Sarah encouraged them to develop concepts, draw, write and model ideas with home (studio) made play-dough and armfuls of natural materials. Twigs, leaves, wooden sticks, conkers, string, nets and herbs were new and exciting construction materials for many children, but the organic feel to this project sits well with much of erectarchitecture's work and aesthetic (see award winning Timber Lodge and Tumbling Bay Playground in Olympic Park and Kilburn Grange Park Adventure Playcentre).

The children at Columbia are clearly at home with creative activity; they work in a well stocked and decorated art room while the rest of the school corridors and halls we see celebrate artistic endeavour and creative practice of professionals and new talent alike. After listening to an introductory talk and picture show from Barbara, the children settled into discussion, drawing and modelling. The pre-prepared model boards from the studio clearly outlined to the children the scaled space in which new playground equipment and landscaping could be created; it was up to the children to 'act as architects' to go ahead and think up some ideas.

Children drew their ideas from personal experience, other playgrounds, toys, museum trips as well as the inspirational images Barbara had shown earlier. The models created showed the reciprocity between the creative inspiration: sometimes emanating from the architects, sometimes from the children. The 'active play' focus drawn up together by teachers and architects was, in the end, augmented by the children's introduction of resting and hiding places - benches, seats, swings, caves, nests and dens were highly visible in the children's designs.

Thank you so much to all the children, staff and designers who allowed us in to see this fascinating process. We're excited to see what happens next.

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