Designing with Children

The nice people at Architecture and Design Scotland (A+DS) have recently told us about a couple of architects, Grant Menzies and Bobby Lee, who run a social enterprise aimed at helping communities create spaces of play across Scotland. We shall be finding out a little more about what they do. Have a look:

Posted 3rd September 2014 9:41 by Jo Birch

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New ways of seeing things together. Workshop run by Die Baupiloten Architects at Le Buffet Restaurant, Cologne. Courtesy: Susanne Hofmann


“Children can handle virtually everything in a design process”, a landscape architect thought. Courtesy: Dan Morrish


The designers in our research saw children ‘fabricating, bolting together, gluing together bits of wood’ or ‘plastering and bricklaying’. Courtesy: Dan Morrish.

Our first journal publication has a 'journalistic flair'.

What architects can learn from designing with children has been published at The Conversation on 26 August 2014, discussing some key understandings of architects' experiences working with children in design processes. Discussion draws on our two completed case studies and 16 surveys with architects and landscape architects who have worked with children aged one to 18. They were commissioned to design anything from a playground installation and a children’s museum exhibition to a school science pavilion and a school library.

A series of themes are introduced in the article, such as possibility thinking, with which design activity has often been associated, i.e. the ability to think across possible scenarios and novel suppositions. These are skills that are not far from what children do in their own creative moments. The designers interviewed understood children’s exploratory, ‘what if’ approach as widening the scope of creative dialogue with them and, effectively, infusing the design process with creativity.

Children were also portrayed as responding more to the moment, engaging with the design process with spontaneity and honesty about what has been successful and what hasn’t. This gives the designers the freedom to embrace unexpected scenarios; it is a driver to sustain creativity through dialogue.

The above understandings of children’s potential were accompanied with the not so rosy acknowledgement of the various discomforts that the designers experienced in the process of involving young people. Such tensions, however, arguably reveal the transformational potential of dialogue for both designer identity and the design process.

This potential is big. We will continue to explore it.

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Forgot to mention that last week, we presented a paper which used literary and cinematic extracts to illustrate the kinds of interactions children and designers have, when they are involved together in design processes.

We drew on our interviews with spatial designers as well as from our recent two case studies in Germany and Sussex. The presentation grew in our minds some months ago, as a number of books and films had served as reminders, illustrators and theory builders for us to reflect upon how particular themes continually rise to the fore for us. These themes are: co-creative process; keeping possibliities open; the competence of children (including improvisation as a kind of competence); the honest, open and direct communication of children and of adults and children acting together. To summarise, we raised the interesting question of the extent to which adults and children may be friends and equals in some elements of design, and indeed in wider life.

We used short extracts from the books: Tove Jansson's 'The Summer Book'; David Walliams: 'Gangsta Granny' and Nick Hornby's 'About a Boy'. And we took brief clips from films: Tarsem Singh's 'The Fall'; Luc Besson's 'Leon'; Henry Hathaway's 'True Grit; Adam Elliott's 'Mary and Max'; Charlie Chaplin's 'The Kid' and just a teeny piece illustrating the difficulty of choosing(and the wonders of keeping possiblities open!) from Jaco Van Dormael's 'Mr Nobody'. We wanted all visuals for the presentation to appear here, but our CMS is not very happy with Powerpoint; we'll try to get a link or another format up here soon. In the meantime we hope you enjoyed just one clip from The Kid, illustrating competence and collaboration in a beautiful way.

Posted 8th July 2014 12:11 by Jo Birch

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Conference season. We've been lucky to have 2 on our doorstep in Sheffield: 5th International Conference: Researching children's everyday lives and just yesterday: Co-producing knowledge 2nd International Conference. Both have been great for building our theories and understandings around our own work.

There were too many interesting ideas to mention really but a few thoughts stick in my mind at least. At the childhoods conference, Margaret Mackey inspired all with an autobiographical account of the development of her own childhood literacy. As she humorously and eloquently talked about childhood books, recipes, knitting patterns, board games and music sheets - all of which were key for the flourishing of her own literacy - we noticed the relevance of these interpretations for our understanding of spatial literacies and of design literacies. Margaret referred to Malafouris (2013) when she talked about our hands having literate knowledge. There is power in the non-discursive, unreasoned actions of our bodies. We can refelect on the hands and the minds of the designer/designer-child workd in discursive and non-discursive exhanges as they work through their creative processes.

Continuing on that which is embodied, Susana Manso helped us think further, about both play and about the way designers work, through the lens of dance choreography. Susana, herself a dancer, talked of both choreographers' and child-players' roles: from expert, author, pilot, facilitator to collaborator. She illustrated choreographer's and dancers' skills and approaches that are enabled by such different roles. All this sounded remarkably similar to the different aspects of designer and child roles we have encountered.

Yesterday's, stimulating plenary, as we considering Co-producing knowledge of places, saw Margaret Somerville, talking of one of her place-learning projects in Australia. Margaret recounted her methods whereby a group of children took videos of throwing stones in their local lagoon. Because they didn't like the sounds of their own voices in the first video, the children re-shot the action and the scene. We were reminded us of the reflective and iterative qualities of children's making-behaviour and their attention to detail. Later in the day, prompts around notions of power-relations cropped up as we continually noted that co-production (of knowlege and spaces) often privileges those who already have social capital (thank you Lee Crookes). We had lively discussion around themes such as: process versus outcome; difficulties in creating collaborative environments; the value of the qualitative and everyday versus the value of 'hard data' to worlds of research and beyond. We touched upon the prominence of emotion and relationship in co-production of any kind and the need for common languages between different partners whether they be residents, makers, children, tenants, professional service providers or academic researchers.

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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 (, 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 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, 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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We have recently returned from the Arkki Conference in Helsinki: Creating the Future 2.0. Arkki, the School of Architecture for Children and Youth in Finland, this year celebrates its 20th birthday. Pihla Meskanen, Arkki Director, and her wonderful team organised a terrific architecture education conference as part of the celebrations. A concurrent strand to the anniversary event was a beautiful exhibition of Arkki students' work, displayed at a great venue: Laituri - the Helsinki City Planning Department's information and exhibition space in the old bus station building.

The conference itself was truly international with presenters from across Europe, Asia and South America and the setting for presentations, the Alexander Theatre, was an architectural delight. Whilst most of the conference focussed upon the sharing of methods, theories and developments in architecture education, we were able to present a somewhat different perspective, moving from what is on offer for children to talk about about the architects' perspective and experience when they work with children and young people. Arkki's Facebook pages reveal more.

Conference participants did not only share their programmes of work. We were treated to a great list of workshops on offer. (I joined an excellent session which tackles ideas of drawing, scale, local place, construction and the natural world in András Cseh's How Big is a Tree? workshop, held in stunningly equipped Arkki Classrooms,set in an old cable factory). The conference trip to the modest and elegant Aalto House, home and workplace of Alvar Aalto gave delegates an inspirational send off.

The Arkki Conference revealed how seriously both architecture and children are (separately and together) considered at decision making levels. There is both a national architectural policy and a national children's culture policy, both of which are taken very serioulsy in Finland. To have the invovlement and endorsement of both Helsinki's Mayoral offices and a national policitian at the conference, was quite an eye opener for us British types.

It was a perfect place to begin to pass on the word about the database and to drum up interest in the project more widely, adding a number of folk to our network.

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Intersubjectivities; possibilities of being; co-creative encounters; transformation.

These are a few of the emerging themes out of our research so far that we will be discussing soon in the following conferences:

Arkki Conference Finland May 8-10 2014 Here we are launching our database showing approximately 40 projects, in which designers worked with children. This is just a window into some of our findings from our first year's work, which involved interviewing 16 spatial designers.

We concentrate on the theme 'possibilities of being': What do spatial designers learn from the creative dialogue with children and what impact does this have in the design process itself? In exploring these questions we aim to build an understanding of co-creative design processes involving children and spatial designers; and provide an evidence-base to support co-creative transformational participatory practice.

CSCY Conference Sheffield July 1-3 2014 Our insipration in this case has been the expert-novice relationship, which is regularly played-out and re-worked in variations of the teacher-learner interaction throughout children's lives. Through use of literary and cinematic representations of relationships between adults and children, we come to subvert well-recognised interactions between children and adults. Review of literature on play, creativity, design, education and child development, coupled with our own interviews with spatial designers, has prompted re-interpretation of the child-adult dyad and, specifically, exploration of reciprocity, negotiation and imrpovisation as part of their interactions. We argue that possibilities for greater creative partnership, intersubjectivity, co-learning and transformation for both adults and children, echoed in our own empiricl research, largely draw on the everyday nature of child-adult interactions.

– Finally, Child in the City Conference Odense 29 Sept – 1 Oct 2014 With our paper we ask: in what ways can the creative collaboration between children and spatial designers bridge their worlds and offer opportunities for co-authoring their identities? Design professionalism has been often described as normalising creativity, partly due to its key principle of expert knowledge, which distinguishes 'insiders' from 'lay outsiders'. Specifically in designer-child collaborations, designers' institutional concerns typically draw attention away from the creative process and the valuable impact that such creative partnerships may have on design practice. Our interviews with 16 design practitioners show that their 'creative detours' with children, coupled with children's capacity to re-invent their environments imaginatively, can offer a more inclusive and empowering perspective for both practitioners and children, one where expertise is subverted and new roles come to transform the child-designer identities.

Are you interested in the above debates? We welcome you to contribute with your comments!

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Model feedback station


Modules station


Children's shoe-box story

Having only recently returned from our first case study visit to Köln, we are still buzzing with excitement! We observed and recorded the second and last design workshop run by two die Baupiloten architects, each of whom worked at a different ‘station’, or design activity context, with six children aged 4-9 in groups of two.

The architects had already captured children’s key ideas for the restaurant at the first workshop, which translated into two big design themes: entrance and mirrors. At the first station, the children took part in a feedback session. They were presented a model of the restaurant whose design was based on the shoe-box stories that they had created at the first workshop. This was an opportunity for the children to link what they saw back to their initial ideas and explore ways in which they can use the restaurant spaces. The second station ('modules station') was a hands-on activity, where they experimented with fabrics, mirrors, components and light to end up with an imaginative structure reflecting their own ‘dreamworlds’, as one of the architects commented.

As it happens with real life research, however, it was us, researchers, who took photographs and video-recorded the above activities. We saw the architects and the children concentrating together, telling stories, having a laugh, moving around, and playing with paper figurines, which they placed on the restaurant model and structure, often defying the gravity law. Whilst the two of us took on a paparazzi role photographing all movement and action taking place, our third researcher interviewed each one of the children in a camping tent (couldn’t be more adventurous), where they enacted designer-child interactions with toy figures and commented on the photos that we took.

What’s next? We’ll keep you posted.. For now, a warm thanks to die Baupiloten architects and the participating children for allowing us a glimpse into their design worlds, children’s teachers and carers, as well as Le Buffet personnel at Karstadt for their hospitality.

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