Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More Varied Places for Children: A Gentle Plea

Kindergarten space in Germany

My interest in children’s museums in the late 1970’s came from a hope for more and varied environments for young children. Even then there was a concern about the lack of play opportunities for children.

In the late 1970’s the presence of tire-cargo-net-and-telephone pole playgrounds–rambling and somewhat untidy alternatives to the metal pipe-and-swing playgrounds–was growing. Robin Moore and Herb Wong transformed an elementary school playground in Berkeley into the Washington Environmental Yard bringing children to outdoor adventures and growing plants. Day care programs, which were relatively new, sprouted up in no-longer used elementary schools and church basements inviting impromptu solutions for places for young children. The adventure playgrounds I studied in London demonstrated an amazing variety of child-shaped play environments. There was even a journal, Children’s Environments Quarterly  with research, studies, and thought pieces from the US, the UK, and Europe. One of my interests in helping to start Madison Children's Museum in 1980 was to add variety to the environments where Madison's children could explore, change, and grow up.  

With the growth of children’s museums across the country during the 80’s and 90’s, the promise of rich, interesting, and varied places planned with children in mind seemed great. Discovering how the environment as teacher is integral to the pedagogy of the municipal schools in Reggio also seemed hopeful. The schools I visited on a study tour to Reggio inspired me and others with places for children that are lovely, dynamic, and luminous.

Reluctantly, I have come to an unwelcome conclusion. It is a conclusion expressed by others who are concerned about a loss of childhood, about diminishing time and places to play, about children forgetting how to play, about environments as products, and about a dreary ubiquity from one play environment to another.

The value of children’s environments is not being fully realized.

My hope for a wonderful array of varied environments for children from birth on up; places indoors and out that invite them to play and explore; settings that are public and private, small and large, found and planned, has not materialized. In spite of seemingly more spaces for children, there is a notable swell of sameness among children’s environments, across children’s museum exhibits, libraries, shopping malls, themed bookstores, Gymboree, and even some home furnishings for children. An unproductive convergence in the environments that children experience has resulted in limited experiences for them.

Simply more environments are not able to accomplish what more varied environments are able to accomplish for children. Children have strong relationships with environments, the containers for the everyday moments that matter to them. Until about 10 years when a child’s world opens up to abstractions such as far away and long ago, a child’s world is immediate and tangible. They explore it and know it through their senses and movement.

The qualities of the settings where children spend their time is critical for two reasons. First, young children’s developmental domains–physical, cognitive, social, and emotional–are closely related. This means that physical development is cognitive development. Falling down is gravity. Second, different environments afford different understandings. Experience with texture, weight, movement, temperature, shape, enclosure, scale, perspectives, views, light and dark, up and down, sounds and smells, cause-and-effect, are critical to a child’s making sense of their world and to having a sense of well-being and security. In a very real way, the environment serves as teacher, constantly.

A plea for more varied environments is about at least three types of variety.

Types of environments differ in substantial and meaningful ways from one another. From the classroom to the art room or museum studio; from the playground, to the museum climbing structure; from the library story corner, to the bookstore or book nook, settings should distinguish themselves more fundamentally through their opportunities and experiential spirit and style. I suspect there are far more forms and variations on forms of environments than we have yet considered: nature playgrounds, shadow gardens, neighborhood forests. These to-be-discovered forms can stake out different experiential territory in order to offer a full range of complementary experiences that, together, provide a full rich menu of experiences for a child.

Adventure playground in Århus, Denmark
Children vary environments themselves, and in significant ways. If children are allowed to be environment changers, environments will, in fact, be more varied. This means children have loose parts, open space, and extended time to make choices about resources, to make and un-make things, to succeed and fail, and to see their impact. Environmental transformation is not just temporary change with everything put back immediately, erasing evidence of their thinking and creating. Varying the environments transforms the grocery store into trading post; re-engineers the sand lot; uses tree rounds as wheels, tables, horses, or building units; and knocks down the fort. It is arranging something beautiful for others to find. Children need to be able to transform a setting with their imaginations, a task much more difficult with over-defined forms that dictate meaning. A rocket ship climber, 3 bears playhouse, and rain forest café toddler area define the setting compared to more open-ended, abstract, suggestive forms.

Tree canopy walk at Morris Arboretum by Metcalf Architects and Design
Each setting is noticeably distinct because it is wholeheartedly rooted in its local context. Children’s environments should have identity, not be identical. Even the same type of environment, like a museum grocery store exhibit, should be just plain different from one city or town to another. Unless we thoughtlessly conceal them, place variations always exist as inspiration for design of experiences and spaces: the quality of light and the color of the sky, architectural styles and local building materials, seasonal migrations, plants and growing seasons, names of familiar objects and local place names, cultural traditions and heritage, and the faces and work of local children. The spirit of place should come through every space. Museum, exhibit, library, outdoor room, atelier, nature center should be a specific solution to a local priority, a museum mission, or this group of children. Imagine the possibility of a vernacular form or a local accent for children’s environments.

In order not to limit children’s imaginations and capacities, we should not limit our own. Often with the best of intentions, designers, teachers, museum educators, librarians, architects, parents, grandparents, landscape architects, and other helpful people create spaces that aspire to being exceptional yet deliver a limited experience. It is understandably difficult to escape a strong bias towards an adult view of the world. As a result we, and I include myself here, are likely to assume that what is good for us, is also good for children, what we have a feeling or is engaging will be engaging to children as well.

This is not a call for greater novelty or more cleverness. That could, in fact, simply compound the situation by investing more of less value in these environments. While there are various well-intentioned but unhelpful adult contributions to children’s settings, Danish Landscape Architect, Helle Nebelong recognizes several, "… it is an adult idea, created by misunderstanding, that everything to do with children must be openly amusing and painted in bright colours."

An adult view doesn’t need to be final. And a plea for more varied environments for children does not to suggest that we abandon our role as responsible adults. This is, however, an open invitation for design with a light touch. This means design that allows children to direct and complete experiences themselves rather than fill-in as allowed.
Children building at Minnesota Arboretum

A goal of more varied environments for children would be enormously advanced by cultivating an awareness of children’s considerable strengths and capabilities, their zest for testing and trying, their capacity for empathy, and even their aesthetic appreciation. In creating spaces for children, we would do well to be guided by their interests and spirit of discovery, paying careful attention to their willingness to entertain possibilities, develop theories about the nature of things, and their exuberance. Through this approach, we can appreciate how very much we need children to create the spaces we want them to explore. 

Reggio-inspired studio space
If we feel it is important enough, we can create places and spaces that children enjoy, explore, and prefer to other activities. Just as the environment is a resourceful teacher, it also serves as a positive and motivating force for experience. It can encourage relationships, develop abilities, open possibilities, and invite reflection. A small number of environments with such motivating, animating force are recognized by educators, museum-goers, designers, and architects. Some I’ve been reminded of recently are:
• The one-of-a kind City Museum (St. Louis) and Exploratorium  (San Francisco) 
• The child-centered schools and classrooms in Reggio
• The outdoor rooms of the Santa Fe Children’s Museum
• The secret places of the Patrick Dougherty willow sculpture at Bay Area Discovery Museum 
• Place-making installation of Riveropolis 

What these spaces seem to have in common are four not-very precise qualities.
• They assume a competence and capability of the user, child and adult, in exploring the space as well as shaping the experiences. Children and adults are essential to completing the experience.
• They are less finished spaces and places, and unapologetic for being so. They share similarities with found spaces, wild places, in between places, unfinished spaces. They are spaces supplied for possibilities and discovery, and open spaces where children can invent their play.
• They have a definite sense of place-ness, are one-of a kind places, highly local or site specific.
• While sharing a set of qualities, they do so quite distinctly: high multi-sensory environments that are surprising, messy, suggestive, (yet) detailed, secret, and beautiful.

Tapescape at Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota
It may be counterproductive to highlight these places as if to suggest they should be copied or to reduce them to a list and diminish their vitality. I do so in the hope of inspiring more people to wholeheartedly take on the challenging work of bringing more varied places to children’s lives.

I’ll be coming back to the topic of more varied environments for children, indoors and out, planned and found, large and small. It’s been in my bones for 30 years and seems unlikely to go away. Please join the conversations and share your thoughts on more varied environments for children.

• What examples do you think of as contributing to more varied environments for children?
• What qualities do they share that distinguish them from other places?
• Where do you see opportunities for more varied places for children?


  1. It has been my experience that a valuable quality of space (I'm talking about outdoor space here) is in fact SIZE or EXPANSE. In Minnesota where we are confined to the indoors so often during the year we find that the children want to get as far away as possible from us (and sometimes each other!) when we finally get outside. To have room to be engaged in an activity and feel that the adults are not RIGHT THERE seems so important. I know it's hard to balance safety and this need, but I think it is something to consider when designing areas for children that feel like their own. Children have so little time these days to really be by themselves. Can we somehow create this feeling without putting them in danger?

  2. Nina,Thanks for your observations and the question you pose. The considerations you express–how a setting can support children's independence reflects the challenges of giving them the greatest possible freedom without compromising safety and also how local and seasonal play conditions are. Some helpful elements outdoors might be: plant material as screens and dividers; the controlled visual access of low barriers such as half-walls and screens so children feel hidden but adults can see; and the ins-and-outs of alcoves and L-shaped spaces that create smaller spaces within larger spaces. Together these elements might create the feeling of being far away - but safely.