Most adults, I imagine, recognize the form in Plate 1 and interpret it as a children’s castle. We assume it is a castle because of the turrets and battlements, the archway, perhaps the choice of vibrant colours and, although it is not visible here, the drawbridge at the front entrance. This product had been available in another version for many years before it was revised to incorporate new accessibility standards. As part of the development process, the
new updated castle was manufactured, installed and then tested. As I stood alongside it making observations during the play evaluation, three boys came running over and entered the castle through the main entrance, under the arch. The first boy ran up onto the upper platforms. The second hid below in the ‘dungeon’ area. The third stopped at the portal, took hold of a lever arm, placed there so that children could pretend to lift the drawbridge, and shouted, ‘anchors up, we’re sailing!’
Sailing? My new castle, sailing? Here I learned an important lesson – it is not the designer who decides how a thing will ultimately be used. It is the children who decide. In this case the boys needed a ship in order to carry on the game they were playing. The explicit castle references were of no relevance to the narrative of their play at that moment, so instead, the castle became a ship. This observation made clear to me the crucial need for designs which are less obvious, more abstract, and include a diversity of shapes and materials so that they are open to a wide range of imaginative interpretations – interpretations made by the children themselves.
Children are constantly trying out new things. Their world is a novel experience and investigating and experimenting with things is their natural way of being. It is not, as sometimes thought, a haphazard way of being. On the contrary, children over two years of age are well skilled at recognizing their own physical limitations and are usually able to grade the difficulty of the task they face, taking on only those risks that they feel equipped to handle.
They are also critical observers, watching and listening to older or more experienced children and adults. When they have gathered an appropriate level of knowledge about something that intrigues them, they will try it out. This brings them new knowledge about their physical and mental dexterity, which they will apply immediately to their subsequent cycle of play. In very general terms, this is what children are doing when they play. They observe others, try it out for themselves, analyse what happened, adjust their actions, and try again. Children are creative inventors because they can progress through this
process intuitively, largely unencumbered by the inhibitions many adults have.