Talking and listening to children

Alison Clark

Editor’s introduction

‘In my cave listening to music. It’s magic music

from my magic radio.’

This was one response from 3-year-old Gary about his favourite place in the nursery. The statement was one of many insights given by a group of young children, about their views and experiences of everyday life in their early childhood institution. It was recorded during a recent research project implemented by the author.

There is an increasing interest in listening to children and the importance of children’s participation when making important decisions about their lives. Central to this is the need for children’s views to be heard regarding the form and shape of their own physical world. These views are particularly important in relation to the design of the childcare centre, a space within which many children in full daycare will spend much of their formative years.

Listening to young children (in this context, defined as the under fives), holds particular challenges for the architectural community, who often find their design process to be confined by limited budgets and health and safety frameworks. These constraints can limit the quality of the environment, and make it less suitable for young children. In addition, the restricted framework within which architects now work makes innovative new practice within the early years built envir­onment, increasingly difficult. Considering this is a relatively new building type for the UK, this is regrettable. The new generation of Family and Childcare Centres, many of which are adopting an interesting mixed economy of public and private finance, has a duty to explore the architectural needs of its community through a deeper, more considered process of consultation with the users.1

This chapter explores the development of a methodological framework, the Mosaic approach, for listening to young children about important details of their daily lives. The author looks in particular at how this methodology can help designers to reflect on young children’s experience of place and architecture and enhance their understanding of exactly who children are, in relation to the worlds they inhabit.

Of particular importance within the design of childcare environments are the details. Often these important features enable them to relate successfully to their environment so that it becomes not just a home from home but also a place of exploration, discovery and developing environmental awareness. Young children in Alison Clark’s study described the spaces in a variety of ways; for example, their associations with people and past events, with objects, activities, routines, access, and other crucial factors, which defined their daily lives. Some were merely functional, others sensory and others symbolic.

Figure 1.1

Talking and listening to childrenTalking and listening to childrenChildren using a ledge in a Sheffield daycare facility (from observational studies by Simon Pryce): (a) A child sitting on the ledge is spotted by her friend;

(b) The friend climbs along the ledge to take up the position now being vacated by the first child. (By permission of the editor, Mark Dudek, from Building for Young Children published by the National Children’s Bureau, London.)

They were insights, which added a crucial dimension to the conventional adult view of what constitutes a place. These observations can be a vital support for a deeper understanding of children’s needs within the environment, and a way for architects and designers to construct an alternative set of priorities to the current, somewhat standardized criteria which do not take into account the particularities of the users and their local context. As Alison Clark points out, it is an alternative to the adult view of environment; where the designer can start with the child’s view, their local knowledge, their attention to detail and particular visual and sensory quirkiness, a much more child-orientated architecture may emerge. This, in my experience as an architect, has been a particularly useful approach at an early stage when taking the brief.