Childhood is sometimes described as a state of mind. It is also a distinct physical and mental phase which is experienced between ages one and a half to 16. Although it is debatable when childhood actually ceases and adulthood becomes a reality, for the purposes of this collection, our definition of childhood is broadly determined by these age criteria. Within this framework three sections emerge which order the chapters in this book: firstly, the child in early years; secondly, the child in school; and thirdly, the child in the city. Each theme is linked and interconnected, with the chapters ordered chronologically and loosely linked by a thematic narrative.
Chapter 1 is an introduction to some of the main issues around listening to young children in an effort to take on board their views within the design process. Alison Clark has helped to develop a methodological framework, called the Mosaic approach, for listening to young people about the important details of their daily lives. She is concerned that those details and architectural features which young children really need, are not taken for granted by the adults who are creating them. She argues that only by listening to young children can we can begin to understand how important this iconography is to them. The methodology relates specifically to young children, however, many aspects of the approach are equally valid if applied to listening with older children.
Michael Laris is a designer of playground equipment for children of all ages which is widely recognized for its quality and style. In Chapter 2 he describes his approach to designing and most importantly evolving the equipment to better suit the needs of its users. He does this by observing
children playing in the environments he has helped to create. This gives a fascinating perspective on the way children play. Through this two key criteria emerge, firstly, the need for flexibility, so that children can follow their own personal imaginative intentions and are not dictated to by overly descriptive imagery; play is rarely a straightforward appropriation of adult pre-conceptions. Secondly, there is a need to consider the details to which children’s minds and bodies can relate. The equipment must strike a balance between safety in use and the need to challenge the child to explore the limits of their physical dexterity. He describes the conceptual thinking which goes into his work, elevating a piece of climbing equipment to part of a psychological landscape of play and experimentation which extends development opportunities for those who use it.
In Chapter 3, Bruce Jilk presents a radical view of contemporary education which, he argues, is outdated and does not meet the needs of the modern world. Instead of providing for a world of individuals operating within a wider urban environment, schools have become internalized ghettos of childhood, cut off from the communities they are supposed to serve, centrally administered in a ‘one size fits all’ ethos. He describes an alternative strategy he helped to devise which has been used to develop a new school in Reykjavik, where a whole range of factors such as politics, society, environment and economics have been brought into the discussion about the shape of the new school, its architecture and its curriculum. By engaging with the community, the process moulds the school to its individual needs, recognizing it as a unique community in its own right.
Eleanor Nicholson was a schools inspector in California before her recent retirement. She describes a more enlightened approach to school design in Chapter 4. Drawing upon her discussions with staff and students over many years she explains how important the environment is in complementing the educational and social support of the pedagogy. She cites a number of key examples of good school design, which values the needs of children and forms a lasting impression on the users. In her view it is important because the environment sends out messages about how children are valued. One historical example is of particular interest because it gauges the views of alumni and the positive effects the environment had in forming and shaping their lives fifty years ago.
Nicholson describes the classrooms at a wellloved school in Winnetka, Illinois as being ‘humane and democratic’ because simple needs are respected, with classrooms having access to the garden, en-suite WCs and enough space to enable teaching to take place in a number of different forms. This allows schools to deal with special needs within an increasingly individualized society.
In Chapter 5, John Edwards illustrates the intensive integration of activities and functions within the framework of this single room, the primary school classroom, where children aged 5 to 11 years spend most of their time. Based on observation of children and their teachers in 40 or so existing classrooms, Edwards listens to children and observes the way in which they use their spaces. His research represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the way in which classrooms operate. Here, the views of teachers are particularly enlightening as they comment on the shortcomings of their own teaching spaces. In search for a common language, his work sets out to translate the misunderstandings which often occur when architects try to talk about education and when educationalists try to discuss architecture and space. The chapter is an ideal briefing tool for designers and architects embarking on the construction of new or refurbished classrooms.
In Chapter 6, architect and academic Prue Chiles describes her work on a research-orientated building project initiated by the UK government to explore new educational ideas. She designed one of Sheffield’s ‘Classrooms of the Future’, where the needs of children were established as the priority from the outset, often at the expense of a more mundane health and safety agenda. Her approach incorporates a process of deep consultation with the end users, and an overtly child-centred attitude to design, which encapsulates the key principles of designing the inside-outside classroom; a true landscape for childhood. Her report includes a commentary on some of the difficulties encountered when she tried to ‘jump outside the box’ and develop new innovative educational ideas.
The view that children’s perceptions of space are different to those of adults is the central premise of Chapter 7. Ben Koralek and Maurice Mitchell illustrate a range of initiatives which has been implemented within the UK over the past ten years, intended to include pupils in the design processes. These initiatives have helped to transform the perceptions of those who have participated. In the second part of Chapter 7 the authors describe important case studies where school students have actually worked with designers on real school projects. Although full of childlike fantasy, there are some remarkably grounded ideas to transform existing and new school environments and to make them more appropriate for the present and future generations who will be expected to use them. The authors argue that as huge amounts of investment flow into the state education system (within the UK), the need to get it right has never been more critical.
Creating a landscape for physical exploration was a concept I understood very clearly as being of tremendous value for young children, through my own design work. But what about older children?1 What additional factors, whether they are environmental, technological or pedagogical, come into play as children grow and develop?
Over the age of seven, children may begin to explore landscapes in a less physical way, nevertheless the extent to which the environment encourages play and enquiry can have a similar cognitive benefit. As the physical dimension of younger years play gives way to a more intellectual independent engagement during the teenage years, the importance of fantasy and imagination should not be overlooked. Older children still need to explore new and challenging ‘metaphorical landscapes’.
We can include new digital culture as part of these ‘landscapes’. Other social landscapes also need to be considered. For example when people can sit together in school and share lunch, this can have tremendous social benefits especially when linked to a healthy eating regime. The sustainability agenda can and should become an essential part of the experience of school architecture, so that students pick up important messages about their environment reinforced through explicit architectural expression.
Architecture can, and should, go beyond the merely functional. The richer and more stylish it is, the more likely it is to turn older children onto education and learning, and perhaps most importantly encourage meaningful social interactions. However, we are not concerned here exclusively with school buildings. Although there is no other activity which occupies as much of a child’s life as that involved in attending school, other aspects of children’s time impacts on their development. In this respect we felt we needed to consider the home environment. We must remember that the context of the school is its community – urban, suburban or rural.
Computer games also play an increasingly important role in the lives of children at home. Many young people playing games with realistic animated landscapes, which can be explored, spend significant amounts of time hunched over a computer console. In Chapter 8 I will describe some of these games and assess their effect on the contemporary culture of childhood. Other aspects of digital culture are also informing the lives of our children. New educational strategies at schools place ICT at the heart of the process. To a certain extent this too is a generational issue. At least as adults we have, during the course of our lives, accumulated direct experiences for ourselves (largely without the aid of computers) and hence have a perspective formed alongside the virtual realm. Increasingly, however, our children’s experiences of the world are effectively secondhand, communicated through a voracious electronic landscape, detached from the real physical landscapes of earlier childhood experience.
Continuing this theme in Chapter 9, Helen Penn describes how confined children are today, restricted by a health and safety agenda, which emphasizes the need for constant adult surveillance at the expense of independent play and exploration. Arguably, there has never been so much control imposed upon children as there is today. This is tending to diminish the quality and
Children playing in the street (Hulton Getty: reproduced with permission).
Play streets. Young boys playing cricket in London’s East End, 1929. In streets like these, motor cars were almost unknown, pavements made a firm playing surface, and lamp posts were excellent wickets or goal posts.
scope for independent imaginative play, and the uses children had previously for chance play in ‘found’ (mainly) urban places around the city, and in previous centuries, within the surrounding countryside. Today, most children are simply never permitted the freedom to explore the areas around their home freely. Less freedom is creating a generation of children over-anxious about their external environment. A survey indicates that in 1989, 62 per cent of primary-age children walked to school. A decade later it was only 54 per cent.2 There is growing concern that youngsters are losing their connection with the natural environment because they have limited opportunities to play and learn outside controlled zones like the home or the school.
As Penn asserts in Chapter 9, it is a widely held view amongst many commentators and parents that health and safety legislation relating to children’s environments is limiting their capacity for free imaginative play. In Chapter 10, Judith and John Hicks take these concerns and place them in the context of a modern world which must legislate for risks and hazards, as never before. They describe
the basic principles which designers must adhere to and place these into a historical context. They explain the basic rules for evaluating safety and developing good design strategies for children’s play parks. They go some way towards defining exactly what ‘child friendly’ means and set out the rules which ensure that the environment complies with the legislation. They will argue that whilst children’s safety must always be paramount, this is by no means incompatible with the provision of well – designed imaginative play spaces that encourage both independence and collaboration.
In Chapter 11, Susan Herrington describes the approach to procuring a new schoolyard in a suburb of Vancouver. The schoolyard is intended to provide a centre for the wider community in general as well as a safe but stimulating area for school pupils. A recent international design competition run by the author attracted 270 submissions from throughout the world. They were challenged to create an interactive sustainable environment which would help to put adventure back into play and learning. This chapter will describe the concept behind the original competition brief and outline some of the
author’s concerns about the external environment around the school, and the messages it sends to children about their place in a fragile world.
Most of the contributors are also parents with a wealth of practical experience regarding the wellbeing of their own children. Catherine Burke is no exception and she explores a concern for many parents at present; that is the quality of food our children consume both at home, in the urban environment and at school. Chapter 9 explains the pivotal role food should play within the educational curriculum and the physical shape of the school itself. Certainly when visiting most Italian childcare centres where lunchtime is usually a pure gastronomic pleasure, organized almost as a ritualistic event, one is starkly reminded of how our own fast food culture has diminished our children physically and socially. She has visited a number of inspiring international examples of what is currently happening in the edible landscape of schools. She reports on her findings.
It will be apparent from this brief description that the views expressed are largely consistent with the principle that in the modern world, children should be seen AND heard. As editor I would like to complete this introduction with a summary of two concerns which have emerged over the past decade from my own personal experiences both as a designer of children’s environments and as a parent. Both concerns relate to the nature of education and care. One is my view that education (within the UK) is failing many of our children because it does not match the needs of individual children closely enough; secondly, that children benefit from an environment which challenges them to adopt independent behaviour from the earliest years. Both of these views are illustrated by examples of what I consider to be excellent innovative design for children which also has considerable benefits for the wider community.