This article is based on Claire’s reflections on the context of space and place at the 2015 Working Forum on Design and Nature.
By Claire Warden (Scotland)
Whilst in New Zealand at the working forum of OnDesign and the Nature Action Collaborative for Children I listened to the presentations of Adam Bienenstock (Canada), Robyn Christie (New Zealand) and Maxine Shortland (New Zealand) which explored the context of space and place in the design process. I was asked to summarize. What follows is my response and thoughts to take forward into our design and pedagogy of children’s spaces.
‘Most people are on the world, not in it- having no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them- undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate’ – John Muir
We work with nature and embrace it. But are we standing alone like marbles of polished stone? Do we reside on top of the land, as separate entities? Human beings do not need to connect but to re-connect to nature, to live in synergy with it as integral parts of a larger balanced, global system.
How do we do this in our work with children? Can we create a way of being with children that is based on authenticity, relationship and connection? How can we create a connection to land when there is a wide cultural diversity within our settings and communities. In our work as designers and pedagogues perhaps we need to first know the land that we are on, to understand its soils, the light, the movement of the seasons and how they are presented, the embedded knowledge of the native plants that have evolved in that space and the stories the land holds. Weaving those together combined with consulting children, so that the voices of children, elders, families and staff can create a space that has a cultural connection to them, in this time and place.
Authenticity. What can we do to design spaces that are full of relevance and meaning for the children, family and community that will be in them. The families and children need to have ownership. How do we continue to ensure that there are cycles of connection for each group that enters the space? Perhaps it comes through personal and respectful engagement to ensure that there is a sense of belonging, or history making power (Haas 1996). As adults perhaps we need to leave spaces ‘almost done’ and not see our role to finish but to provocate the finishing, just as we do within our nature pedagogy (Warden 2015).
Gravitas. There is a message of value that is conveyed through subtle recognition of the details of culture that hold onto memories of the past, present and into the future. We sit outside many of the communities that we design for, so we need to create a sense of empowerment for that community, so that that they feel a sense of developing gravitas of buildings and spaces that will live and evolve over time.
Flexibility. Flexibility of spaces that allow each family that enters to feel a connection, to feel that their traditions are embraced so that they flourish .Designs that have too many constraints do perhaps send implicit messages of dominant culture and could be more mindful of the emotional resonance they send that could in turn suppress another’s ideas and thoughts.
Graphics. The world is full of graphics and imagery that can be about the contrast or the blending of several points coming together. We can look at line and notice how the eye and then body follow it in almost subliminal way.. look at a wall enclosing a space or opening one out, or a pathway inviting children to explore further. We look at a combination of lines and see pattern . Spaces created for visual simplicity that allow children to bring pattern to it and therefore change its visual complexity as they feel the need. Nature gives us gifts all the time, we can embrace these and bring them to our designs . Imagine, the appearance of light and shadow under a tree, extending through leaves casting shadow on the indoor spaces.
I am reminded constantly of Rachel Carson, who suggested that we look to nature to inspire us to design spaces for children. The detail of the natural world connects to children’s fascinations.
‘Some of natures most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake’
To what extent do we consider the tiny details of the design, the tiny door at the base of a door frame, the peephole to gaze through, the fluid curve on the back of a chair or the knot on a wooden table?
Nature works in slow time and shares with us the need to engage slowliness in our children’s lives. Humans develop the understanding of patience and the beauty as we watch the landscapes we create emerge and share their hidden secrets of a bud opening or shoot growing. The spaces we create are to allow children and families to flourish; flourishing takes time and so does the evolution of good design.
Symbiosis. The semiotics or language of the landscape and designs of our dwellings present us with messages that we as humans can read. Do we know that children read the same language in the same way? Is it possible that even the language of design for children is different? Further, is their lens and interpretation of design the same as ours as adults? If we are to live symbiotically, where we all feel the positivity of sound design that fulfils all aspects of our human development emotionally, intellectually and physically then we need to bring together many elements, and many cultural voices to the process.
Being. Design can make us move, or help us to be still. All humans require times of ‘being’ in their lives, to sit and ponder. Children need help to be content to be in a place without the drive to move to another or to fill the space with the ‘stuff’ of a commercialised childhood. How can we design spaces for ‘being’ rather than always doing?
The role we have as designers and pedagogues is to think, to reflect and to work together to bring together our many talents. The collaboration of the World Forum Nature Action Collaborative and the On Design working forums has enabled deeper conversations and inter professional working to flourish. The world will be a more positive place for children and families…by design.
Haas, M.( 1996) “Children In The Junkyard”, Childhood Education, v72, n6,
Association for Childhood Education International, Wheaton, MD.
Warden.C. ( 2010) ‘Nature Kindergartens and Forest schools’ Pub. Mindstretchers ltd. Scotland.
Warden.C. (2015) ‘Learning with Nature ‘pub. Sage, London
‘The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on water, but to ‘really’ walk on the earth.’ Chinese proverb