Isth­mus as­so­ciate land­scape ar­chi­tect Damian Pow­ley makes a case for why chil­dren should be in­volved in the de­sign process for most ar­chi­tec­tural sites – not just play­grounds and schools.

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At Isth­mus, we reg­u­larly ig­nore the ad­vice of ac­tor W.C Fields who fa­mously said, “Never work with an­i­mals or chil­dren”. While work­ing with chil­dren as part of the de­sign process can be hard work and not part of our norm, it is hugely ben­e­fi­cial, and in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing. We love our tamariki. We cel­e­brate their en­thu­si­asm and in­no­cence – and their ten­dency to state the ob­vi­ous. Kids (thank­fully) don’t get caught up in the drama of adult­hood. They are fresh, hon­est, and not afraid to speak their mind. For a group of­ten over­looked in the de­sign process, in­quis­i­tive kids of­ten make the task more pro­found, real, and hon­est. Per­haps the ques­tion is not should we in­volve kids, but how can we in­volve kids more in a mean­ing­ful de­sign process?

We need to de­sign a play­ground – great! Let’s ask some kids…

Kids en­gage in all the same as­pects of mod­ern life and the environment around us that adults do – and cer­tainly more than just play­grounds. They are in­flu­enced by the world around us, just like adults. So we should honour their right to par­tic­i­pate and have a voice. Af­ter all, we are cre­at­ing healthy places for the whole com­mu­nity to live, work and play, and that in­cludes chil­dren.

If we con­sider what the bar­ri­ers are to ac­tively in­volv­ing kids in de­sign, we might want to think about whether we are ap­proach­ing kids in a mean­ing­ful way, as well as whether we are ask­ing the right ques­tions or us­ing the right tools.

A typ­i­cal Q&A sur­vey ap­proach gen­er­ally doesn’t of­fer much new in­sight when en­gag­ing with kids. Chil­dren are nat­u­ral de­sign­ers, in­no­va­tors and in­ven­tors, creators and ex­plor­ers of our ev­ery­day world – they love get­ting their hands dirty. They of­ten learn and con­trib­ute best with tac­tile and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties, and the de­sign process teaches them good life skills, like how to try, fail, and try again.

Our ad­vice: con­sider throw­ing i n a whole heap of card­board boxes, some Lego and clay

Who knows what will come out of the process when work­ing with kids? Gen­er­ally, that’s the whole point – we need to frame the pur­pose and out­comes re­ally well, while be­ing pre­pared to em­brace the un­ex­pected. It’s a mind­set for adults and a ‘state’ for kids. Once we re­frame our ap­proach to­wards

in­volv­ing kids in de­sign, we open up the op­por­tu­nity to find out what we don’t know, what we haven’t con­sid­ered, or what we didn’t even think was pos­si­ble.

Does that then mean in­volv­ing kids is just as sim­ple as hand­ing out a box of art and craft ma­te­ri­als, and that’s it? It’s quite a dif­fer­ent ap­proach get­ting kids ‘into’ what we are do­ing – mak­ing it fun and play­ful. Ob­serv­ing and lis­ten­ing are just as im­por­tant as what is crafted or recorded. Notic­ing body lan­guage, how they in­ter­act, and what ex­cites them. You have to be quick though – mo­ments can emerge and dis­ap­pear in a blink.

That may sound like hard work, but the re­sults are well worth it. In fact we have our own Isth­mus Tamariki De­signLAB be­cause we be­lieve in the im­por­tance of shap­ing, pro­to­typ­ing and test­ing our de­signs with the ‘real’ users. We re­cently ex­plored a seat de­sign for an out­door learn­ing environment with our Tamariki De­signLAB.

Yes, a chair is for sit­ting – but what else can a chair do while be­ing sat on? How does it con­nect with those you are sit­ting with? What if it moves? What hap­pens when it is not be­ing sat on? If kids are given the space to cre­atively ex­plore these ques­tions, in­evitably, some­thing com­pletely new emerges.

Yes, it will need re­fine­ment, and yes, for a whole heap of rea­sons it may not work. But in that mo­ment, that spark of in­sight that might oth­er­wise be missed – and the de­signer’s abil­ity to re­alise the po­ten­tial of that spark – is where the true value lies. Imag­ine what we could un­cover if we ap­plied that ap­proach to some­thing larger – say, the whole city.

Our think­ing of com­mu­nity and a kid’s per­spec­tive within that is chang­ing. Con­sid­er­ing that ‘kid’ spa­ces are more than just play­grounds and schools, we start to con­sider how kids move in the built environment, who do they go with, and what is mem­o­rable along the way. By designing with kids for sub­ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion projects – in­clud­ing a ‘Green­way’ in North­cote, Auck­land – we are ob­serv­ing, cre­at­ing and re­fin­ing their home environment to­gether, and find­ing out what is im­por­tant for them in their ev­ery­day lives. From Pri­mary to Col­lege, these are the fu­ture com­mu­nity lead­ers.

“Chil­dren are a kind of in­di­ca­tor species. If we can build a suc­cess­ful city for chil­dren, we will have a suc­cess­ful city for all peo­ple.” – Enrique Pe­nalosa.

We know that what is good for the child is good for the fam­ily. What is good for the fam­ily is gen­er­ally good for the com­mu­nity, and what is good for the com­mu­nity, is gen­er­ally good for ev­ery­one. That’s why Isth­mus have de­vel­oped spe­cific tools and tech­niques to en­gage with chil­dren in the de­sign process, to cap­ture their creative energy and use it to in­vig­o­rate our spa­ces and places. Damian Pow­ley is an As­so­ciate Land­scape Ar­chi­tect in Isth­mus’ Auck­land stu­dio. He is fo­cused on stake­holder li­ai­son, project strateg y, de­sign set­ting, Quay com­mu­nity Street en­gage­ment & fa­cil­i­ta­tion , and project im­ple­men­ta­tion.

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