Co-designing with children and teenagers

Veronica Simpson hears about the challenges and benefits of co-designing with children and teenagers

The London Festival of Architecture in June is always a great excuse to dip into a whole assortment of issues relating to the built environment. It is testament to the richness and vitality of London’s architectural community (as well as the skills of the organisers) that you could, if you wanted, be out at multiple events, seminars and installations every night of the week and every weekend for the festival’s month-long duration.

This year’s top pick for me was a workshop on co-designing with children, called Don’t Play With Our Future, hosted by Feilden Fowles at its Oasis Farm, Waterloo, site – an educational and food-growing/rearing space designed for inner London children and the local community. Fiona MacDonald of educational architectural activists Matt + Fiona articulated the key issues nicely. She observed that, after a decade of living in austerity Britain, ‘good design is being stripped from public spaces and schools. When do you learn about good design if you are not seeing it around you? Alongside that, many children aren’t being given the opportunity to study art and design in schools. Our emphasis is on allowing children to build, not just have a say.

Located on an allotment, the Matt + Fiona project was designed to feature multiple moving and open-able partsLocated on an allotment, the Matt + Fiona project was designed to feature multiple moving and open-able parts. Credit: Patrick Mateer

We believe it is possible to create situations where young people genuinely have agency to change the built environment for the better.’ For an example, she gave us a special project she and Matthew Springett, her co-founder, devised with a school for excluded children in Hull 2017, with Hull being the UK’s City of Culture. Working with a group of 14- to 16-yearolds, they explored ideas of what kind of a space they would most appreciate being added to their already active allotment site. A ‘den cum shelter cum classroom’ emerged, with multiple moving and open-able parts to allow for diverse uses, all modelled using paper and card. It was then constructed over five days from timber frames and panels.

A video on the website shows this thrilling and also nerve-racking process in action: the children took part in every aspect, including cutting the timber panels to size, rollering rubber paint over them to waterproof the exterior, then fixing them to the frame with power tools, and constructing benches and seats inside. The project went on to win the AJ People’s Choice Award in the Small Projects category. Panellist Helen Charman, director of learning and national programmes at the V&A, has been discovering the benefits of co-designing with children, aged eight to 14, in its Museum of Childhood’s (MoC) extensive redesign by De Matos Ryan and AOC. She said: ‘Museums are really rethinking the old orthodoxies.’ The enthusiasm, passion and excitement their youthful co-designers have brought to the project has proved its worth.

‘They see the MoC as a creative incubator for the future, where they can discover changemaking and agency…The children have said “we want to co-design the most joyful museum in the world”,’ she added. Co-design is now being appraised as a tool for the main museum in Kensington.

But working with children and young people is not always joyful and far from easy, as MacDonald observed. Yes, young children are often unencumbered by protocols or risk aversion; however, ‘teenagers are not unencumbered, and not necessarily joyful. You can end up having massively beneficial conversations but not if you don’t set things up properly. The problem with education today is that the answer is often put up on the board at the beginning of a lesson. That’s the way they are taught now. So they don’t want to question their own ideas, they say “tell us the answer”. Six-year-olds don’t – they jump in. Teenagers don’t jump in. They have had their desire to take risks discouraged…To do co-design takes a huge amount of curation. You have to break down the process of designing into something that enables people to engage.’

It was constructed over five days from timber frames and panelsIt was constructed over five days from timber frames and panels. Credit: Patrick Mateer

And co-design is certainly not about abdicating responsibility to any one group. The benefits of bringing different voices into the active design process is that the insights are richer and broader. But the key to the process is in the ‘co’ – it is a cooperative, collaborative effort.

A downside is that genuine co-design is time- and energy-consuming, and not every client wants to pay for that. The arguments for a really good co-design programme still need to be clearly articulated in terms of value to the project and benefits to the community. That aside, one of the advantages, as MacDonald said, is that: ‘When we present ideas saying they are the children’s ideas, people listen in a way they wouldn’t do normally.’ This extra buy-in can work across the board – from the school head to the person in charge of maintenance. ‘Everyone works together to make it happen,’ she said. ‘We have very ingrained systems in every aspect of our lives. There are very few opportunities to question decisions. This can create that chink of light for something different to happen.’ Matt + Fiona are about to embark on their biggest challenge yet: working with schoolkids to design and build a ‘Mega-Maker Lab’ in the old London Fire Brigade HQ for the Institute of Imagination. It will open for the month of August, for an anticipated 10,000 visitors.

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