Co-designing with children

Co-designing with kids can bring far greater scope for experimentation and ambition, writes Veronica Simpson

Words by Veronica Simpson

Creative thinking is one of the most important skills for the future: one of the top three skills for the 21st century, according to The World Economic Forum.

So why is it that creativity in all its forms has been scoured from the UK’s school curriculum? Thanks to the prioritising of STEM (science, technology, English and Maths) subjects across all state primary and secondary schools over the past five years, at the expense of arts and humanities, there has been a 57% drop in 16 and 17-year-olds taking art and design GCSEs, and a similar fall-off has arisen in music and drama. But coupled with this disinvestment in the arts, one of the side effects of a results-oriented, accountability driven education system, is that the element of play – that vital opportunity for exploration that rewards curiosity and embeds real learning – has been pretty much stripped out of schoolchildren’s lives, not just in the classroom but in their increasingly solitary, sedentary, screen-based leisure time. According to Dr Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, both in the US, ‘the importance of free play and guided play as a catalyst for learning in coping, social and cognitive development cannot be overstated’. And yet play – in the UK and the US – is ‘under siege’, she says.

Hirsh-Pasek was speaking at a conference on Play & Design at the V&A in November 2019. One of the reasons why the V&A held this conference was to showcase the work it is doing at its Bethnal Green outpost, the Museum of Childhood (MoC) in east London. Over the past two years it has invested huge amounts of time and effort in engaging with the surrounding community, reaching out to children, as well as parents and teachers, to find out what kind of museum the children want it to become, in one of the most ambitious and embedded co-design programmes I have encountered. The ultimate aim, as V&A director Dr Tristram Hunt said at the conference, is to transform it ‘from a museum of the social and cultural history of childhood into a culture laboratory that makes creativity more pertinent to the children themselves’.

As a former shadow education secretary and Labour MP, Hunt’s mission is very much driven by the shortages he sees in our education system, and not just because of the benefits of creative subjects for mental vitality, sociability and emotional resilience. It’s also about employability. Looking at predictions for the future of work, he says, anything that can be franchised out to machines or software via artificial intelligence, will be. Creative thinking is one of humanity’s great advantages here. Hunt declared: ‘If you don’t want a robot to steal your job, study art.’

The V&A, he says, has a key role to play in redressing current imbalances, one that goes back to its roots as the South Kensington Museum, as established by inventor Sir Henry Cole, the chief instigator of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (with the help of friend and sponsor Prince Albert). The profits from this spectacular public showcase of art, engineering and ingenuity helped to establish this museum, and underpin its mission to improve the understanding and appreciation of art and design for all.

But the 19th century museum orthodoxies of object displays, a spot of publishing and the odd lecture can’t compete with the instant gratifications of the 21st century’s visually and verbally overloaded virtual landscape. Which is why the V&A is ramping up its investment in good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction and subject immersion. And giving a community the opportunity to engage in the real-time, physical transformation of a much loved institution is a great way to start. As Helen Charman, the V&A’s director of learning and national programmes, says: ‘We need to do things differently in ways that matter.’

The MoC project is not about architects giving children a menu of superficial elements they can have a say in – such as a handful of pre-selected colour or material options – but real openness and mutual exploration. A staircase that was conceived by architects De Matos Ryan as an elegant spiral, after workshopping possibilities with children, is now being turned into an immersive, kaleidoscope experience. AOC, in charge of the interior and exhibition design, encouraged children to make letters out of scrumpled up newspaper, the results of which have been turned into a font, which now proudly advertises the ‘Open Studio’ space they have embedded in the museum for further consultation. The identity of these children is thus actively woven into the fabric of the building. And in order to pick a colour palette that more accurately reflects the multiple ethnic diversities of the neighbourhood, the design team sourced fabrics and other materials from local markets, and allowed the children to choose a new scheme from this exuberant mixture (see case study on the previous page).

The market’s central thoroughfare was turned into a play areaSmithfield Market's central areas was turned into a play area 

The work the V&A has done with the MoC’s target audience of eight to 14-year-olds, ‘to design with and amongst them’, has also proved transformational to the organisation itself. Charman says: ‘The MoC is now able to speak back to this mother ship. And they are seeing that this co-design tool is a useful thing to bring back into the organisation.’

The sceptic might say it’s one thing to give children free reign when designing an environment intended for their specific enjoyment, but what about when architects have a far more rigorous and scientific setting, or adult audience, to accommodate? Even then, good co-design processes can facilitate delightful departures from the norm. For example, in designing a new ‘bench to bed’ research facility for Great Ormond Street Hospital, Stanton Williams’ vision was to ensure that this free-standing building, overlooking Coram Fields’ pioneering playspace and children’s park in London had an uplifting, civic and far from institutional atmosphere. Its robust exposed concrete forms are quite radical for a healthcare building – never mind one for children – but the enthusiasm of the children in the patient stakeholder groups helped the client and architects hold with their bolder vision.

Several other organisations are trying to swim against the curricular tides. One of them is the Open City foundation, in London, which has grown from a one-off, annual open house event into a campaigning entity whose activities include design education workshops for schoolkids, run over 25 London boroughs.

Accelerate is one such scheme, aimed at sixth form students from non-traditional design backgrounds, who are paired with built environment professionals to broaden student horizons about what a creative profession might look and feel like. And Open City’s Architecture in Schools programme works across 28 different primary schools each year, inviting pupils to articulate their feelings about specific aspects of their city via any art form, be it film, print, poetry or sculpture.

There is, perhaps, only a small window of opportunity left in which to engage the kids of ‘Generation Z’ – raised in front of screens of all kinds – in the art of making and dreaming, according to Charman: ‘We want to create a movement that promotes the critical value of learning through play. If we don’t do it for Generation Z, then that ship has sailed.’

Case Study - Play Street, Smithfield Market

The market’s central thoroughfare was turned into a play areaThe market’s central thoroughfare was turned into a play area

In 2024, The Museum of London will move from its London Wall location, tucked behind the Barbican in a spot where visibility and access has always been an issue, to the most atmospheric and prominent of neighbouring historic structures: Smithfield Market. As part of the museum’s explorations into how better to secure and maintain the interests of children and families, its head of creative partnerships, Lauren Parker, commissioned architects ZCD to stage a major experiment in the summer of 2019. In collaboration with Islington Play Association and Play Association Tower Hamlets, it staged a Play Street spectacular over three consecutive weekends in August, as part of the Culture Mile festival, transforming the historic market’s central thoroughfare into the mother of all play spaces.

Inspired by architect and artist Simon Hepworth Nicholson’s famous Theory of Loose Parts (roughly summarised, he proposed that the more free-floating elements you throw into the mix, the greater the creative potential), a multitude of elements, small and large, wet and dry, were assembled, including water features, paint, foam, sand, cardboard and disused car tyres.

Says ZCD co-director Dinah Bornat: ‘The aim was to see what happens when you allowed children to take over Smithfield where the Museum of London is going to be.’

Huge efforts were made to amass the right quantity and variety of materials to really unleash all kinds of interaction and play, to engage not just the minds of children but also the enthusiasm of their parents and teachers who, after all, have to facilitate any museum visit.

The event was hugely popular, says Bornat, with over 1,000 visitors, many of them returning each weekend: ‘It was more than just levels of satisfaction – children were having an incredible time. They were engaged and their parents could see there was a huge level of enjoyment.

Parents of children with special needs were telling us they were delighted as their children were playing happily and confidently in ways they hadn’t expected.’

The robust, tarmacked space proved ideal for this kind of large-scale experimentation – it could simply be hosed down at the end of each day. Lessons have been learned on how to engage new audiences and make the most of the available public realm, says Bornat, who adds: ‘For us as architects it’s really about watching and learning…The opportunity is there to be completely radical; we have seen the disruptive nature of what they can do in a space like this, to create something very different to how the city of London looks now, and it could be very exciting for the future.’

Bornat has subsequently been asked by the City of London Corporation to join the selection panel for the Smithfield public realm design team. She says: ‘Our work and the Play Street event gives us a language that allows us to talk about people in the public realm and what that really looks like. Play is a fantastic disrupter and challenges the more normative behaviours. The Smithfield public realm has the opportunity to be a very joyful place for everyone.’

Client Museum of London together with Islington Play Association, supported by Arts Council England funding.
Architects ZCD
Cost £20,000
Schedule August 2019

Case Study - V&A Museum Of Childhood

Ideas emerged due to growing relationships and understanding arising from intensive consultationIdeas emerged due to growing relationships and understanding arising from intensive consultation

Multiple layers of co-design have been woven through the reinvention of the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, transforming it from a museum of the history of childhood into a place where play and creativity is embedded throughout. To this end, the institution, and its design and architecture partners, have recruited the hearts and minds of its users.

Two years ago, architects De Matos Ryan began the consultation programme with workshops among the target audience of children aged eight to 14, as well as parents, teachers, users and non-users of the museum, all of whom were drawn from the local area. To clarify the architectural issues in language all could understand, it broke down the experiential elements of the museum into broad concepts: entrances and exterior spaces (‘in and out’), and how the museum reads both vertically and horizontally (‘up and down’ and ‘around and about’, respectively). Via sketches, mock-ups and models, new ideas emerged. One proposed staircase, which De Matos Ryan had envisaged as a helter-skelter spiral, has now become a kaleidoscope, with elements inspired by the V&A’s vast collection of optical instruments, which the children were encouraged to explore during workshops.

De Matos Ryan’s main vision was to reveal and restore the original fabric, including reinstating roof lights to the barrel-vaulted ceiling to bring much greater daylight into what had been a rather dingy space. But thanks to the consultations, it has suggested a further intervention: a new entrance, to communicate the museum’s mission better and interact more playfully with the street.

AOC was appointed in 2018 to develop designs for three new permanent galleries and reimagine the visitor experience, for which it initiated more stakeholder engagement. Kids were encouraged to go out on the museum floor and put pink ‘speech bubble’ post-it notes on any material they liked, explaining why they liked it as well as suggesting alternatives. In June 2019, AOC constructed an ‘Open Studio’ space within the museum, where proposed ideas, materials and interactions are discussed, tried and tested. Members of the AOC team have been present every Tuesday and Wednesday to embed the continuity of engagement. At each stage, drawings, plans and models have been displayed and analysed collectively.

The resulting designs are being turned into a space that’s due for completion in 2022.

Client V&A Museum of Childhood
Architecture De Matos Ryan
Interiors and exhibition design AOC
Cost £13.5m
Completion 2022

Case Study - Ovalhouse Project

For the past three years, Matt + Fiona, aka Matthew Springett and Fiona MacDonald, has been on a two-person mission to use the design of buildings as a way of educating and empowering children and young people. Having won the People’s Choice award in the Architects’ Journal Small Projects category for a den and shelter designed and built together with a group of excluded teenagers in Hull, in 2018, Matt + Fiona spent the summer of 2019 working with 100 London schoolkids to design and build a ‘Mega-Maker Lab’ in the old Fire Brigade HQ, for the Institute of Imagination. And in the autumn it began work with a team of 20 youngsters, aged nine to 11, to dream up a new temporary theatre space for south London’s pioneering Ovalhouse theatre (now renamed Brixton House), which will hopefully be constructed in spring/ summer 2021.

The Ovalhouse had initially approached Springett and MacDonald in 2017, realising that it had a year’s gap between moving out of its current home – the site having been sold to the Oval Cricket Ground – and the occupation of a new space in Brixton. Says Springett: ‘They have always had a history of working with young people and the local community. They wanted to see if there was a possibility of creating a temporary performance space, programmed by young people, and whether that could also be designed and made by young people. It started out as exploring whether that would be possible.’

The 20 pupil participants were selected from primary schools around Oval’s existing community and a new one in Brixton, after multiple preliminary conversations in those schools. There were four days of activities with this design team, including initial discussions, visits to interesting temporary performance spaces around London, then drawing, mapping and making models and paper mock-ups of their ideas. What emerged was a desire for a space that expresses a far more fluid idea of performance, encompassing the performative aspect of social space.

The scheme includes a number of ‘separate, definable spaces that can work individually and also collaboratively’, says Springett.

For real co-design, it is vital to ensure group ownership of the project as it evolves, says MacDonald: ‘We always look for the common themes that are coming up across all or the majority of the children’s ideas. At the very beginning we cast the net the widest, and allow children to pick which compass direction they want to follow. We then encourage them towards smaller portals that we keep passing through so we get closer to a collective design.’

The design allows for a timber structure, the walls of which can be constructed on the ground and then hoisted, and for that stage Matt + Fiona plan to draw on the help of its two industry supporters, Jestico + Whiles and Buro Happold. The emergence of wider industry backing means expansion of the pool of possible mentors and role models with whom the young designers can bond. It also means the duo’s ambitions can continue to grow without relying so heavily on the resources of Springett’s busy architecture practice, MSA.

Client Brixton House
Co-design Matt + Fiona
Architecture and engineering support MSA, Jestico + Whiles, and Buro Happold
Completion Spring/summer 2021
Funding Co-operative Foundation, Crowdfund London

Case Study - Great Ormond Street Hospital For Children, Zayed Centre For Research

Young user groups approved the palette of grown-up and tactile materials – lots of timber, lots of textured concrete – that are used throughout the buildingYoung user groups approved the palette of grown-up and tactile materials – lots of timber, lots of textured concrete – that are used throughout the building

Take one of the leading UK architecture practices, Stanton Williams, but with no previous experience in healthcare, and one groundbreaking proposal for a children’s healthcare facility where researchers scientists, academics, clinicians and patients will cohabit closely, and there’s a perfect opportunity to rewrite the rules of how a healthcare building should look and feel. Says Stanton Williams’ principal director Gavin Henderson: ‘It is a remarkable proposition: this idea of bench-to-bedside translational research. The scientists can see the patients that are benefitting from their research in the same building. Patients can see the scientists who are working to develop these new cures. We wanted the building to express this connectivity.’ It soon became apparent, says Henderson, from feedback with the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) patient research groups, that ‘they were very excited about this proposition’. So how has the design delivered that connectivity?

For starters, the research is the first thing to greet visitors to this eight-storey, 13,000 sq m structure, via a great sweep of ground floor glazing into a 600 sq m, lower ground floor laboratory. Here, around 200 scientists work alongside each other, those in genetics, cell and gene therapy or regenerative medicine, rather than in their usual silos. Views into the lab continue across the glazed footbridge, and all along the corridor towards the outpatients reception.

Within a spacious and friendly foyer, amply daylit thanks to a two-storey atrium and glazing onto a small enclosed garden at the rear, the young outpatients will find a range of colourful, sensory tools, both analogue and digital, for exploring through play some of the science that informs the investigations going on all around them – including the top three floors, dedicated to cell and gene therapy.

The young user groups approved the palette of grown-up and tactile materials that are used throughout the building: lots of timber, lots of textured concrete, which, combined with terrazzo or timber flooring, gives the whole building a very grown-up and gracious feel.

Young user groups approved the palette of grown-up and tactile materials – lots of timber, lots of textured concrete – that are used throughout the buildingYoung user groups approved the palette of grown-up and tactile materials – lots of timber, lots of textured concrete – that are used throughout the building

Confusing and claustrophobic corridors have been eliminated. Two rows of consultation rooms on the first floor are accessed either via the interior balcony – with its sweeping views across the five-storey main atrium – or along the glazed exterior wall that gives onto the street, revealing the green and pleasant expanse of nearby Coram Fields, a park that has been dedicated to the wellbeing of children for 200 years.

The young service users were also instrumental in the selection of an ambitious range of art works that animate the public spaces, via GOSH’s pioneering arts curation programme.

That includes Mark Titchner’s huge jigsaw of digitally cut and sanded wooden pieces, that spells out ‘Together we can do so much’, by the entrance – a quote from US author Helen Keller, which has become a motto for this building’s inhabitants – and the enchanting metallic red balloon, by Random International, which seems to drift magically around the main atrium, thanks to a combination of barely visible metallic pulleys, robotically programmed to respond to visitors’ movements. Stanton Williams own staff created the decorative light wall that beams its DNA array-inspired patterns out of the building along the glazed lobby.

Where some longest-standing GOSH staff grumbled at the prospect of open-plan workspaces, the kids embraced it, says Henderson: ‘They have been awed and excited by the size and scale of the building.’ But above all, they like the views into the labs, where live research – possibly on their own condition – is taking place under their noses.

Client Great Ormond Street Hospital
Masterplanning and design Stanton Williams
Area 13,000 sq m
Opened October 2019

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