Friday, February 20, 2009

Behind the Scenes at DCM - Conscious Design Choices

This is the first in a series of posts about conscious design choice in a children's museum and how it contributes towards children's play and learning.

A conscious design choice begins with the physical environment. Many parents and educators believe in an approach pioneered by parents in villages around Reggio Emilia in Italy. One component of the
Reggio Emilia approach is that of the "physical environment being the third teacher." Parents, of course, are first and teachers are second.

Creating a safe and engaging learning environment for children not only means providing developmentally appropriate materials, it means carefully considering the design of the physical environment. Here are a few questions Peter Crabbe, Associate Director of Exhibits at DCM considers when making conscious design choices:

#1 To seat or not to seat?

What are the benefits of providing seats in your play environment? "Providing comfortable seating for adults to observe their child's play is an important consideration," says Peter Crabbe, Associate Director of Exhibits. "Seating can define an area without closing it in with tall walls that no one can see through," suggests Crabbe. "Modular sections as in our block area of the Math Connections Neighborhood, can easily be rearranged if the first layout does not work. An added bonus of modular seating is storage." In addition, he noted, "Seating design can invite discussion and interaction among our grown-up visitors." He suggests seating be placed where children will be playing for longer periods of time - usually where there are a multitude of open-ended materials. Another suggestion - always consider the average age of the adult using the the seating when purchasing or designing chairs or benches. If the chair or bench is not comfortable, they are rarely used. Consider, too, the effects chairs will have on the space - will it make it too crowded or too dangerous in certain play spaces? Are permanent seats or benches a better solution?

#2 Peek-a-boo! How can improving sight lines help you?
Are parents and caregivers able to see children playing in a few different areas at one time? How many exits or entrances to the play space do you provide? While in the area, how many times do parents or caregivers seem to worry they have lost their child? Crabbe suggests that "improving sight lines often lowers the adult's anxiety, creates a safe environment, makes larger space seem smaller and provides traffic control." Other questions to ask yourself include, do the areas provide enough space for children and adults to use materials appropriately? Are they comfortable enough to stay in the area to extend their learning?

#3 Questioning the "space between"
Are the play areas too large or too small? Are the children given too much space between play areas and feel encouraged to run? Is there too little space for children to play and therefore creating crunched uncomfortable spaces where children may fall or get pushed? Crabbe uses the analogy of a launching pad when he designs play spaces. "As a designer you have to evaluate the space and imagine what the visitor will see before he launches into the experience with his child."

Let us know your thoughts - what conscious designs do you consider? In our next post we'll consider ways to make clean-up fun to get it done!

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