Design for Young Children
Pestalozzi, a pioneer in education, was referring to the importance of the everyday environment for child’s education when he said, “There can be no doubt that within the living room of every household are united the basic elements of all true human education in its whole range”.
Lessons from research about children’s learning
Young children use all these faculties to experience and make sense of the world, feeling, tasting, listening, seeing, touching and moving about, be it rolling, crawling, walking, running or jumping. In the early years children are also undergoing phenomenal developmental changes in the way they understand their world, and these developments are influenced by everyday experiences. Parents and other adults often pay great attention to children’s social experience and interactions. However the inanimate world and the way it is structured in children’s lives is also important for providing learning opportunities and hence affecting children’s development.
Research findings have regularly shown that the learning opportunities provided in the home and other everyday environments make an important contribution to the development of children’s learning ability and social development. Indeed this aspect of the environment is more important for predicting a child’s developmental progress than the parents’ formal education or social class.
Children are biologically primed for learning. Virtually all the brain cells we will ever have are present at birth, and during the course of development a myriad of connections between these cells are formed- these connections are reinforced through experience and if the connections don’t get used they wither. Hence everyday experience to foster learning is critical. Children’s explosive energy and curiosity comes in part from the need to give these neuronal connections the activity they need for survival.
People’s everyday environments condition their feelings and thoughts. Hence adults will choose environments, objects, furniture and implements that are designed to suit their specific needs and that will help them work or relax better whenever they can. Much that is produced for children reflects the predominance of adult ideas and needs for convenience, without consideration of children’s developing thoughts, needs and desires. Children should also have good design that will stimulate their thoughts and feelings in ways that nurture, engage, sensitize and fascinate. Prettiness of itself quickly palls; boredom results. Children need stimulation for the minds as much as their bodies need food.
Emerging knowledge on the foundations of children’s development emphasizes the need for a deeper understanding of the importance of children’s early experience. Young children are not just smaller versions of older children and adults. The environment is perceived differently by children. They do not compartmentalise like adults do, rather they perceive the environment holistically. The compartmentalization of activities into school, work, and play that typifies the lives of older children and adults is largely meaningless for young children. Virtually everything that happens in the child's life involves learning, whether explicitly identified as such or not. Early childhood is a period of rapid mental growth, children seek out the stimuli they need to nourish this development. Young children learn best when they are allowed to actively explore their environment in a hands-on fashion building on their natural curiosity and desire to make sense of the world. They learn through direct sensory encounters with the world, manipulating, exploring, and experimenting with real objects and through movement. As children move from shape to shape they develop balance, coordination, strength, endurance, learn the elements of movement, a sense of their own bodies and spatial relationships. Mastery of their environment leads to confidence and self-esteem, and many elements of development are touched – physical, intellectual, social and emotional.
The Importance of Play
Play is central to children’s learning and play can be regarded as children’s work, yet adults frequently think of it as frivolous. Play is essential to children’s intellectual, linguistic, social, emotional and spiritual development. We can think of these separate aspects of development as components of the multiple intelligences that make up a child’s mind. Each of these intelligences needs a different kind of experience to nurture its development. Such ideas are not entirely new. Plato and Aristotle both acknowledged the importance of play in human development. Later Froebel characterised play as the “purest and most spiritual product of the child, and at the same time it is a copy of human life at all stages”. In recent times Piaget’s ideas have been the most influential, and he argued that play was a primary engine of learning to think, and this is particularly true when we consider the developing child’s aesthetic and intellectual concepts.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children’s right to engage in leisure, play, and other recreational activities appropriate for their age, and their right to education are integral to their development. Play is a significant part of the development and education of young children and is related to their social, emotional, and intellectual development. It is an informal education that allows children to explore their environments and learn from that experience through observational learning. However, play opportunities for children in the urban environment are becoming increasingly limited.
Children’s developing knowledge of the world
Young children are surprisingly competent at taking in information about the world and developing ideas, in fact they are spectacular learners. What they don’t have is the adult’s years of experience that result in adult preferences and preconceptions. Young children perceive the world in a more pure form. One way to consider young children’s thinking is in terms of the intellectual processes of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation refers to understanding new experiences in terms of existing concepts such as understanding that round objects will roll thus being able to play with a ball, whereas accommodation refers to changing concepts when the new experience cannot fit with existing concepts (a ‘round’ object that is elliptical and therefore moves erratically). When concepts are modified through such accommodation the world is seen ‘in a new light’. When people have this type of experience they frequently smile or laugh and such a process of accommodation is at the root of much humour and jokes. Young children having fun usually means important learning is taking place.
Implications for Design for Young Children
Design will not entirely create the child’s learning environment but it is an important piece in the puzzle of creating an environment fit for children. The importance of understanding children’s developmental processes to design is gaining acceptance, although the reality lags behind. Most design professionals have given little attention to children and apparently they do not realise the distinctiveness of early childhood. Thinking of children as less discriminating than adults and assuming they love only primary colours is a common predisposition. Design for children has concentrated on children’s anthropometrics, accessibility, and the dimensions of products. This is important but insufficient. While some design professionals are becoming more serious about thoroughly understanding the details of designing living spaces for young children, there has been a lack of knowledge of child development research in the design field and hence few products have transcended the primary colour, adult-focused stereotyped approach.
Acknowledging the importance of play can lead to design features such as including multi-sensory experience elements – children do not just look, they touch and feel, hear and get feedback from their sense of bodily position. This means that incorporating notions of body-in-space relationships become important for furniture and other objects. The need to develop an understanding of space, distance and perspective drives a need for spatial variety. These are just a few of the ideas that need to be considered, but, of course, it is not just children who experience, it is adults also, so there needs to be multi-generational appeal.
Design for young children should consider: aesthetic stimulation, is this design responsive to the child, stimulation of fantasy, providing alternative perspective, transformation and colour as well as the more obvious safety factors.
Professor of Human Development, University of London
Consultant to the Magis Me Too project