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Designing Play: If Bucky Fuller and Willy Wonka had collaborated

Guest blogger John Comazzi, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, was part of a team of design educators that recently led the wildly successful Playscapes activities at February Free First Saturday. In his ongoing research he’s interested in the relationships between early childhood education and the design of active […]

Guest blogger John Comazzi, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, was part of a team of design educators that recently led the wildly successful Playscapes activities at February Free First Saturday. In his ongoing research he’s interested in the relationships between early childhood education and the design of active learning environments.

Two weeks ago, during the February 6th Free First Saturday, my colleagues (Kristen Murray, Adam Jarvi and Wendy Friedmeyer of D.E.M.O) and I were nearly overrun by a small cadre of future designers and artists busily creating elaborate constructs made of gum drops, marshmallows and helium-filled balloons. Sticky, spiky, colorful structures, resembling the collaborative efforts of Buckminster Fuller and Willy Wonka, quickly filled the otherwise serene spaces of the Walker’s lobbies and lounges creating a spectacle that went toe-to-toe with the extraordinary works of art in the adjacent galleries. Inundated and overwhelmed by the scope and scale of creative production, we fully realized this was a predicament of our own devising. We had completely lost control, and had no one else to blame. This was a total success!

Several months prior, we were invited by the Walker’s Family Programs staff to create “an opportunity for children and families to actively engage with design through play.” In short, meaningful play was our charge; all we had to do was supply the materials and programming for a series of projects that would combine the infectious power of play with the productive capacities of human creativity … easier said than done…

True to any design activity, we had no way of fully anticipating the extent to which our projects would initiate meaningful (not to mention fun and playful) experiences for the children, adults, the Walker staff, or even ourselves. But, as designers, we have grown accustomed to embracing indeterminacy and have become quite nimble when negotiating the unintended consequences of our most well-intentioned plans. In short, we relied on our collective experiences in design and education and devised a rather straightforward plan for success: keep it simple, and get out of the way.

So, at 10:00am on a cold Saturday in February, we offered up an array of tantalizing materials that would most certainly appeal to even the most discerning or cautious child passing through The Walker that day. In the Cargill Lounge, we lured them in with large containers of gum drops and marshmallows coupled with a range of everyday, loose parts suitable for free-form constructions (mainly toothpicks and skewers), while in the Bazinet Lobby we offered up 85 helium-filled balloons with strings and thin fabrics for the construction of air-filled structures of a most fantastical nature.

Within less than an hour, Playscapes went viral, fully demonstrating the Walker’s ongoing commitment to providing social spaces and open activities to foster collective experiences around art and design. In a flurry of design activity, the Cargill Lounge quickly swelled into a small city of colorful and sticky structures that created a brilliant counter point to the minimalist installation by Robert Irwin in the gallery next door (Slant/Light/Volume). And in the Bazinet Lobby, throngs of busy space-makers filled the room with colorful buoyant structures that acted as the perfect foil to monolithic nature of the original brick-built Walker.

Looking back, the outcomes of the day’s activities should have been of little surprise.

After all, design is, in a sense, a form of intentional play, and play, in all of its varieties, requires little more than a free-form access to materials, space and time to quickly initiate fanciful constructions of a designerly nature. But upon further reflection, it has also become clear, that there was far more occurring that day than simply momentary flashes of free-form play and uninhibited creativity. Believe it or not, skills were developed, lessons were learned, ideas were tested and risks were taken. Play, it turns out, can also be serious business. Below is a sampling of quotes from several of the participants that day:

“Look, this one has triangles, squares and even a rectangle, can you see?” -Future Mathematician

“I’m making patterns, lots of patterns with lots of colors…” -Future Textile Designer

“My tower fell over so I just turned it into a house…” -Future Architect

“Yes, this is my spaceship and here is the space station…” -Future Aerospace Engineer

“I want to be four dimensional…” -Future Theoretical Physicist

“I’m making a house for my pet bug. He has six legs and so does his house.” -Future Entomologist

“This structure is just like that one over there, but bigger and stronger…” -Future Structural Engineer

“If I connect this one to your structure, we can make it even bigger and better…” -Future Urbanist

“The roof is like a cloud… look, our fort hangs from the sky!” -Future Futurist

Clearly, I offer these reflections with a wink and a nod and certainly don’t intend to saddle these otherwise innocent and playful experiences with the serious expectations of a stodgy adult. But if we shift our perspectives and consider the multiple intelligences activated by both play and design, it might just open up new opportunities to sponsor the kinds of creative problem solving skills, collaborative learning and insatiable curiosities necessary for life-long learning and projective practices that will benefit us all.

Note: We would like to extend enormous gratitude to the Walker staff and volunteers who helped to manage the not-so-controlled chaos throughout the day. And, many thanks to the Walker itself for inviting such raucous, rough-and-tumble play into your institution.

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  • Sally Adler says:

    WOW! Open-ended materials, children’s imaginations and a team of multidisciplinary adults who know enough to provide the opportunity, the materials, supervision to insure safety and the intestinal fortitude to step back and let it happen! Kudos! I hope you will do more of this!

  • Deborah says:

    Great ideas and photos. What a great way to experiment. Museums offer opportunities for play/learning in spaces that are not classrooms and can involve multiple senses. Taste and smell are sometimes overlooked when teaching, but I imagine there was a lot of that going on too! What fun ways to integrate multiple intellegence.