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Designing with tomorrow’s designers

Thursday, 03 September 2015   (0 Comments)
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What if we handed children the tools to shape their classrooms, schools and even neighbourhoods? Allowing young people to explore design and architecture brings a new perspective to how we can design for – and with – future generations. Bringing a child’s imagination into design processes could reveal a wealth of new ideas. Those ideas would be centred directly on the child’s needs and desires, not an adult’s assumptions and constraints.

When it comes to urban design, children and youths are consumers just as grown-ups are. They navigate city streets, play in public spaces and visit buildings. Their environment can have a positive or negative impact on their daily lives. These experiences can influence their view of and their response to the world. Design is an obvious tool to translate these insights into physical form. But design is traditionally seen as an adult pursuit.

That said, there is a growing movement towards bringing children into design projects, encouraging their active participation in the co-creation process. To illustrate the point, a research team from the University of Sheffield School of Architecture is currently undertaking a three year study into how children have collaborated with designers to transform spaces. One output from the study, which is entitled Children Transforming Spatial Design: Creative Encounters with Children, is a growing database of projects in which children of all ages have been involved in the design process.

Some of those creative encounters with children have also played out in Cape Town over recent months.

“We need to give children and young people tools and language so that they can take part in the debate on our physical settings”, says Julie Dufour, an architect and educator based in Copenhagen who participated in the recent Open Design Cape Town festival. Julie specialises in designing for and with children and one of her projects, the renowned Ama'r Children's Culture House is just one example of how young users can influence the design process.

The building’s design emerged from an intensive process that allowed the children to let the architects know just what they wanted. The results are intriguing, reflecting Julie’s philosophy that “architecture is about dreaming”. Stairs to nowhere, a meadow on the roof and a climbing wall as an alternative to a staircase were just some suggestions that emerged and were implemented.

Julie highlighted nine design principles emerged from the process that informed the design of the centre. These were:

1.    Facilities to open up, change and develop

2.    Meeting and engaging with professional artists

3.    The architecture supports the children’s attention

4.    Changeable and multifunctional design

5.    Unplanned space for playing

6.    Unexpected design

7.    Small space in a large space

8.    Different zones for playing, including stairs and ramps

9.    Caves for privacy or being together with a friend

Dream, explore, design

Designing for children goes hand in hand with encouraging youngsters to be designers themselves. Giving young designers the time and space to dream, to explore textures and materials and new work methods encourages them to think differently about their surroundings. Design competitions such as The Bellville Box encourage learners and students to use design thinking to shape the world around them.

The Bellville Box is an initiative of Innovate the Cape, delivered in collaboration with the Greater Tygerberg Partnership. Learners from various high schools in the region were challenged to reimagine the Kruskal area in Bellville – a harsh, under-used public space that’s hostile to pedestrians and congested with traffic. The competition format led teams through a design thinking process to develop design proposals for the area. Their ideas were then further developed under the guidance of professional designers. Fairmont High School won the challenge. The school’s team proposed an imaginative design for a parklet that includes benches at different levels, including wheelchair-accessible seating areas.

Masking tape and cardboard

The design exercises can also be more informal. Julie Dufour runs workshops with learners who work with low-tech materials such as masking tape, cardboard boxes and a host of other recyclables, to design parts of their school grounds. Her most recent workshop challenged the Grade 11 and 12 art classes from Good Hope Seminary High School. The workshop was run simultaneously with learners from a school in Copenhagen, using a Skype video link to connect the two classes in real-time. The cross-cultural collaborations allowed learners to interact with their peers, sparking their imagination and curiosity about places they may never experience first-hand.

The design outcomes of these exercises reflect the needs of the users and provide an insight into the way the young designers see the world. They also have the potential to inspire young learners of all ages to consider design-related careers – establishing a foundation of the next generation of designers.

For more information about the Designing with Children database, see:

For more information on the Ama’r Children’s Culture House, see:

For more information on the Bellville Box, see

For more information on Julie Dufour, see

Are you an educator or designer who works with children and youth in design programmes? Tell us by email at

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