Childhood, argues the critic Alexandra Lange, has become too circumscribed, too controlled, too “safe.” In “The Design of Childhood,” Lange looks at the world we’ve designed for our kids, from toys to schools, playgrounds and entire cities. It is a fascinating and sobering story. “Our built environment is making children less healthy, less healthy, and less imaginative,” she writes. With Lange’s historical perspective, though, solutions emerge. Most fundamental, perhaps, is that children should be considered citizens, not consumers. “What those hungry brains require,” she says, “is freedom.” Lange answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
How did you become interested in this?
The short answer is, I had a baby. My oldest child is now 10. I found myself fascinated and not a little overwhelmed by the quantity of toys and gear that made their way into my home over the first few years of his life, and my design critic brain kicked in and began asking questions like: Which of the four sets of blocks we’ve been given is the best set? Why is my child sitting on a rug, and at a tiny table, rather than at a desk? Why is it so hard to ride public transportation in New York with a child? And more philosophically, why does my children’s childhood seem so different from my own in the 1970s? I began to write the odd essay here and there about the design of toys and playgrounds, and soon found there was more than enough material for a book combining design history, material culture, and education history in an accessible way.
What do you see as the ways that playgrounds shape children? Why, in other words, are they so important?
Playgrounds are a place where, ideally, kids run the show. In the home and at school, adults shape the schedule and the space, but in playgrounds children have to stretch themselves physically, socially and imaginatively. If all playgrounds are the same, or all playgrounds are built for maximum safety, kids are denied those opportunities to stretch and, often, to interact, because a boring playground is only going to be worth a short visit and is quickly outgrown. In my book I talk about several different models of playgrounds, the most anarchic being the junk playground (which were widespread across the US in the 1970s) where kids literally get to build their own houses, their own climbing structures, their own fun. All playgrounds don’t need to be that wild and dirty—I also admire the highly stylized and theatrical playgrounds by artist Isamu Noguchi—but they do need to spark something in the child’s mind, and not just for one visit.
In the book, you look at the architecture of schools, and I wonder what trends or ideas you are most excited about now?
The buzziest educational trend I encountered was project-based learning, which also goes by a few other names. There is a lot of jargon in the education world, and part of my task, I felt, was to figure out which things were the same, and which “innovations” had historical roots. For example, Silicon Valley’s education reformers like to say the classroom hasn’t changed since the Industrial Revolution, and that’s simply not true. Thousands of public schools in the 1950s were built around activity centers and spending part of each day learning outside. Thousands of public schools in the 1970s were built around the open plan, which was acoustically disastrous but, I would argue, an early attempt to make the school day more varied in terms of ways of learning lessons.
That said, there are aspects of project-based learning that are really exciting, because it can offer kids more independence in researching topics that are of interest to them, in working on a project long-term, and in presenting research not just as a five-paragraph essay but visually, or in a video. New classrooms built for this type of education can also offer kids the opportunity to move around during the day, and choose the space (quiet or loud, sitting up or lying down) that helps them to think. Since I finished the book I’ve written about teen spaces in libraries, and the first thing designers have done is recognize that teens and kids don’t necessarily work best sitting alone in a chair in front of a desk. Schools that recognize and work with kids’ energy and sometimes amazing posture in their design seem to be to have a better chance of capturing the attention of different types of learners. But the basics remain the same: daylight, fresh air, not too loud, good teachers, good student-teacher ratio.
Sales of Legos have been dropping, and I wonder what you make of the shift from playing with physical objects to playing with electronic games?
I think it is a shame, and there really should be a place for both. Children learn different lessons from physical objects—about gravity, and materials, and face-to-face cooperation—that they will not get from a game, even if, as in multi-player games, there is a social dimension. Simple blocks are the foundation of numerous early childhood curriculums, and there is a reason for that, which educators have recognized and tinkered with for over 150 years. If you look at the best electronic games, many of them are based on an understanding of physical building (I’m thinking of Scratch and Minecraft, and even Fortnite) that wouldn’t make sense without block and LEGO play. Blocks are a smart toy, they don’t need, at least initially, to be souped up.
What concerns you, as a design critic and a parent, about the direction childhood has been moving? And what gives you hope?
My greatest concern is the sense that there is less and less time for play in childhood, and that the busy-ness of adults has been visited on their children not necessarily because they think it is good for children to have an afterschool activity every day, but because they need childcare, or there’s no safe place to hang out after school, or nowhere to ride a bike. Better provision for families in the public sphere could give both children and parents more time and independence.
Hope: I’ve been really encouraged by reactions to my book so far, particularly around playgrounds and the idea that kids need risk, and challenge, and the opportunity to explore their own abilities. I see a nascent bring-back-the-junk playgrounds movement brewing, and I see children’s play at the heart of many new urban parks. Just last month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio visited The Yard, the seasonal junk playground on Governors Island. The trick will be to get energy and resources to improving play at the neighborhood level, so that children can benefit in their own backyards.