We might think that children today have a more cosseted, less imaginative, increasingly restrictive childhood, and that their school life is going to pot, but it’s not like we don't have good reason. Indeed, if it’s not parents being threatened by social services for letting their children cycle to school alone, or the banning of charity home-baked cake days in Scotland for fear of obesity amongst children, then it’s the worry that A Level and GCSE results are getting better each year - not because children are getting smarter, but because teaching has become less imaginative and more focused on how to pass an exam, rather than on how to think creatively and independently.
As the summer holidays come to an end, however, and children and teenagers head back to school, it’s not all bad. In fact, where classroom design is concerned, things have never been better. "The scenario of the Victorian classroom, where everybody is in rows, facing the front and being quiet is thankfully changing," says Nick Topliss, Managing Director of Isis Concepts, which designs and manufacturers furniture to support and inspire learning.
"That change," he says, has come about as a result of "the computer environment, which makes being able to work in small or large groups, or as individuals, a requirement of the new technology, and lends itself to a re-design opportunity."
Such re-designs have seen some imaginative developments in classrooms and children's play areas. One such design, from Isis Concepts, the VerTable i, is entirely mobile, height adjustable and features a table top that can tilt to become an easel, a room divider or a dry wipe white board. In addition, the table is highly interactive with an ultra short throw projector and receiver, allowing groups of students, including those who may be wheelchair-bound, to collaborate and work with IT or other projects in whichever way is appropriate.
Isis Concepts recently won the School Furniture Supplier of the Year at the British Council for School Environment Awards as a result of its sensitive designs for children, with the judges commenting that "it was easy to see how their ideas could transform the educational experience of learners."
Achieving such a result through design requires the ability of the designer to put himself back in the child’s shoes. Children have a "fantastic imagination," says Topliss: they like to move furniture around and should be able to interact with their environment in a way that is not constricted by adult ideas of what this should look like. Why would you give a child a heavy chair with dangerous spiky legs, when they could have the soft, light and adaptable "Puppy" chair by Eero Aarnio?
The tendency to "simply miniaturise adult furniture or brand it with primary colours and cartoon decorations," is still there, says Matthew Giaretta, Managing Director of Feelgood Designs, but, today, that's a naïve approach. "Design," he says, "should consider how children respond to all environmental stimuli (visuals, touch, smell, etc), and how these stimuli inform experiences and affect interactions with their environment and with other people."
Feelgood's PLAY+soft range of chidren’s furniture was developed following several years working with the PLAY+design project in Italy, where the dialogue between learning and design in young children was explored in depth.
"We want to make objects that suggest many possibilities to children, either through their immediate function and flexibility, or in the way they can also form part of imaginative play," says Giaretta. "When we make a product, we consider movement; the relationship between different spaces and activities; colours; and aesthetic identity. We try to avoid a ‘childish aesthetic, in particular, an adult’s concept of what children want."
This is demonstrated in Feelgood’s PLAY+soft range with pieces such as: Moleculo, currently part of the V&A Museum of Childhood 'Sit Down' exhibition, which acts both as a play form, a soft landscape, a tunnel or a protected hiding place, as well as seating; or Atollo, an enclosed space and seating for adult and child, or several children, to share together.
I might have walked to school on my own, eaten home-baked treats on charity cake days and gained an inspiring education (despite rather dubious A Level results), but my classroom was hard, uncomfortable and typically Victorian, and the best play area I ever had involved pulling cushions off my mother's sofa. This, of course, usually earned me a smack – another thing about which, along with bad design, today's children must know very little.
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