By Pamela Troyer//
ABSTRACT// The project reviewed in this document was a collaborative task with the goal of developing an interactive object for children. The project was completed with the assistance of two young co-creators aged six and nine.
Through discussion, observation, and project iteration cycles with these co-creators, much was learned about their physical and mental capacities. These observations are also thought of in relation to the behaviors of children in general. Here, the promotion of co-operation and empathy becomes key in discussing process. Thoughts on the role of co-creation in the education system are also relayed. In this paper, research methods are evaluated for their effectiveness or ineffectiveness, and some insights on feasible design solutions for children are proposed.
KEYWORDS// Co-creation, Children, Interaction, Design, Research Methods
INTRODUCTION// The project discussued in this article was a two month long, studio based, collaborative task. My partner, Ashley Nawrot and I worked to conceive and build a wood-based system known as a marble run that displayed two repetitive shapes. The physical constraints of this project placed the final product within one square-meter, called for the employment of Baltic-Birch plywood as the major component, and required the use of the pin router. Utilizing the help of children as co-creators to realize the outcome was perhaps the most important criteria we met to fulfill this project. We met with our co-designers, two young boys aged six and nine, three times during the project. Firstly, we introduced ourselves, observed the nature of our clients and their methods of play. For our next encounter, we met them with vague prototypes of possible ideas, and lastly, we arrived to present them with a final prototype. Under normal circumstances, we recognize that consent forms should be used to gain the permissions for such a project, however, in these circumstances they were not used. In this essay, I will refer to the children as subjects A and B, subject A being the older child, and subject B, the younger. This paper is intended to evaluate our methods of communication and production and to offer a scaffold for understanding how to generate viable design concepts and solutions for child-centered, objects of play.
RESEARCH QUESTION// It was clear from the actions of our young clients, as well as their boxes upon boxes of Lego, that these children held a special affinity for building things. Working well together as siblings, we asked ourselves, “How can we create a building system that these two boys may work with simultaneously?”Our mission statement evolved to this: “Clean, organic shapes create an ever changing building system that can appeal to all ages.” (Fig. 1)
METHODOLOGY// In the article, Co-Creation and the New Landscapes of Design, Elizabeth Sanders and Pieter Stappers outline co-design as something which, “indicate[s] collective creativity as it is applied across the whole span of the design process… [and] refer[s] to the creativity of designers and people not trained in design working together in the design development process” (2008). This concept of co-design was undoubtedly a predominate methodology in the evolution of our product. As mentioned before, however, meeting only three times with our co-designers meant that their input could not have been as significant as in projects where the involvement of co-designers is an unyielding constant throughout.
Observations on the Interactions Between Children and Objects//
Through our meetings, it became apparent that there was a certain difference in attention span between our two young co-creators. (Fig. 2.) Naturally, this can be attributed to a difference in personality. Despite this, it seems fitting to ask, how does age affect attention span in the relationship between children and objects of play? From our observations, it seemed that subject B (age six), while attentive and able to concentrate for short periods, soon began making distracted associations with the objects we presented him with. At times, this divergence led to him losing interest altogether and moving on to other objects of play (Fig. 3). Contrastingly, subject A (age nine), was able to concentrate on what we presented to him for longer periods of time and became immersed in the possibilities of the toy’s success. Together, the two boys used the presented shapes in conjunction with seemingly un-related toys to suit their own needs. The children were incredibly astute in using the items we presented to them in a creative way when no instruction or true definition of the object was offered. This lack of definition provided them with a greater arena of imaginative possibilities, especially when it was well communicated that the prototypes were unfinished. For instance, in our second meeting we presented them with prototypes made out of foam-core and others of crudely cut wood (Fig. 4). We were able to learn more from this encounter about the children’s instincts to play with these objects than when we presented them with more finished pieces. The children assumed that because the object was labeled “complete”, it must assume a specific function. They asked questions like, “how does it work?”, when previously the idea of “function” had been irrelevant. In the adoption of the label of “finished”, it was as though the co-creative process had ended. Stanley King and Merinda Conley offer a good example of this failure to communicate in their discussion on designing public spaces:
“The design professionals who present development proposals in the traditional manner at public meetings may find themselves in a no-win bind. The more detailed their presentations are, the more they invite criticism. The better their drawings and models are, the more they are accused of having everything already decided. A form of
atrophy may set in. Lacking detailed positive response, they may cut out what is criticized, reducing the features of the design. Often they replace the omitted features with nothing” (King, 1989).
What is cited here is an all too common communication problem which could likely be solved by more frequent, more involved meetings with clients in which they feel as though they are truly participating. The closure of the co-creative process by too swift a progression of finish is, in the case of children, the reduction of their imagination. Cohen and MacKeith give a concise overview of the beginnings of associative imagination in children stating: “Tiny children don’t know how to use a toy horse at all; a little later, infants know what makes a toy horse and use it correctly; with a little cognitive maturity, toddlers know they can pretend anything is a horse – a rag, a lump of plastic, a parent. But, then, reality starts its demands. The toy must look more and more like a horse to deserve being played with as a horse. We grow up literal” (Cohen, 1991). This analogy of a toy horse was mirrored in our sessions with our co-designers. While subject A was mostly interested in using our toy correctly, subject B chose to appropriate it.
A Few Limitations//
As adults attempting to understand children, we began to realize something seemingly obvious but sometimes overlooked: adults and children think differently. The psychological impossibility of gaining a true understanding of the ways in which a child may choose to use an object will likely always be a grey area for adult designers. Ergonomically, however, we can make some simple deductions. For example, adult hands are larger and stronger than those of children. This is enough to affect their ability to handle an item. Height is another factor, and overall strength. While these observations may seem superficial, they vary greatly with only a slight increase or decrease in age. Ergonomic factors we thought we had adequately accounted for proved slightly off. For example, subject A could more easily pull the fitted, connective pegs out from the dowels, while subject B had slightly more difficulty, became frustrated, and abandoned them. The children were an incredible reservoir of ideas. They helped us in deciding the optimal path for the marble to run, which to them meant the path with the most systemic possibilities (Fig. 5). The children contributed lucidly and thoughtfully, supporting their ideas genuinely. In working with these two young designers, however, we came to face a few realities. The expansiveness of their imagination did not always comply with our time and budget constraints, as well as what was physically possible to achieve within the project parameters. Finally, we decided which of their ideas were viable and which ones could not be achieved while attempting courtesy and avoiding disappointment.
Co-Creation with Children and Education// What could be the benefits of co-creation in the education system? As of yet, most systems of education are far from perfect. As Jan Vissers recognizes: The traditional schooling practice, with its emphasis on the acquisition of factual knowledge and lack of encouragement to explore and comprehend deeply, is possibly a major cause of the disappearance of curiosity. If so, it may be the single most important inhibitor of the development of the scientific mind (Vissers, 2006). Co-creativity is one tool which can potentially reverse this negative image of a “traditional” schooling system. Through fostering the “encouragement to explore” in early education, co-creation and co-design have the potential to let young minds glean shared knowledge, social skills, and problem solving abilities that extend beyond the “acquisition of factual knowledge.” The idea of working towards a shared goal can do no harm in teaching the young the complexities and benefits of teamwork and successful negotiation. As Sanders and Stappers acknowledge, however, “co-creativity requires that one believes that all people are creative. This is not a commonly accepted belief…” (2008). Some believe co-creativity has taken too long to become a mainstream methodology because of this stigma. Acknowledging that all people can play out different and equally important roles free of hierarchy is essential to the process. This idea of hierarchy is notable in co-creation with children as there is usually an established hierarchy built into adult-child relationships which must be, to a degree, diffused. Sanders and Stappers continue: “When we acknowledge that different levels of creativity exist, it becomes evident that we need to learn how to offer relevant experiences to facilitate people’s expression of creativity at all levels” (2008). This is where the professional role of the designer seems to become most relevant, in providing communicative tools and expertise as a negotiator in order to assist in what can potentially be great opportunities for learning.
CONCLUSIONS// Working with children presents opportunities and also challenges; from this project we can deduce that there is much work still to be done in the arena of successful co-creation involving children. At times, design projects done between children, and those who can merely try to remember being children, can dwell on the communication pitfalls of such a relationship. To avoid this, designers can try to use empathy, understanding and meaningful involvement to find new ideas and avoid the suffocation of imagination. This project teaches that recognizing the importance of ergonomics in constructed objects undoubtedly results in products which can better foster user engagement. Moreover, not progressing too quickly to a “decided” object is crucial for both the successful relationship between co-designers and also the end product. Overall, it is exemplified that there are sure benefits of being meaningfully engaged with co-designers from the beginning a project, to its final manifestation.
1. Cohen, David and MacKeith, Stephen A. (1991). The Development of Imagination: The Private Worlds of Childhood. London: Routledge.
2. King, Stanely and Conley, Merinda. (1989). Co-design: A Process of Design Participation. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
3. Sanders, Elizabeth, B., N,. And Stappers, Pieter. (2008). Co-Creation and the New Landscapes of Design. Retrieved April 2, 2009 from <http://www.maketools.com/pdfs/CoCreation_Sanders_Stappers_08_preprint.pdf>.
4. Vissers, Jan. (2006). Nurturing the Scientific Mind:Opportunities in Early Childhood. Retrieved April 2, 2009 from <http://unawe.org/joomla/images/meetings/2006/jan_visser.pdf >.
Figure 1. Troyer & Nawrot (2009)
Figure 2. Troyer & Nawrot (2009)
Figure 3. Troyer & Nawrot (2009)
Figure 4. Troyer & Nawrot (2009)
Figure 5. Troyer & Nawrot (2009)