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Designing a place of their own

These Summer holidays, one group of children have discovered a new kind of freedom – that of designing their own play environment.

Place Cadets, a children’s design and build project, was integrated into the OSCAR school holiday programme at Phillipstown Hub over two weeks (13 – 25 January 2020). It’s aim – to explore meaningful ways for children to participate in designing their outdoor environment.

Along for the journey were 21 children (aged 5-11) who were led on a design thinking process to create a modular, site-specific play element designed and assembled by them on-site. Facilitated by a multidisciplinary team, they worked closely with Landscape Architect Wendy Hoddinott and local design/build expert Jonathan Hall, alongside OSCAR staff and a design team with established relationships in the local community.

‘Children have brilliant ideas, but involving them is often perceived as too time consuming, difficult or of little value ... We wanted to test that by allowing children to lead the decision-making so that the final outcome would be a reflection of their experiences and aspirations, not our assumptions of the kind of space they would like to play in,’ says Wendy.

Embarking on a process typically reserved for design experts, the children learnt how to put a brief together, build prototypes and collaborate with one another.

‘Design is fundamentally a social process,’ says Wendy, ‘where institutional decision-making processes are linear and follow a step by step approach, designers typically frame complex situations such as public space design and then they test ideas to arrive at a spatial resolution. The flexibility of this approach means it is ideally suited for children’s involvement and shows the value of landscape architects working directly with children.’

From exploring the area, and identifying what might be missing, the children then set to work imagining a design through a series of playful exercises. What started out as big ideas in their minds, quickly took shape in the form of scale models – providing a tangible way to articulate their ideas and gather feedback from others. Through collaboration and compromise, a final design was eventually settled on, tested as a 1:1 cardboard prototype, before being fabricated by Variant.

“We combined the essence of the children’s final models to create a buildable structure. We wanted the children to be involved as much as possible, so we programmed workshop visits where the children could see their ideas progressing. The full scale modular elements constructed in the workshop were able to be taken to site, and then carried and bolted together by the children and their parents” says Jonathan.

The final structure is a place for children to play out their many imagined worlds – designed as a space to climb, hide and put on a puppet show. Titled The Imaginarium, the structure was assembled by the project team on Saturday 25 January, with the help of children who attended the programme and their whanau.

‘This project is an example of the positive outcomes created when communities are meaningfully involved in designing their public places.d The children’s connection to this space has been strengthened because they have been given the agency to make it a space of their own,’ says designer Rhiannon Josland.

The Imaginarium is a structure that could only have been imagined and made real by the children involved in the Place Cadets programme. This community-led placemaking approach, a true reflection of the local community involved. It can be visited at Phillipstown Hub, 39 Nursery Road, Phillipstown, Christchurch.

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