Designing For Play

An Inclusive & Interactive Design Workshop with Tagensbo Skole 2nd Graders

Co-designing with children is something that has increased in popularity amongst the design community. In the past, public spaces and play structures have been designed by adults for children, but more recently designers have recognized the importance of facilitating creative workshops where children have the opportunity to express the types of spaces they would most enjoy utilizing.


For the Basargrunden project that I have written about over the past few months, figuring out how to create a meaningful inclusive design process amidst the uncertainty and competing political/design timelines was a difficult task. We decided to focus on the concept of play and specifically honed in on the play structure that could be one aspect of the temporary Basargrunden design. This decision was born from various conversations with different local stakeholders there seemed to be a shared sentiment for this in the space regardless of what the rest of the design incorporated. At this point, we decided that a design workshop focusing on the concept of play is the next productive step for the project.

We had a handful of different ideas for how to involve the community in this design workshop. This is a glimpse at a few options we considered and the one we ultimately ended up acting upon:

  • Originally we thought of hosting a workshop on-site and on a weekend, but once we started planning the workshop the Christmas season and cold weather deemed this unlikely to succeed.
  • Then we considered having a workshop at a public space like a library or culture center after school/work one day, but ultimately decided that this could prohibit some people who would like to attend from coming due to prior obligations during the work week.
  • Finally we decided to partner with a local school and hold a workshop as part of a classroom activity because we wanted to remove as many barriers as possible to allow a diverse group of community members to participate.

Since kids are required to go to school and the selected school is within the neighborhood of the site, we thought that this created a good opportunity for a captive participant group that is representative of the diversity of thought/religion/income/etc in the community. The interdisciplinary and engaging educational curriculum structure of Tagensbo Skole allowed us to work with three 2nd grade classes (consisting of students who are around 9 years old) on a Tuesday from approximately 10am-1pm. The support of the principal and the teachers was fantastic, and we are incredibly grateful for the opportunity that we had to partner with them.

Inclusive Design Workshop

Slide Used for Basargrunden Introduction

After a brief introduction the the site, which almost all the kids were familiar with, and the project we are working on then the workshop consisted of two main parts:

  1. An activity where groups of four students were given six images of playgrounds found in Denmark and other countries and asked to rank them (1 being their favorite, 6 being their least favorite):
Slide Used for Ranking Activity

Once they made their decisions, we would have conversations with students about why they felt some playgrounds were better than others. One of the most common reasons that students cited for most heavily influencing their decision was the amount of different activities they could perform on a given structure. Students typically found structures where they could do multiple activities (like climbing, sliding, swinging, etc) more fun than more straightforward structures that only served to promote one type of play.

The Bottom Left Shows a Stack of Playground Photos Used for Activity 1

2. A phase where students were individually encouraged to create their own ideas of play structures:

Slide Used for Design Workshop

We gave students paper and drawing utensils to start the creative process, and once they had an idea of a type of play structure they would enjoy playing on, then we provided them physical materials to build their ideas. We kept the materials as simple as possible to encourage imagination and complexity in the form of the structures rather than the materiality. We also gave them LEGO people and cut the materials to a scale that matched the materials we gave available for the project to the scale of a LEGO person.

We felt like by organizing the workshop using this two-prong approach, we were able to learn quite a lot regarding what kids value in a play structure and play area. The conversations the design team (consisting of Josh Morrison, Bettina Werner, Laura Kate Parsons, Michela Nota, and me) had with students as they were participating in the workshop were just as important as the physical models the students were producing. The conversations and first activity provided us insight into why students felt certain ways about play structure design, and conversations during the model building activity allowed glimpses into the meanings behind the physical manifestations of their ideas.

Why This Matters

The benefits of this exercise extend beyond initial design inspiration for the play structure. The 60+ students who participated in the workshop were able to take their drawings and physical models home with them which creates a creative conversation amongst families who will be impacted by the intervention at Basargrunden. By working with kids, it is easy to spread awareness to parents that something is happening in the space, and hopefully encourages them to get involved in future workshops surrounding the design process. Working with students also ignites the idea that the space that is being designed is for them. The hope is that they will be excited to visit the space and see how their ideas and designs influence what gets built there. Another hope we have as a result of this inclusive design process is that they feel a sense of ownership of the public space, which would reflect social mixing and engagement in the area. By starting conversations, planting seeds, and interacting with children, such an important group of the community, the workshop served as a great starting point to engage in a truly inclusive design process given the time, budget, and informational constraints we had.

Moving Forward

One of the most beautiful things about any design process is the iterative essence present, and for this project we iterated not only in the act of designing an urban space, but also in the act of creating an inclusive design process. The next steps for the design project at Basargrunden will depend on what local political leaders decide to allow in the space in regards to both a temporary installation and a permanent design. In the coming months, new research assistants will join Josh and Bettina and use the information from the inclusive design workshop to inform potential play structure designs for the space. Each step of the process helps inform the next, so the research assistants will also use the models created as inspiration for the designs they propose.

The idea of co-design has become a hot topic, especially in relation to public spaces. If you are interested in further reading, it is relatively easy to find case studies about how to co-create with children and different approaches that designers have used. Two examples that I looked at during my literature review for this project were: a participatory design framework where Danish-designers facilitated workshops that laid at the intersection of informant design, cooperative inquiry, and participatory design (“Designing with Children: A Participatory Design Framework for Developing Interactive Exhibitions” by Lykke Vils Axelsen), and a project lead by Izmir and Sofia Architecture Weeks in Bulgaria where 58 children design their dream playground (“My Dream Playground” by Turkan Firinci Orman).

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Lover of the outdoors and urban life

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