Kid appeal

Obvious colours and predictable shapes have long dominated design for children, says Pamela Buxton, but recent research, the subject of a London Design Festival conference, finds that there’s no sound reason for this

Why are bright, primary colours generally considered a good idea for children’s furniture and environments instead of more subtle shades? And why are many play items designed for specific uses rather than left open for children’s creative interpretation?

It suggests that the research-driven principles that should underpin designing for children are not widely used, says the organiser of a conference on the subject taking place this month at the London Design Festival. And at a time of major investment in children’s spaces – such as nurseries and the Government’s Sure Start Children’s Centres programme – alongside interest in junior furniture from the likes of Habitat with its VIP for Kids range, it’s important that designers are armed with specialist information.

‘The idea of over-simplifying children’s environments betrays a lack of understanding of research. There’s no research, for example, to back up the use of primary colours,’ says Matthew Giaretta, conference organiser and UK agent for the Italian Play&Soft range of children’s furniture being launched at the event.

Too often, he says, children’s environments just pay lip-service to the needs of children and those who work with them.

The conference aims to bridge this knowledge gap by inviting Italian designers and specialists to discuss their work. Most were involved in Reggio Children, an initiative for providing high quality pre-school environments in Italy’s Reggio Emilia region, which was the focus for research into how design can contribute to child development.

Michele Zini, co-editor of the resulting text Children, Spaces, Relations, will discuss how this research can be used to improve design in this sector, referencing several nurseries designed by his design consultancy ZPZ Partners throughout Italy.

‘Usually, products for children reveal [that designers have] a simplified image of the child/ a child without competence, lacking of experience and skills,’ says Zini. ‘This simplified image produces a banal red-yellow-blue chromoscape, cause-and-effect toys in which no choice, fantasy or interpretation is supported, and cartoon-like decorations.’

Instead, it should be all about complexity. Reggio’s research advocates creating stimulating environments with a range of sensory qualities such as rough, smooth and elastic, focusing on flexibility of use and avoiding too many primary colours. By providing a ‘menu’ of possibilities, children are encouraged to explore and interact as they play within a secure and comfortable space.

And by providing quality environments, the hope is to improve the quality of the child’s play-based thinking and so aid cognitive development. ‘That is why the child’s environment can’t be seen as just a context for learning, a passive setting for activities. Rather it is an integral part of learning, an active element in defining their identity,’ says Zini.

He has put these principles into practice when designing nurseries such as the award-winning Nido Tetra Pak Stella in Modena, completed in 2005. This prefabricated building includes a complex multi-sensory ‘materialscape’ with a range of colours and light sources. It is arranged with classrooms off a central piazza to encourage spontaneous meetings and play among groups of children.

According to Vea Vecchi of Reggio Children, all children have a ‘right to beauty’ as a vital element of quality of life. But this will only be achieved if there’s a dialogue between pedagogy and design, and importantly, with the children themselves.

‘There’s no unique and best approach because children, culture, pedagogy and design always change,’ Vecchi says, adding that the right environment itself constitutes part of the education process.

‘Design plays a fundamental role in supporting child development,’ says Vecchi.

Giaretta hopes that the conference will help disseminate the Reggio Children research beyond Italy, and show how the principles can be adopted in other children’s environments – speaker Robin Duckett of early years charity Sightlines Initiatives will talk about his collaborations with Reggio Children in the UK.

But no amount of talking could be as eloquent as the colourful and instantly appealing range itself, on show at the conference and at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London until 28 October.

The International Conference on Design for Children takes place on 17 September at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London


Billed as a meeting of pedagogy (educational practice) and design, the Italian Play&Soft range of furniture and play equipment follows four years of product development with a creative team that reads like a who’s who of contemporary design. Maurizio Fontanili, designer and furniture manufacturer, decided to create a range based on research findings developed by the Italian organisation Reggio Children. Designers James Irvine, Andrea Branzi, Denis Santachiara, Sebastian Bergne, Harri Koskinen and many others created the 250-piece collection, which includes playhouses, mats, benches and chairs. The range is intended for use in public areas such as museums and airports as well as education and domestic situations. Pieces are made using Ecosoftx, a synthetic material developed specially for the project. The designs – using a non-primary colour palette specified by ZPZ Partners – are tactile and flexible/ they variously roll up, open, close, move and change according to children’s wishes. Many are transformable – Bergne’s Volta chair, for example, can be turned into an arch. Above all, the priority was to make them fun to play with and in doing so, to learn as well.

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