ARC / Connect

Baby Scientist Tests Spatial Concepts

09.19.12 / Sarah Walker, AIA, LEED AP

Like many children, I don’t remember any formal instruction related to architecture.  Surely, I must have been awed by my first visit to a major monument or grand building, but I can’t recollect having any official training regarding how those forms and spaces were conceived, let alone having the sophisticated vocabulary to describe them.  I do, however, vividly remember mapping and creating the most grand and elaborate forts.  In the warmer weather, they were made of sheets, chairs, clothespins and cardboard boxes.  In colder weather, many snowy days were spent with neighborhood children packing snow into igloo-like walls and creating tunnels to link our separate rooms together.  We would often decorate these rooms with plastic bucket-chairs and tables, and then invite friends over to share in a homemade snack. There was something innately satisfying about being able to design and build a personal space for ourselves.

The urge to create a personal refuge comes early in life.  At least, it has for my toddler.  At 12 months, he would consistently seek out low, enclosed spaces (like under the kitchen table) and would be found sitting with a satisfied look on his face anytime one of the adults would kneel down to check on him. Shortly after that, he began to realize that there were such things as boundaries (his baby gates, for instance) and thresholds.  He will still pause at a change in floor material as if to test the stability and then the textural differences between the two.  Now, at 15 months, he has developed a love of light.  Anything that sparkles, glows, shimmers, is his fascination. 

So, with his burgeoning interest in exploring his environment, I’ve been wondering how best to explain and demonstrate his built environment.  With tax cuts to school arts programs becoming a greater threat these days, and with the typical dearth of architectural education at the lower school levels, the responsibility to teach my son about the spatial concepts that are so important to his parents (daddy is a landscape architect) is truly up to us.  Like most other teaching moments with children, we’ve been trying to take already expressed interests and turn them into something he can explore further.  One project that captured his attention was the “light box”.  We took a large cardboard box, poked many tiny holes into it, and pushed holiday lights into each of the holes.  Our son camped out in there, poking at each of the small bulbs and grinning from within his lair. 

Similar to the architectural bootcamp a student might experience during the first studio class, we are trying to strip our spatial concepts to the bare essentials.  A line becomes a demarcation. A taped square on the floor shows the difference between inside and outside.  An umbrella or a sheet hung between two chairs defines the space beneath as other and becomes specially charged.   At the same time, we practice using spatial prepositions as we play: “into”, “outside”, “behind”, “next to”, “around”, for example. We’ve also started to experiment with textures, since his little fingers love running along and then against wood and fabric grains. Soon, when he expresses the interest in stacking and creating (right now, he just loves stacking when it leads to demolition), we’ll move on to helping him experiment with constructing his own play areas.  

I’m sure this will prove true with many other lessons throughout my son’s life, but one interesting result for us, his parents, is that we have to strip all of the accumulated detritus and assumptions that we take for granted regarding our spatial design concepts and really search for the fundamental truths.  In some ways, creating new projects for him has made us revisit the basic ideas that motivated us to pursue our careers in design.  It’s a rare opportunity to place myself back in time and look through his eyes with curiosity and awe at things that have become quotidian. Thanks, kid. :)

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