This essay is excerpted from The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, out now from Bloomsbury.
The first American playground had no climbing bars, no seesaws, no swings. In 1885, a group of female philanthropists decided that the immigrant children of Boston’s North End needed somewhere other than the increasingly crowded and dangerous streets to play. They paid for a pile of sand to be poured into the yard of a chapel on Parmenter Street at the beginning of summer. “Playing in the dirt is the royalty of childhood,” said Kate Gannett Wells, chair of the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association. The idea came from Germany, where such “sand gardens” were introduced in Berlin’s public parks in 1850 as an offshoot of Friedrich Froebel’s emphasis on the garden part of kindergarten. The success of the first sandpile spurred subsequent summer installations on Parmenter Street and Warrenton Street, each supervised by a matron. By 1887 there were 10 sand gardens, mostly located near the settlement houses that served recently arrived immigrant families. Country children had plenty of dirt, while wealthier city children likely had yards; it was poor children who needed access to free, communal play spaces…
Today, the sandbox has become so familiar that, as Jay Mechling writes in the essay “Sandwork,” “playing with sand in its various states is so universal that the play has become nearly invisible to us, so taken-for-granted that it bumps up against what Brian Sutton-Smith (1970) called the ‘triviality barrier’ of children’s play,” and falls below adult notice. Yet while the digging and sifting are invisible, the tame little sandbox itself has been demonized as unclean, visited after hours by vermin or used as a litter box by cats bearing toxoplasmosis. Like its early playground neighbors, the merry-go-round and the seesaw, equipment that was once trivial has become an endangered species in the urban environment. Once upon a time sand was a little bit of freedom, especially for children whose summers never included a trip to the beach.
We shouldn’t abandon the cities we have for some amenities in the clouds
Raffles City Chonqing, an eight-skyscraper project designed by architect Moshe Safdie and under construction at the meeting of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, would be just another megaproject in another Chinese megacity were it not for one thing: a ninth skyscraper that’s more like a “sidescraper.”
The roughly 980-foot-long tube, pleated like a lampshade and transparent like a greenhouse, houses a hotel lobby, restaurants, and a public viewing deck, and lies on its side across four of the lesser skyscrapers.
What Safdie began in Singapore with Marina Bay Sands, where three towers are capped by a long, suspended infinity pool, he amplifies in Chonqing. And an architectural conversation that was once explicitly linked to luxury one-upmanship—a pool in the sky—has now taken on a gloss of public-mindedness.
“In these dense cities like Chongqing there’s no room for big public parks [on the ground], so we have to lift them into the sky,” Safdie told the Guardian. Raffles City also includes a “landscaped platform” at a mere six stories, connected to its transit- and retail-rich podium…
Sky this, sky that. The only word more popular in urban branding right now is “line” (as in “High Line”), and there’s already a Skyline Drive. Why the sky? What is the benefit to putting parks, play equipment, cafes, trails, forests up high?
Today is publication day for The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids and I am very pleased to have it out there in the world.
You can check for upcoming book events here. New York City and New Canaan so far, but stay tuned for some Rust Belt city appearances into the fall.
Buy it here or at your local independent bookstore.
Along with the pieces linked in previous posts, today brings more chances to sample the contents.
Architect published an excerpt from my chapter on Schools, focused on project-based learning environments.
The Houston Chronicle published this Q&A, How can we design the world for children?
Google Design produced this thorough podcast, which includes a great list of additional reading.
Yesterday Curbed published this Q&A with Kelsey Keith. Kelsey will be interviewing me tonight at McNally Jackson Books, 76 N 4th Street, Williamsburg. Join us if you can.
Great story by Anya Kamenetz with amazing classroom history illustrations, plus a book excerpt on blocks, at NPR.
Alexandra Lange’s interest in school design started in her childhood, when she read Little House on the Prairie, with its indelible depiction of Laura’s one-room schoolhouse in Wisconsin.
Today, she’s an architecture and design critic. Her new book, The Design of Childhood, considers the physical spaces where our children learn and grow: from the living room rug crowded with toys, to the streets, welcoming or dangerous, to classrooms, bright and new or dilapidated.
“I felt like a lot of the contemporary discussion about education was really focused on content,” she tells NPR. “In that really tight space in front of the kid’s face. And as someone interested in design I’m always interested in, what kind of room are you in? How much natural light does it get? What kind of materials is it made of? What kind of a chair are you sitting in?”
On April 20, Nintendo released a new line of accessories for its best-selling Switch game console. Rather than being digital add-ons, they were physical ones: punch-and-fold parts engineered to turn the Switch console into a piano, a fishing rod or a robot. All are made of cardboard.
On March 4, Walmart ads shown during the Oscars centered on shipping boxes. The writer and director Dee Rees, nominated for “Mudbound,” created a 60-second ad in which the threat of bedtime gets incorporated into a sci-fi wonderland a little girl has imagined inside a blue cardboard box.
In June 2014, Google handed out kits for a low-cost virtual reality headset to be used with a smartphone. The headset was named Cardboard, for what it was mostly made of, and users assembled the units themselves.
In April 2012, “Caine’s Arcade,” an 11-minute short featuring a boy named Caine Monroy, was widely shared on the internet. Caine had spent his 2011 summer vacation building an arcade in the front of his father’s East Los Angeles auto-parts store out of the boxes the parts came in. He had the freedom to create an environment because cardboard comes cheap, and his father gave him space.
These 21st-century storytellers turned to cardboard for the same reasons that children have long preferred the box to the toy that came in it: cardboard is light and strong, easy to put up, quick to come down and, perhaps most important, inexpensive enough for experiment.
In the nineteen-fifties, the designers and developers of Detroit’s Lafayette Park believed that they had thought of everything to make city living as attractive as any suburb. A marquee architect from Chicago, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, had created an array of housing options—rental and coöperative—in modernist slab towers, bars of attached town houses, and rows of low courtyard houses. The sharp-edged volumes were all bound together by landscaped greens and a large public park, romantically named the Plaisance, designed by Alfred Caldwell. The location was minutes from downtown. There was an adjacent shopping center. But, when the first “urban pioneers” began moving in, the ground had not yet been broken for the promised Chrysler Elementary School.
“This is a development designed to attract families,” Ruth Belew, a resident of the Pavilion apartments, told the Detroit Free Press. “If the children were forced to cross busy streets like Gratiot or Congress and Larned to get to existing schools, some parents would balk at moving in.” But until enough parents moved in, the school board wouldn’t release funds. The owners, to save their investments, had to think fast: they offered an unoccupied two-story town house to the Detroit Board of Education as a “one-room school,” and, on the recommendation of neighbors, hired Belew—a veteran of both the public-school system and the Red Cross service during the Second World War—to run it. Like a pioneer woman on the modernist frontier, Belew had to design what the architecture lacked: improvisation. With a summer to cram, she devised a course of study that would work for all sixteen pupils, using the city as classroom and calling on professional parents to fill in the curricular gaps. “I can’t sing, but we should be able to work something out,” she said.
Design and architecture have been, and remain, professions dominated by men. But when I set out to write my new book, “The Design of Childhood”—about the toys, playrooms, classrooms, and playgrounds that make up the worlds of children—I found a funny thing: women.