Archive for the ‘post-occupancy evaluation’ Category

The importance of touch in engaging children

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

When landscape architects and architects design children’s environments, we usually start with the height of the child. Actually, we are starting from the eyes – the child’s view point. While this is a good start, ideally, we should be moving around at this level so we, the designers, can see what our users will be seeing! A number of years ago, I gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania/Delaware Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) where I demonstrated how we should be positioning ourselves as children. For kindergarten/early elementary school students’ perspective, I got down on my knees. To get the preschoolers’ perspective, I sat down on the floor. And, for toddlers’ perspective, I reclined on the floor and raised my head so it was about two feet off the ground.

As part of my post-occupancy evaluation of the Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens, I created a series of behavioral maps which showed where children of various ages spent the majority of their time. These maps also included the activities in which the children were engaged. While the older children were in the Grotto Cave and Secret Room, the younger children spent most of their time on the Ramp or in the Central Cove.

From the archival drawings as well as through interviews, I learned that Tres Fromme, the designer of the garden, started all of his sketches by first drawing a child, then drawing the environment for that child. The children are 42 inches high in Tres’s drawings. This accounts for older children’s ease of access to the water in the Secret Room and the Grotto Cave.

When Tres Fromme designed these latter two areas, he also showed the 42-inch high child in his drawings. There was a difference between the two areas, however. Although he showed the drawing of the older child, he made the coping walls for the Ramp and Central Cove much lower and narrower which made these areas much more accessible to the younger children. It appeared that the real difference wasn’t the height of the children. It was their reach – or length of their arms – that mattered.

From this point on in my evaluations of other children’s environments, I started testing this hypothesis. Was it the height of the child or the length of the child’s reach that made the difference in how engaging a place became? What do you think? What have been your experiences?

Musings on Post Occupancy Evaluations:

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

On September 23rd, I’ll be speaking at the Play for Life Symposium in Minnetonka, MN ( about how to make play environments   engaging. (Note that my talk, is the same name as this blog: The Engagement Zone.) As a landscape architect, I have long used both my creative instincts as well as the process of design to create gardens. In my doctoral work in environmental psychology at City University of New York (CUNY), however, I started working on post-occupancy evaluations. This has enabled me to see the project through the eyes (and other senses, as well as ideas) of those people who use these environments. Wow! What a change in perspective!

My first Post-Occupancy Evaluation involved the – then – new Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. Not only did I observe and record where children and adults spent their time and the types of activities they were engaged in, I also interviewed them.

Too often, when we observe people, we presume we know what they are doing. It is as if our child asks us where babies come from and, as we turn all shades of purple and green thinking about what to say in response, our child then notes, “I thought it was from the hospital, but Freddie says his brother was born in a swimming pool…” It is so much better to ask, not just watch. You would be amazed at what you will learn, especially from children.

One of the most interesting examples was when a mother of a 4-year old told me her daughter was afraid to go into the Secret Room with the Drooling Dragon at Longwood Gardens. This “dragon” is a huge face with a mouth that not only drips water (it’s a fountain) but is backlit with red lights so that some of the kids think there’s blood back there. The woman further indicated that her daughter was so afraid of being eaten by this dragon that she would avoid going in that area of the garden.

She wasn’t the only one, it turned out. Other children, as well as other parents, said the same thing. I noticed that all of these children were younger than 4 years of age. Further, when I observed children in that area of the garden, I noticed that they were older. Actually, they were larger – at least their arms were longer. The kids who were not afraid of the dragon were those who could reach into the mouth of the dragon and touch the water!

At this same time in my evaluation, I was interviewing staff members who were involved with the garden. Nancy Bowley, in Visitor Services at Longwood Gardens, who created innovative activities for the children, mentioned to me that the pieces of chalk the staff kept in the Secret Room was discoloring the slate walls – something they had not considered in the design stage. I suggested that they use, instead, big paintbrushes that could be dipped into the water coming out of the mouth of the dragon and “painted” onto the walls. I had discovered this suggestion when I performed an archival review of Longwood Gardens’ design process as part of the Post-Occupancy Evaluation. However, I also noted that, by holding a big paintbrush, this would extend the reach of a younger child whose arms would not yet reach the water in the dragon’s mouth!

Nancy wrote a note over the door in the Secret Room: “Please dip your brush into my mouth and paint me a picture. Signed, The Drooling Dragon.” I immediately started observing older children following this advice. Further, I noticed smaller children watching the older children…before dipping the paint brushes into the dragon’s mouth themselves!

This shows how my interactive way of conducting a post occupancy evaluation increased usage of the garden, reduced damage to the materials, and helped children overcome their fears through watching their peers!

How might this process help your project???