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?