PK-12 Education Post - Imagine

IMAGINE LIKE A CHILD: INCORPORATING EMPATHY IN DESIGN

By Craig Siepka

Over the years, Wight & Company’s early childhood work has evolved to include a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces inspired by the children, instructors, and families we serve. In every instance, we strive to make our designs safe, adaptive, and fun. 

Regardless of its parameters, each project begins with a series of exercises focused on creating an experiential narrative. This narrative forms the basis for exploration and decision-making. We call this approach “empathetic sensory storytelling.” The narrative is developed much in the same way that a child engages with the world—with an open mind and instinctive curiosity. 

The Importance of Observation
Since our goal is to understand how a child experiences his/her physical surroundings, we need to suspend our preconceived notions of what we think a child wants and needs. Instead, we must keenly observe and listen to children for clues on how they perceive and engage with their world. Only then can we hope to create a child-centric experience that is based on place and circumstance rather than the latest fads. 

Our experience has revealed seven core qualities that we feel define a successfully responsive early childhood environment. They are:

  1. INTIMACY – scaled to fit a child’s proportions
  2. SENORY RICHNESS – a variety of textures and materials that encourage discovery and exploration
  3. COMFORT – deepens the familiarity and ownership of space using warm colors and inviting materials
  4. AGILITY – flexibility of the environment; capable of adapting over time to support customized learning experiences
  5. CONVENIENCE – easy access to amenities that encourage safety and good hygiene
  6. INTRICACY – sequencing of spaces and layers of structure that provide a sense of anticipation while maintaining visual connectedness/continuity
  7. DIVERSIFICATION – subtle features that invite opportunities for surprise and delight

Asking the Right Questions
Although we approach the design process seriously and deliberately, there can also be a great deal of playfulness involved, which helps us ensure that nothing is taken for granted. For our youngest learners, the simplest question can lead to endless opportunities for enlightenment and delight. In that same vein, we ask “Why?” a lot. Why are windows 3’ above the floor, over the eye-height of most children? Why must mechanical equipment be hidden in the ceiling above? Why is it even above? Why can’t signage be engaging on an emotional, intellectual, and physical level? These continuous inquiries help us break down the assumptions we bring as adults. They spark new avenues of exploration and guide us through subsequent stages of creative refinement.

Influential Spaces
While early childhood centers must align with 21st century approaches that support dynamic, media-rich learning, they can also provide profound and stimulating interactions by incorporating the seven qualities described above. 
There are many elements adults can influence to help build promising outcomes for our youngest learners. These include, but are not limited to, sensory awareness, healthy habits, and challenging intellectual pursuits. For us, it is physical surroundings that offer the ideal background to support each of these building blocks. Shaped by understanding and created with love, our work strives to balance functional requirements with poetic gestures—creating settings that are childlike in spirit, but not childish in appearance.

 

About Craig Siepka
With over 17 years of experience in educational design projects, Craig brings a highly collaborative design and management approach to all assignments. For Craig, architecture is a team sport. Through focused dialogue and an emphasis on environmental stewardship, he has crafted numerous design solutions of varying complexity that express the unique qualities of their stakeholders and demonstrate a keen sensitivity to the needs of 21st century learners and educators.