The Right to Imagine: How We Create Inspiring Spaces

The Right to Imagine: How We Create Inspiring Spaces

“A little too intelligent for his age, six-year-old with spiky blonde hair and not much of a filter between his brain and his mouth, always found with a stuffed tiger as his co-conspirator.”

No prizes for guessing the characters I am describing here, undoubtedly the epitome of childhood, the incomparable Calvin & Hobbes, protagonists of a comic strip that wonderfully captures a child’s imaginative ways of looking at the world.

Calvin & Hobbes image by Bill Watterson

After all, in Calvin’s universe, a stuffed toy seamlessly transforms into an ever conspiring, often philosophical full-grown tiger while a dull classroom becomes an amazing space journey for his alter-ego, Spaceman Spiff, who loves nothing better than blasting aliens with his laser gun.  Moreover, a mere corrugated cardboard box can – simply by way of labelling – turn into such fantastic objects as a “Transmogrifier” (a device that transforms its user into any desired creature or thing!), a flying time machine, or an intelligence increasing “Cerebral Enhance-o-tron”, or even a “Box of Secrecy” (for members of an exclusive club to  conduct discreet meetings!) Other times, it can also serve the more mundane utility of a desk that Calvin sits at to sell exciting abstractions such as a ‘frank appraisal of your looks’, ‘happiness’, ‘great ideas’ or even ‘life’ itself!

In many ways, Calvin is the representation of every child in this world – curious, competent in his own way, infinitely capable, full of possibilities, and an unstoppable bundle of energy. The comic strip beautifully captures Calvin’s interaction with the adult world, a world that’s rarely designed for a child. Systems and structures and strict routines put in place by adults tend to quash the innate imagination and creativity of children, forcing them all to be a certain way in order to fulfill preconceived expectations. But if we are to nurture a child’s potential and empower them to realise their unique individual capabilities and build the best possible future for themselves, it’s important to provide an environment that grants them the right to be themselves, the right to go at their own pace, the right to play and wonder and create, most importantly, the Right to Imagine.

At Toddler’s Den, it is our continued effort to create a stimulating environment where children’s imagination can thrive. One way we do this is through engaging all their senses. For this, we’ve identified 3 key enablers:

  1. a curriculum that is deeply learner-centric so that it allows every child to grow in their own unique ways
  2. a team of educators who love to work with children and are committed to helping them realise their full potentials, and
  3. a safe and nurturing environment that stimulates children by engaging all of their senses

This blog post is related to the third aspect – the physical environment and how it can  enable and enrich learning for our young learners.

Space Design as an Enabler of Imagination

Pre-school spaces can be looked at as living breathing organisms that evolve with time. They should be created keeping in mind the principles of responsive design, wherein the space can very easily and flexibly transform  to meet the varying needs of its users.

This is the first in a series of posts about how we create truly inspiring spaces at Toddler’s Den through applying  the 5 key principles of space design and ensuring that they merge to create an environment where children can thrive – intellectually, physically, psychologically and socially. 

Let’s explore the first principle:

Principle 1: Design for a child

A safe and secure environment is conducive for learning

The first and foremost principle for designing spaces for children is to create a safe and secure environment. Remember learning happens when our brain overcomes challenges. Challenges come with a high chance of failure, a safe environment ensures that children, even when failing, are not deterred from trying again.

A safe environment is created by thoughtful design that encourages children to try things and not be deterred by failure. For example, for a Toddler, climbing a slope to reach an object would appear to be a challenge. Creating a soft flooring around areas that present such challenges to learners ensure that even if they stumble and fall, they don’t hesitate in getting up and trying again. Similarly, a child working on an art project shouldn’t have to worry about spoiling the floor or the walls. These are peripherals that should be designed to serve their respective purpose without bringing hindrance in the learning process. 

Soft flooring in the indoor gym encourages children to take on new challenges with confidence.
Well-designed spaces inspire children to freely explore their creativity.

Selecting furniture for a set of children who can physically grow upto 30% in a year

Ergonomics is another key consideration to create comfortable learning spaces. There is no  “correct size” of furniture for an age group because:

  1. Children within the same age group can be physically very different. Some may be quite tall, others short, etc.
  2. Children  grow at an unbelievable speed. In our study of over 500 students at our Ahmedabad campus, we found that children, over the course of a year, can physically grow by up to 30%! That’s a staggering rate  and hence a piece of furniture that may appear to be ergonomically ideal at the start of a year, will almost surely come across as awkwardly sized by the time the academic year comes to an end.

One way to tackle this is to use furniture that is flexible in size (i.e. adjustable heights). However, in our experience, these are cumbersome to maintain and because they have mechanical parts, they can often lead to injuries. We employ a more practical approach that we have named the ±10% principle. Every subspace that we create within the learning spaces has multiple pieces of furniture sized in a band of ±10% of the recommended dimensions for the age group that we are designing for.

For example, a literacy section will have 3 different types of couches each with dimensions in a ±10% band. Or a storytelling zone will have seatings at multiple levels. Children choose their favourite seating according to what  they find the most comfortable. With a neutral colour palette, we have found that the favourite furniture of a child has a strong correlation with the size of the child and the size of the furniture.

A glimpse of our pre-k class setup, with different sized furniture that children can choose according to their comfort.

Ergonomic design with the eye level at 3 and a half feet

Design at child scale contributes significantly towards the development of confidence. This is because to a child, even routine tasks can seem like little adventures. For instance, something like manoeuvring through the campus – which adults would not really think twice about –  is like a quest for children – moving smoothly from one space to another, through doors, stairs, slopes or other suitable contraptions just adds to the confidence of the child. Use of proper design elements – from the height and type of a door handle to the size of steps in a flight of stairs – is important for this ease of movement for the child.

Each day is full of adventures for a child – a well-designed environment keeps them exploring!

To sum, the key to selecting all the fixtures that define a  space is attention to detail. The selection of each and every fixture should be done keeping in mind the end user – a child. And the ergonomics of these fixtures should be such that they make the child feel competent and able to glide through the day to day tasks. This boosts the confidence of children and keeps them open to newer challenges, and greater learning. 

The creator of Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Watterson said at a commencement address in 1990, “At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own… you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.”

I couldn’t agree more. As a school with a child-centric philosophy, Toddler’s Den is committed to creating environments that allow and inspire young minds to play, because we firmly believe that play and imagination go a long way in empowering our children to lead naturally creative, inspired, meaningful lives, both today and tomorrow when it’s time for them to step out into the world.

In the next post, we will delve into the second principle of responsive design that looks at how everything in a space can contribute to a desired outcome, which in our case is of course, learning.  We will look at the sea of possibilities that responsive design opens up. 

Written By: Misbah Jafary

Co-founder & Operations Head, Toddler’s Den