Design Notes, Episode 10

Architecture critic Alexandra Lange explores the design of childhood—from the sandbox to the street

Design Notes is a show about creative work and what it teaches us. In this episode, guest host and Google Design creative lead Amber Bravo speaks with architecture critic and author Alexandra Lange about her new book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids. Together, they examine how design changes childhood—discussing everything from street design and playgrounds, to what makes building blocks a “good” toy, and why cardboard is an inviting canvas for creative exploration.

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Watch highlights from Design Notes. In this episode, guest host and Google Design creative lead Amber Bravo (above, left) interviews architecture critic Alexandra Lange (above, right).


On nostalgia “People think ‘When I was little Lego was so free, I just had a big trunk of blocks, and now it's all [Lego] Star Wars and [Lego] Ninjago and all of these other made up things,’ but the truth is that it wasn't until they made Lego into a system that it really took off as a toy.”

On the physical origins of digital play “People talk about physical play and digital play as somehow being in conflict, but in fact digital play and digital learning really rest on a foundation of physical play. The creators of programs like Scratch for example, can assume a familiarity with little plastic pieces clicking together, that they then can use as their interface.”

On the societal impact of playgrounds “Early playgrounds were in fact great places for kids to play, but they were the beginning of children's spaces being segregated from adult spaces. It was the beginning of children essentially not having a right to the street.”

On the creative magic of cardboard “Cardboard is this amazing adaptive material—you can cut it quite easily, it's not that expensive, and once you glue it together and laminate it, it's totally sturdy and will last for years.”

Handy info and links for this episode:

  • Friedrich Fröbel is recognized as the father of Kindergarten, coining the term in recognition of the idea that children have unique educational needs.

  • Fröbel gifts are a set of play materials developed by Fröbel to progressively teach children about the basic principles of geometry, physics, and color.

  • Caroline Pratt, founder of the City and Country School in New York, designed Unit Blocks based on the principles defined by Fröbel.

  • What it is is beautiful was the tagline of an influential Lego ad in 1981, developed as part of a print campaign by Creative Director Judy Lotas, who now runs LPNY.

  • In 2005, Olafur Eliasson’s Collectivity Project was installed on New York’s High Line, inviting passersby to collaborate on a huge structure built from white Lego bricks.

  • Scratch is a visual programming tool designed to teach children principles like creativity, collaboration, and systematic thinking by creating animations with modular bits of code represented as Lego-like blocks.

  • Jacob Riis was an influential figure in early “casual” photography as well as journalism, combining them to effect social reform in New York in the late 19th century.

  • Sand gardens” were some of the first designated playgrounds in New York, developed by residents of the city’s “settlement houses,” and inspired by the first sand gardens in Boston.

  • Svigals + Partners designed a revitalized Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, building in what Lange calls “gentle boundaries” that make the school safer without becoming a source of anxiety for students.

  • The Adaptive Design Association is lead by MacArthur Fellow Alex Truesdell, who has harnessed the power of adaptive design thinking and simple cardboard construction to empower students of all abilities.

  • “Cardboard carpentry” is the practice of making cardboard into tools, toys, furniture, and other practical objects. The Adaptive Design Association offers a quick start guide in its learning library.

  • The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, claims “the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of historical materials related to play.”

  • Download a PDF transcript of Design Notes, Episode 10

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On the next episode, guest host Aaron Lammer speaks with Madeline Gannon, Lead at Pittsburgh-based Atonaton Studios and the creator of Quipt, which enables easier collaboration between humans and machines. In the interview, Lammer and Gannon discuss how robots can be more lifelike and approachable—interacting in familiar ways as “machinic creatures.”

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