Big Thinking, Little Humans: How to Design for Children

Ross Barney Architects on making children’s spaces where children can grow, develop, and blossom.

University of Chicago-Drexel, Child Development Center; View of main entry which features a bird-friendly, abstracted tree graphic shading device.

All project photography courtesy Kate Joyce

For the past two years Metropolis’s publisher and editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy has been leading a series of discussions with industry leaders on key issues surrounding human-centered design. On March 16, 2016 Szenasy talked to Ross Barney Architects and representatives from the University of Chicago-Drexel Child Development Center about designing for children and how that can be applied to other projects. Ross Barney Architects hosted the discussion in their Chicago studio. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.


Susan S. Szenasy, publisher & editor in chief, Metropolis (SSS): We like to think that architects and interior designers generally care about how people use their spaces and buildings. Perhaps it didn’t happen that way for some time, but now, I’m glad to say, we’re back at that discussion. Today, we’ll be talking about the University of Chicago-Drexel Child Development Center. How did this project come about?

Chantelle Brewer, AIA, LEED AP, project manager, Ross Barney Architects (CB): The University implemented a Work Life Balance Initiative, guided by the Provost’s office and the Women Leadership Council on campus determining the types of support necessary to help faculty, staff, and students. A campus is a little subset of our society that can really focus on how we can make a community better for families and professionals with small children inside an academic community. How can we make their parents’ lives better, while keeping them engaged in their profession, to create a work life balance on campus?

The average age of students on campuses is increasing. More students are above the age of 25 and 30. This Center, in particular, was initially built to serve the medical center and the University staff and faculty. It also supports students, graduate students, and post-docs; everyone on campus who is there with family in some capacity. The University determined there was a huge demand on campus and The Center filled up almost as soon as it opened. Conveniently, it has also turned into an effective recruiting tool for postdocs and researchers who might have children.

SSS: Looking at these project images, can you talk about some of the features developed specifically for children?

University of Chicago-Drexel, Child Development Center; View of outdoor education and play area.

CB: The tinier spaces along the street on the east side are the youngest children’s’ play areas where they can walk out of their classrooms and play. Each of these playgrounds connects to the outdoor space and so we ended up with a full wall of windows at the end of each classroom. Some of these are actually interior windows from the classrooms into the corridor space. We sat them very low so even the littlest infants can peer into the windows and see who is coming. Sometimes it’s about really trying to get to the essential small element that can make a bigger impact. For example, the entries are color-coded. It is a simple way-finding visual key on the floor that doesn’t require signs, numbers, or reading.

SSS: It seems like we need way-finding help everywhere. Can you talk about how the outdoor rooms were created and how they connect to the interior?

Misa Inoue, PLA, ASLA, landscape architect, (MI): The outdoor spaces were designed toward the children’s learning process. That was a request we received from the client at a very early stage of the design process. We were also asked to utilize a variety of materials and colors to aid children’s learning in short and long terms. Large windows give opportunities for the children to look outside so they always have the visual or sensory connection to the garden space outside. And all of the light that could be brought in from the outside comes all the way into the central corridor.

The University has large quadrangles in the center, and long east-west spaces called Midway Plaisance. There are also small courtyards, entry spaces, and gardens. Those spaces are officially marked on the campus now. Imagine you are a bird in the sky and you look down. You would see those small spaces connected by pedestrian corridors. The Child Development Center is located in the medical district, where smaller-scale pedestrian movement becomes thinner. From a landscape architect’s standpoint, I hope that this becomes a catalyst for the medical district.

Michael Ross, AIA, LEED AP, project manager, University of Chicago Capital Project Delivery (MR): The University, like many others, is on board with bird-safe design. There isn’t a lot of data, but we took a playful approach and created an applied film that suggests the tree canopy on large windows. We used heavily shaded glass for the shading coefficient, which also avoids mirror qualities that are problematic for migrating birds.

SSS: Let’s talk about the color scheme because that’s part of this whole system, in contrast to bright primary colors designers like to use when designing for children.

CB: The palette is very neutral except for the bit of color we used as a wayfinding tool in the corridors. The architecture would bring the light and the air and then become the canvas for the learning tools, toys, and the children themselves would bring the color.

SN: We are definitely seeing that less is more. There is such a thing as too much stimulation for children. They do a better job in a more muted, calm environment, and focus on what’s in front of them.

University of Chicago-Drexel, Child Development Center; View from classroom towards the outdoor play area.

MR: The emphasis on natural lighting was also intended to create calmness. There is almost a full wall of glass from floor to ceiling. We did it not just because of the aesthetic, but because our clients, the kids, spend a lot of time on the floor. Bright Horizons was involved from the very beginning in the design process. We were working with their standards and knowledge about how to create a well-run development center.

SSS: So, this is not just a daycare center, but more of a school?

SN: Yes, from 6 months to age six. It shouldn’t be a warehouse for children. It shouldn’t be a babysitting service. It should be a place for children to grow and develop and just blossom.  In the last ten years, design has definitely taken a turn towards the simpler palette, a more natural playground, using recyclable materials, getting away from big iron swings and seesaws. Then, you can take the classroom outside and take the environment back inside and integrate the two.

SSS: What are some takeaways from this project, lessons learned? Misa, as a landscape architect who is interested in rebuilding the urban fabric, what would you like to see spring from this kind of project?

MI: I come from a country, Japan, where there is a traditional design approach called “borrowed landscape,” meaning your immediate area does not stop at the property line. Therefore, if you are a child inside this building, you have a garden to see through the windows, and there are vine-covered fences, then another layer of landscape, the campus environment. Your world is comprised of layers of exterior spaces. Because those sensory experiences become part of your learning experiences, we as designers have to stay open and loose to understand those complex structures that we could infuse into the space. What I would like to see is every town, city, and campus start to make those links.

SSS: This is where we learn everything about our world.

MR: On the architecture side, we made very modest moves: a little bit of color on the exterior and using natural light and transparency to create the environment instead of a lot of applied finishes and color. In terms of child development centers, I think that would be a good tract, to try to create the background.

University of Chicago-Drexel, Child Development Center; View of indoor play area showing abstracted tree-graphic shading device.


CB: I’ve worked on child care centers for university campuses as well as not-for-profits, so we understand early childhood development. We’ve done a lot of university spaces too. At a university level, we are talking to professors and students about collaboration spaces, self-guided learning, and smaller group interactions. The interesting thing, for me, is the parallel between early development at age two and three and the university age group, from age 18 up.

I think we’re becoming more successful at the university level about providing spaces where people can work in small teams and teach each other and have different types of learning happening simultaneously in buildings. Now it’s also happening for early childhood development. High schools are just beginning to get there. They’re starting to trust students more to do breakout from the desk and go down the hall to do something. I really want this dynamic between learning styles and architecture to permeate all stages of education.

The panel and attendees discuss the color palette of the project.

Courtesy Huili Feng, Ross Barney Architects.

Susan S. Szenasy, Publisher and Editor in Chief at Metropolis (center) poses a question to the panel.

Courtesy Huili Feng, Ross Barney Architects.

Chantelle Brewer, AIA, LEED AP, Project Manager, ​Ross Barney Architects; Misa Inoue, PLA, ASLA, Landscape Architect; Shirley Neiman, Director, University of Chicago Child Development Center-Drexel, Bright Horizons; Michael Ross, AIA, LEED AP, Project Manager, University of Chicago Capital Project Delivery.
Moderator: Susan S. Szenasy,
Metropolis Publisher/Editor in Chief 

The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with DuPont Surfaces, KI and Sunbrella.

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