Monday, September 13, 2010

When is a climber more than just a place to climb?

Justine Roberts, Principal

Boston Children's Museum

Climbing structures, particularly vertical ones, are iconic elements of many children’s museums.  And for good reason.  They look cool – rising high above the ground floor, inviting exploration.  They are mostly designed for kids to use independently, allowing them to take the lead and direct the activity.  They are safe, but they feel edgy and support children pushing their limits and finding the courage to take risks.  They offer a clear sense of mastery and, with clear destinations built into them, they and encourage adults to recognize and celebrate their children’s accomplishments.  And of course they are developmentally appropriate, supporting sensorimotor learning, which is ideal for most children’s museum visitors.

Anita Rui Olds, in From Cartwheels to Caterpillars: Children’s Need to Move Indoors and Out, makes an impassioned case for incorporating movement into children’s lives indoors as well as out. As she explains it:

“Healthy, well-functioning children are free to locate themselves in space, assume different body postures, create their own boundaries, have access to different territories, manifest power, and fulfill their potential. The ideal child care environment provides unending opportunities for children to learn to move and to learn by moving because it conceives of all surfaces, and the entire ambiance, as an invitation to use their bodies and their senses in meaningful and challenging ways.”

All of this may be why climbers are so commonly found in children’s museums.  They are an excellent fit for the audience and they engage visitors in many appropriate layers of experience. 

But beyond the obvious reasons to have a climber, when a new facility opens and a museum is thinking about creating whole-body, safe-danger, self-directed playful learning experiences the question of what exactly you design, and where it goes, is not so clear-cut.  There are, in fact, many options and no one single best solution.   

But the design of a climber does directly inform the visitor experience and by extension the types of outcomes we will see.

One of the biggest issues is where to put it. 

Many climbers are located in double height entry spaces, adjacent to the main stair.  There are great practical reasons for this not the least of which are that the interior height already exists! Filling it with a tall interesting element is a natural. 

A stair can often provide structural support for a climber, which is cost effective.  This adjacency allows adults to follow their children up as they climb. Providing a way for adults to participate is a not just a “nice to have” but at the heart of many children’s museum missions. 

Pittsburgh Children's Museum
However, many such climbers have a single entry and exit at the bottom – kids go up and then down again.  There are good reasons for this not the least of which is that allowing kids to escape out the top makes adults anxious. Apparently, the Pittsburgh Children's Museum built an exit at the top of theirs but has it permanently closed.  But leaving aside the cross currents inside the climber itself, the trade off for adults is that they have to go up and then down on the stairs in parallel, quite possibly with a stroller and siblings in tow.

It can be done differently of course. 

Children's Museum at Holyoke
One example is the City Museum where the stair IS the climber - sculptural, exciting, fun. Another is at the Children's Museum at Holyoke where there is an indoor Luckey climber in a corner. That one has many entry and exit points, many routes through – horizontal as well as vertical – and some platforms clearly designed for adults to go in with their kids.

What both of these projects achieve is a deeper level of engagement in the process of moving through the building.  The experience of climbing from one level to another is also about navigating.  Another example of this is the climber at Port Discovery, which really lets kids take responsibility for finding their way and in the process, builds a sense of ownership and belonging – a mental map that includes the user. 
Port Discovery Museum

In each of these, real choice points mean kids are making real decisions. They are solving problems – yes the physical challenge of getting themselves up and down but also including complex wayfinding, navigating branching logic trees, remembering multiple steps in a process, sequencing and patterning.

Look and Feel

Whether next to a stair or not, there is nothing to say a climber has to look a certain way.  The Madison Children’s Museum just opened a new idiosyncratic climber "Hodgepodge Mahal" made out of reclaimed elements.  

The visual appeal of this is important, but in addition it supports a wide range of gross motor activity and some activities that are not so much physical but more contemplative or imaginative.  Its pretty magical to imagine climbing through the Madison structure and reaching a pod just the right size to squeeze inside and from which I could look out and down at the world from a new perspective.

In fact, Anita Rui Olds describes climbing as just one of a whole range of possible movements. Others on her list include: Swaying, Crawling, Bending, Turning, Rolling, Balancing, Rocking, Hanging, Bouncing, Grasping, and Jumping.  

Climbers are often pretty narrowly focused on a few types of movement.  It is probably not going to work to mix jumping with vertical climbing, for instance. And there is no reason to try and compress all types of activity into a single structure.  But climbers are physically front-and-center, we think of them as iconic, and we spend a lot for them so it is fair to have high expectations. 


Climbers can go outside.  It may require extra staffing, security during closed hours, and the materials have to stand up to the weather.  But one advantage of that is the noise and activity level associated with the climber move outside also.  Providence Children's Museum opened an outdoor climber just this summer. 

Outside, the whole idea of a climber can be different.  The height of an interior climber is often partly driven by the link to the stair and by the need to be vertical in a tight space with little room for horizontal motion. Outside it is no longer about moving from one floor to another in a creative way so there is no need to think of it necessarily as tall.  Just for fun, both of these projects are about climbing up into the trees but that common theme only underscores how different outdoor climbers can be given different starting points, goals, and reasons for being.

Les Machine de L'isle
Morris Arboretum
Because the function of a climbing structure outside is different it can focus on different goals such as getting kids to solve complex creative problems, encouraging adult participation (rather than passive viewing), and enjoying physical activity as a family. 

A goal of adult participation may be a reason to move away from a multi-story climber.  Indoors adults can follow their children along the stairway, but outdoors that may not be as important, or desirable. So that suggests a differently shaped climbing experience.

Outside it could also more easily have more than one entry/exit point.  The shape could be stretched out so that there was more horizontal movement and more interior room for cross-traffic.  And it might have a destination that was meant to be shared with your adults rather than a single-person “crow’s nest” style top.

But it also suggests that it may not need to be a climber – and could be something else that supports physical whole-body movement. 

To be or not to be?

As with any other exhibit experience, what the “climber” IS should be driven by the goals for that component and consideration of what best meets those goals. It may seem like a climber should automatically be on the list of exhibits, and that it is just a matter of shopping for the exact model. But in fact, whether inside or outside the visitor experience goals and institutional goals may call for something that looks different or performs differently from examples the team has been referring to.  Because the design of a “climber” supports very specific behaviors, it also supports very specific outcomes.  Backing up from the strong image of a vertical climber set in the entry adjacent to the main stair may be a difficult shift - but it may also be an opportunity.

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

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