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Community Impact

Jun 16, 2022

Architects on a field trip: Volunteers teach kindergartners about design


Image: Polly Carpenter FAIA

Architecture is everywhere—a key infrastructural component of our homes, workplaces, and gathering spaces. You can find Boston Society for Architecture members almost anywhere, too, even in the classroom.

They were there this past spring, and no, they weren't lost. They belonged to a team of volunteers who visited classes in Boston and Cambridge to encourage young children to think more expansively about their neighborhoods and communities.

Throughout the spring of 2022, 39 Boston Society for Architecture volunteers worked with kindergartners, engaging with students with the help of a lesson plan developed by Boston Society for Architecture staff, including Design Education Fellow Taylor Johnson. In creating the lesson plan, she strove to define clear ways for architects to communicate principles of design.

“We really tried to nail down the idea that you want to know your audience, and your audience is max six years old. There’s ways of explaining things to them that they can relate to. Every kid understands the places they shop, the places their parents shop, the places they go to school, and how they relate to their neighborhoods. So that’s how we set up framing architecture in the curriculum, in a very approachable way, and then building off from there,” said Johnson.

Volunteers began the lesson by giving a presentation that presented students with images of well-known buildings around Greater Boston, asking them to identify shapes and other elements they recognized in the designs. Together, the students and volunteers engaged in dialogue that conceived of buildings as places of activity, sorting the buildings they thought of into “types.”

“[We were] making sure that we were associating both images and words with certain ideas. We talked about big “buckets” and types of spaces—where do you go to play? Where do you go to shop? It’s … thinking of space as more of an action, and linking that to some really basic ideas about geometry and shapes and scale,” said Caroline Shannon AIA, a Strategist at Gensler who has participated in the program since 2019.

Caroline Shannon2

Image courtesy Caroline Shannon AIA

The next portion of the lesson was an interactive activity that asked children to construct their very own building, out of construction paper rather than wood, concrete, or reinforced steel. Volunteers explained that all of the buildings would co-exist in a “neighborhood” designed by the entire class.

Ice cream shops and pet stores were common, but students also incorporated other kinds of things into their designs.

“There’s usually other elements. Kids will be like, ‘I want to have this tree here…’ They’ll draw other features of the environment, and add their families, or their pets,” said Shannon.

Shannon found that kindergartners particularly enjoyed the “share-back” portion of the activity. After creating their individual buildings, students regrouped and described what they’d made to their peers. The class then worked together to choose which buildings should be located next to each other, eventually building a neighborhood composed of all of their structures.

“Kindergartners have a lot to contribute—it’s always really energizing to see how they’re moving through their communities … It’s really cool to see how they process that information and, in just a few minutes, draw something or make something and put their ideas to paper. It makes me sad we don’t do more of that in our education system,” said Shannon.

Volunteers felt strongly about the advantages of introducing children to principles of design early in their lives.

“I hadn’t had the right exposure to really understand some of the career paths in the design industry, so I really like the idea of the work that Boston Public Schools and various programs in the city are doing to expand [access],” said Sara Lesher, Director of Interior Design at MDS Architects, who signed up to volunteer after some former coworkers recommended the program.

Janet mcdavitt class 3

Image courtesy Hunter Pattershall

Curious and opinionated, the children had a lot of thoughts about creating neighborhoods they themselves would like to live in. In one classroom, students asked the volunteer architect questions about tenant displacement and the tearing down of buildings. In general, volunteers were impressed by the enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, and creativity of the students in their classes.

“That lent itself to kids having a much bigger conversation about their own neighborhoods, and displacement, and the changes in their neighborhoods—which you wouldn’t necessarily think are things that kindergartners are aware of, but when they get to be exposed to some of these topics in a way they can relate to, they then are able to have these conversations,” said Johnson.

Asked about the ways children think through current crises, Shannon noted the importance of discussing “the impact of the built environment on our bodies and our communities” with children from an early age.

“Starting those conversations with young people is essential. I think that would be a really important future iteration for this program. All of this is impacting them, and it’s going to be a major component of their lives,” added Shannon.