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Visualising the future: Children as designers

The garden project was officially launched with a whole school excursion to the Children's Garden at the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Royal Talbot Garden in Melbourne, two well-known and innovative Victorian gardens that have been designed with children's interests in mind. Intended to inspire children's initial ideas for the new garden, the garden visits provided children an opportunity to interact with established garden features such as water fountains, huge climbing rocks, a spiral lavender garden, sensory gardens and a tea-tree maze. On returning to school, children 'knew what a children's garden looked like'. Drawing on this knowledge they were encouraged to reflect on their experience through finishing the sentence 'What I loved about the garden was...'. These early and personal garden reflections provided important curriculum ideas that assisted children to develop their garden aspirations. In response to the task they recalled their pleasure and excitement about:

How you can get lost in the maze When the bamboo is above your head How you can grow tomatoes Being in the hiding trees Touching the water fountains

These responses fit with earlier studies that highlight children's inherent desire for interactions with the natural world through a sense of wonder and imagination (Carson, 1984). Integrated natural landscapes have been identified over the years as important places where children can engage with 'softer spaces' such as trees, flowers and plants, animals, ponds and other living things, natural colour, diversity and change, surfaces that don't hurt, and places to sit, mazes, climbing apparatus, ponds, swings and gardens (Titman, 1994; Cobb, 1977).

After the excursion children formalised their garden aspirations through a range of continuous research processes. In determining how they could best investigate research ideas, children devised a list of options that involved viewing films, photos, documentaries, visits to the library, reading picture storybooks, non-fiction books and magazines and visiting websites over a period of several months. As the research process expanded so did children's ideas. As I had arrived at the school after the initial design phase children reflected on their earlier ideas, many of which were included in the final garden plan:

We all agreed that the pizza garden was one of the best ideas.

(Josh, age 10)

I was really thinking of maybe like a water maze because I wanted another pond kind of thing that we could do.

(Alisha, age 10)

I was hoping to do an alphabet garden.

(Alethia, age 8)

I wanted to have a maze and a pond 'cause you can see yourself in the water.

(Bailey, age 8)

Well the tomatoes are actually my favourite. I'd like to see more of them.

(Callum, age 11)

Our group wanted a pond, definitely. We just liked the idea of having a pond.

(Hamish, age 12)

I wanted somewhere private to sit. I thought of a meeting place and there was the pond, just a place just to sit down and learn things about the garden.

(Matilda, age 11)

I wanted a tee pee for kids to sit in.

(Michael, age 8)

I actually wanted to learn more about the tomato because I wasn't quite sure whether it was a fruit or a vegetable.

(Shelby, age 10)

I was keen on having chickens and lizards.

(Sean, age 11)

The resemblance between the children's garden ambitions and those highlighted in earlier international studies is remarkable. Universally, it seems, children have an inherent interest in engaging with living and non-living entities such as water (ponds), mazes, pizza gardens, artwork and sculpture, secluded spaces with seating, edible plants and flowers, areas to climb and play, and engaging with animals. The reflections are important because they directly emerge from a process that values what children have to say. In this case the process genuinely encompasses the clear ideas and aspirations children have about the types of school ground interactions and experiences that interest them.

At the completion of the research phase - the point at which I came in as an observer/researcher of the project - students begin the process of communicating their research findings and ideas to their peers during class time. Class presentations require students across all grades to consult, debate, test and contest the merits of their ideas and beliefs against peers using a mixture of verbal, graphic and written modes. Sympathetic to the sociospatial dynamics around children's voice and participation, the facilitated discussions legitimise and position students as respected researchers and experts of their environment who have opinions about decisions that impact the new garden and affect their school lives. The peer presentation experience not only exposes students to a new understanding of how participatory democracy can be achieved, but also enforces the possibility and acceptance of multiple interpretations of learning. Further, the public presentations play an important part in affirming children as key stakeholders and accomplished participants capable of brainstorming, thinking and finding out as a way of gaining and advancing knowledge.

In similar fashion, the research elements are further developed when students move outside the classroom to encounter the sights, smells and scale of the new site via initial surveying exercises. Strategic questions by the teacher (for example, how wide/long is the new garden area, how can it be used, where are the flat/sloping sections and so on) bring children into direct contact with the physical 'lay of the land'. While older students use trundle wheels and measuring tapes to gauge distance, younger students traverse the site with less sophisticated but equally effective technology by gripping pieces of string knotted at one metre intervals. Each time the children's hands touch a new knot they count and calculate an overall distance. As part of familiarising themselves with the site children learn the points of a compass that provide a sense of direction and capacity to track the seasonal movements of the sun. Equally, the concepts of 'orientation' and 'direction' allow children to consider the significance and impact of sunlight availability as well as protection from predominant weather patterns, which are key design considerations for any edible landscape. These 'ecological realities of place and planet' (Orr, 2006, p.10) include a focus on using design principles in relation to energy (sun and weather) and accessible resources (water, soil, vegetation) within the garden setting.

The children's newly acquired onsite knowledge informs subsequent mapping exercises that include three-dimensional 'bird's eye view' maps using crushed rocks, coloured glass, sand, sawdust and tanbark. As part of this process tables and chairs are removed from the classroom to allow students to spread out on the carpet and move freely around the modified space to access the available materials. The choreography of the room is a key determinant for encouraging students to carry out the task through thinking, moving, visualising and creating in ways that are different from normal day-to-day classroom learning. The impact of the visual order of the objects, the lack of furnishings in the room and the materiality of the objects that enhanced the pedagogical project are significant and enable all grades across the school to produce large format models that represent their early ideas (Figure 5.1).

Described as 'three dimensional try-outs' (van Dooren, et al., 2013, p. 68) that support children's experimentation and exploration of ideas, the children's models reveal pictorial and numerical representations that include a weather station, water feature, tree platform, pizza garden, river lookout and chicken shed. The materiality of the mixed supplies plays an important role in transforming children's theoretical design

Designing in the classroom Source

Figure 5.1 Designing in the classroom Source: Michelle Rayner.

ideas into a living picture. Dark tan bark represents a flower garden adorned with tiny orange pebbles; the seesaw is represented by a red and blue miniature plasticine model and the water feature is assembled with small white beans and blue coloured plasticine (to represent water). In this modelling process children are encouraged to apply theories (ratio, distance) where they calculate corresponding distances between the map and the actual distance on the ground. Drawing on complex mathematical literacies (measurement, scale), artistic, creative, engineering and design skills learned previously or as part of the modelling task itself, children are able to effectively communicate their ideas. The representations reflect enabling pedagogies that listen to the voice of the child and signify a respect for the different knowledges children can offer (Burke, 2007, p. 360).

At the completion of the initial design phase Michelle collates students' garden design ideas into a large-scale map or 'blueprint' that represents students' collective sense of their hopes for the garden. Describing herself to the children as a 'garden consultant' who listens and responds to the desires of her 'clients', she develops a landscape master plan as a whole school representation of children's design ideas. As a response to the complex task of incorporating multiple concepts, the large format master plan provides a visual explanation of what the garden will eventually look like and how it will take physical shape in real life. The blueprint plan becomes the 'go-to place' where children, teachers and the wider school community can engage with the newly envisaged garden (Figure 5.1).

I think one of the crucial things is that plan. Michelle's placed a lot of emphasis on the actual lay out plan, what we're heading towards, and colouring it in and having it all clear. She wants every kid to know: now, over there, that circle there, that's representing the pond we're doing, that's representing the building, that's representing this. And because it's not easy for little kids to see from a plan to a 3-D and a finished product, so they know they're not just doing something for the sake of doing it, it's like they know why they're doing it, they know what part it's playing in the plan.

(Principal, The Patch School)

Displayed prominently in the eco-classroom, the map becomes a focus of belief in the material realisation of the research and conceptual phase. Children are excited to observe their ideas in print and keen to share the ideas on the map that belong to them. As part of these conversations

I am interested in their memories of the early design stages that carried them towards the finalisation of the blueprint plan, and how in hindsight they make sense of the different design activities they participated in earlier.

At the start all we did was make designs where all of the things were going to go in the garden, we made models. You got to use your imagination and you just put all your thoughts down. Blue glass was used for representing water, plasticine to make sculptures.

(Connor, age 10)

Designing feels really good because you don't usually get asked every day to make something.

(Anna, age 12)

We had to do a lot of measuring, figuring north and east and the wind and the sun, where it was. That took months. So different plants can get sunlight, if probably the vegetables, the sun comes from probably the east gets more sun because they're the lower plants and then the higher plants get to go at the back.

(Sean, age 11)

Just getting your hands in it and just creating what you would like. I'm very arty. I like art so I really enjoyed that.

(Matilda)

We just drew stuff like what we wanted, and like most people wanted a little water thing, and tee pees and so we've got that in.

(Michael, age 10)

The students' reflections and memories are important for understanding how design becomes embedded in the children's learning. Responses of 'you got to use your imagination' and 'designing feels really good' capture strong student appreciation of opportunities to express original ideas and competence through creativity, imagination and design. Significantly the children's comments evoke the intense and embodied nature of the experience, suggesting the foundational importance of the earlier design work that involves their preparedness to participate as key stakeholders through 'multimodal means of communication' (Kalantzis & Cope, 2008, p. v). Further, their comments imply willingness and an appreciation to participate in consultative and creative ways that acknowledge them as having something to say about how the physical world is and how it might be shaped.

 
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