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“There are no more broken noses”

Kim Thomas

Clara Gaggero was a student in industrial design and engineering at the Royal College of Art when she read about Futurelab’s Innovate to Educate award, which was inviting students in higher education to submit ideas for digital learning resources. She and fellow student Sabine Fekete were already working on a digital educational project, and so together they entered, and won.

The design that wowed the Futurelab judges was called dot°, an interactive playground that could be unrolled like a carpet and used outdoors as well as in. Pressure sensors and lighting illuminated games onto the surface of the playground, with the aim of combining the fun and engagement of a video game with the pleasure of physical exercise. Instead of being restrictive or prescriptive, dot° would engage children’s imaginations, enabling them to create their own games.

Having won the award, Clara was able, with the help of Futurelab, to test the idea out with children at Villiers High School in Southall, who, she says, responded enthusiastically: “It’s amazing how they interacted with the moving lights – they were running everywhere. Instead of looking at a screen they are actually inside the video game. After the first test we asked the kids to draw what they did the week before, and lots of them interpreted the light in very crazy ways: some designed clouds of light, some designed flowers, others designed fishes. What they remembered about dot° wasn’t an array of lights; they really saw everything – planets and flowers and spaceships.”

dot° was the first project Clara developed working with users, and now, she says, she tries to involve users in every project she does. After dot°, her next piece of work was a creative learning space for the new BBC Media City in Salford, which will house the BBC departments making programmes for children.

The aim of the creative learning space is to allow the BBC to test new programmes or new ideas to see how children will react. It has been designed to be used by children of all ages, from the very young to older teenagers, and to be as flexible as possible. “The whole space is like a canvas: you can project things on each wall, so if a 6 year-old group comes you can project cartoons on the wall, and if a 16 year-old group comes, you can project maths tests on the wall.” The creative learning space is divided into three areas: an office; an area where children can edit and watch videos; and an internal garden that joins the areas together.

After completing the Salford project, Clara returned to Villiers to tackle something different: a playground for teenagers. The school had been having problems with the existing 1750m2 playground, because it seemed to be a focus for aggression and violence, with some students even having their noses broken. In fact, at lunchtime the space was only used by 30 or 40 students, with the rest choosing to stay indoors. The school obtained funding of £25,000 to redesign the playground, and because it had been impressed with Clara’s previous work, in particular her willingness to consult the students themselves, it invited her back.

The school had already been approached by makers of playground equipment, who had wanted to install slides and swings, which clearly would have been inappropriate for teenagers. Clara, by contrast, ran three workshops with students to find out what they wanted, which was a space in which they could socialise freely. The teachers, meanwhile, were keen for her to create a space that would minimise playtime fighting.
With the students’ help, Clara came up with a design that breaks up the playground area using lots of large concrete blocks. Two moulds were used to create the blocks: one in the shape of a bench, and the other a box with two sides missing. Altogether, they created 35 precast benches and 25 precast boxes. By putting the blocks next to each other, or putting one on top of the other, Clara created different kinds of spaces where students could stand, sit or climb. The blocks were painted a bright green. (You can see pictures of the finished result on the homepage of Clara’s website www.claragaggero.com).

The idea was to create territories in the playground, where teenagers could socialise with their own circle of friends. “The less prescriptive the spaces, the more people will find a corner,” says Clara. “In this case, their way to play is socialising – they are in that stage where you hang around and talk, so it just needed a lot of spots to chat.” Since the blocks were installed in May, the playground has been used much more extensively. Now, at lunchtimes, there are about 700 students using the space: “They found their own area – people who were a bit more extrovert were always in the centre of the playground and people who were a bit more shy were always on the borders.” What is more, Clara adds, the sense of danger in the playground has disappeared: “Since May there have been no broken noses.”

The school was so pleased with the result that Clara has been invited back for another project, this time to design a sixth-form common room to be situated in the former canteen. Again, she began by carrying out three workshops with the sixth-formers who would be using the room. It was the students who, having been given a floor plan, divided it into different areas: a group study area, an individual study area, and a relaxation area, complete with beanbags. It was hard to convince the teachers of the need for the relaxation area, says Clara: “I had to say ‘It’s better if they sleep in the common room than during the lesson, so why not give them that corner?’”

The individual study area is situated in a corridor running between two triangular rooms (the group study area and the office for the head of sixth form). This internal corridor is lined with two long tables and a row of chairs facing each wall. There is also a space outdoors where the students can take their laptops if they prefer to study outside.

Clara says that working with Futurelab helped her learn a lot about how children play and about the importance of working with users. While she hopes to design more educational spaces in future, she is already busy with other projects: “The thing I love most in my profession is the continuous challenge.”