Nooks and Crannies

Dana Bauer
May 01, 1997
sketches of various places in museum

"The first thing you'll see is a huge ear." Jawaid Haider warns me. But as we enter the main floor of The Children's Museum of Manhattan, I am unprepared for the brightly colored, 14-foot replica. My first instinct is to run over and start playing. A crowd of kids, less than half my age and height, has beat me to it. They are buzzing with excitement as they explore its nooks and crannies: bouncing on the trampoline eardrum, sliding down the red plastic cochlea, wiggling through stiff strands of rubber ear hair. Something inside of me leaps with them. If it weren't for the watchful eyes of the adults looking on, I would climb up the metal steps of the ear cartilage and, like the other kids, take my turn testing the strength of the human eardrum.

digital rendering of museum entrance

"You're allowed to play, you know." Haider, a Penn State associate professor of architecture, looks at me and smiles. I raise an eyebrow. I am here on assignment, tagging along with Haider and one of his undergraduate students, Ray Maggi, to children's museums in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. Haider is in the midst of writing a book about spaces for children. He has spent the past few years visiting museums, trying to understand how children perceive space. Sometimes he takes his own kids with him. Usually he works alone. As I weigh the professional consequences of playing on the job, I start to wonder if Haider wants to test the eardrum too.

"I've been interested in architecture and children for about nine years," he told me as we sat in his office several days before our trip to New York. "Since I became a father myself." Photographs of his twin sons Asad and Shuja (their names mean brave in the Urdu language) at various ages lined the desk and walls. Twins mean twice as many toys underfoot, twice as many playmates clambering about the house, and twice the chance for Haider to observe how kids take in their surroundings. Watching his boys grow made Haider realize that the world is not sensitively designed for kids. But, he insists, it doesn't have to be such a poor fit. "It's a challenge," says Haider. "As an architect, you have to be thoughtful and sensitive to children's needs. They can't articulate what they want, so we have to interpret their wants." In 1991, with a research grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Haider began to focus on how the design elements used in children's museums could be applied to buildings for children in other arenas, such as libraries, schools, and day-care centers. Since then, he has narrowed his study to the four design elements he thinks are especially important to children: multisensory issues, space-body relationship, juxtaposition of scales, and appeal to both children and adults.

Space-body relationship? Haider thought for a moment and then his face lit up. "When my boys were about five," he began, "my wife and I took them to Sears and had them pick out a swing set. After you put one of those things up, it takes a few days for the concrete to set. So, we made them wait to play on it. We set a time, say Sunday. They were so excited they could barely wait. Sunday came and we said to them, Go! They ran right out there to play. A short while later my wife put some big boxes out in the garbage. The kids abandoned their new swing set and played with those boxes for over an hour. Kids like spaces that they can crawl into, nooks and crannies to touch, explore, kick around if you will. All those things are so much a part of the experience of a child."

Several wooden boxes, sturdier imitations of the cardboard boxes Haider's boys liked so much, stand in the middle of the floor of the mezzanine level at Manhattan, overlooking the giant ear. Half a dozen kids are crawling underneath, jumping on top, sliding down the sides. The exhibit is called Tar Beach, based on the children's book by artist and writer Faith Ringgold. It is a view of New York off a Harlem roof-top. On the basement floor of the building, a rush-hour mob of four-year-olds moves past me noisily. I sit down on a molded orange plastic seat as a man's voice over the intercom announces our destination. Nearby, children pretend to steer stationary child-sized subway trains.

As I step out of the elevator onto the second floor, a semicurved wall covered with storybook murals in rich blues, reds, and yellows surrounds me. I scan the murals trying to interpret the story; my eyes stop on a glowing blue hole in the wall. I see that it is a cubby hole about a foot wide. The top of it comes up to my knee. I get down on all fours and poke my head inside. The hole extends another two feet up behind the wall. The blue light shines from its ceiling; its walls are made of reflective metal. It is a different world. The inside of a space capsule, or 20,000 leagues under the sea, or maybe even a silver-lined cloud. I stand up, hitting my head, just as Andy Ackerman, the executive director at Manhattan, emerges from his office. He welcomes Haider and me in for a discussion. "Right outside my office," Ackerman says as we pull chairs up to a cluttered conference table, "there's a tiny little blue crawlin space." Haider and I laugh. "I see you already found it," Ackerman says, smiling. "Now the parents can find their children in there very easily. But for the children that's a private space, that is their space. It is clearly not meant for an adult. And it has mystery inside, because of the lights and the mirrors and all of that. So the combination of it being your own, and a sense of mystery and imagination. There are children who can sit there for ten or 15 minutes. And where their minds go, we'll never know."

A public television show Haider wrote and helped produce, "Architecture and Children's Museums: Through the Looking Glass," shows clips of kids climbing, exploring, and romping through children's museums in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia. "People, especially children, measure the space they occupy by the size of their body, so spaces have to appeal to both the mind and the body, " Haider explains in the video. At the Boston museum, children negotiate an exhibit called the climbing structure, a maze of wooden platforms and cutouts in mid air. Signe Hanson, the director of exhibits, interviewed in Haider's video, describes it as an exercise in mathematics. "It's about estimating how your body works through space," she says. In the Treehouse at the Philadelphia Zoo, children squeeze themselves into the combs of a giant bee hive while a bumble-bee twice their size hovers above. "Children enjoy things on three different scales: miniature scale, child scale, and larger-than-life scale," says Haider.

We find larger-than-life scale as soon as we enter the Brooklyn Children's Museum. Although the main doors are at street level, visitors are immediately drawn underground, down a huge metal tube ringed with colored neon lights. The museum calls it a "people tube." It looks to me like a giant city drain pipe. Inside of it, water cascades down a wooden shaft, complete with a water wheel and large rocks for dam-building. At the end of the tube, a room with large panels of colored glass windows and a bright, airy nature exhibit welcomes visitors like the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The people tube cuts the box-like shape of the building in half diagonally and connects exhibit spaces at different levels and on both sides of the museum. Outside of it, the museum feels very spacious, very open. The architects left some of the structural elements of the building exposed. Across the ceiling the beams and water pipes run perpendicular to each other in bright blues, reds, and yellows. A concrete pillar extends from the floor to the ceiling. One wall has been left unfinished, its dark, knotty wooden planks separating the exhibit spaces from the museum's large auditorium. I see that the outside of the tube is made of a crude aluminum metal. Haider explains that this allows the children to experience the different textures of the building.

I start at the top of the people tube and slowly descend to the bottom exhibit, my fingers trailing in the flowing water as I walk. About a third of the way down, I come to a two-foot gap between sections of the tube. Two of the building's four split levels transverse the tube at a skewed angle. Access to the side exhibits on these levels is through such gaps. Here I can choose between an exhibit about sleeping on my left, or one on musical instruments to my right. I go left and find Haider and Maggi standing in the Ready, Set, Sleep! room. A giant wooden bed covered in blue and yellow star-patterned fabric rests in the center of the room. In the corner, lullabies in a dozen different languages play at the touch of a button. Dolls lie sleeping in cradles about the room. Haider tells me that there used to be a giant sleepyhead as tall as the ceiling in this room. Kids could crawl inside of it to learn about thinking, speaking, and dreaming. Haider stares at the bed, as if imagining the giant sleepyhead in its place.

Maggi surveys the room, holding a video camera in one hand and a sketch book in the other, ready to capture children at play. (Although Maggi has helped Haider on different projects, his senior thesis is a bit off the track of children's architecture: a shopping center that travels by railway. He got the idea while sitting in a caf? in Italy, he told me, with fellow architecture students.) This afternoon, we seem to be the only three in this part of the museum. Haider explains to me why the side exhibits could be so easily overlooked by visitors. He sees my furrowed brow and tries again. I'm still confused. "Can you explain Ray?"

Maggi puts down his video camera, and tries, gesturing with his hands. "The tube takes you from one end of the museum to the other," he tells me. "When you're standing at the top, your eye isn't drawn to the side exhibits."

I suggest a solution. "What if the tube branches off into each of the side exhibits instead of just having gaps in the sides, like a secondary drain pipe merging with the main one?"

Maggi considers my idea for a moment. "Maybe," he says.

I ask Haider what else he might change about the museum. He gets down on his knees. Children cannot see over the wall bounding each split level, he explains, so they may overlook the exhibits below. The wall comes up to my waist and I have an excellent view of the entire room. Then I kneel down like Haider and my view is blocked. "Like in the kitchen," Haider says, "kids want to see what is on the counter." I imagine teams of architects moving through spaces on their knees, trying to see the world from a child's perspective. Maggi suggests they put several small windows in the wall so kids can peep through.

Earlier, Haider had said to me, "We don't live in a kiddy world. Adults and kids must interact. We tend to separate people: children, adults, the elderly. Spaces have to appeal to everybody, especially in public buildings." He cited the circulation counter at Schlow Library in State College as a example of a design that meets the needs of both children and adults. The counter has steps built into its side that allow children to see what is going on when they check out books. "What the architect did there is very sensitive to children," said Haider. "It allows them to experience things they wouldn't otherwise experience."

Schools can be improved by sensitive design too. When Haider's twin boys entered preschool, he recalled, their classroom was in a basement room with no windows. Every room was a box-like cell off a long symmetrical corridor. "They hated it," said Haider. "A lot of schools are like prisons. We can do better than that."

Claudia Leal, a graduate student working with Haider, designed a different sort of day-care center for her master's thesis. (She won an honorable mention award at the 1996 Penn State Graduate Research Exhibition for the design.) Her work forced her to view things with a child's eyes, she told me. "I was sitting on the curb one day watching cars go by," said Leal. "I thought, They look huge. Children probably see it this way." In one of Leal's designs, the entrance to each room in the day-care center is the facade of a house. "Children can see the day-care center as a home," Leal said. "They can pick a house and say, I belong to this place. They are away from home but can still feel like they are at home. I tried to design and create spaces where children can feel safe and secure. Everything is scaled in a way that defines and creates a sense of place for children." Leal filled each space with different textures and colors to provide an appropriate environment for the children throughout the day. For relaxation and nap time environments, Leal used carpet and wood; she decorated with warm colors like yellows and oranges. She included semicircular partitions that children can pull together to form a private space for napping or quiet reflection. For activity and learning environments, Leal designed polished surfaces with bright blues and greens. Each room in Leal's day-care center has doors on a child's scale, alongside the doors for adults. "One day, if the children want to feel like adults, they can cross through those doors."

The first thing I noticed when we approached the museum in Manhattan was the two handles on the door, one at adult level, the other at child level. I immediately thought of Leal's doors. In both of the museums I visited, I saw evidence of the design elements Haider felt were of importance to children: the bright neon lights and rushing water at Brooklyn appealing to a child's senses, the blue cubby hole at Manhattan helping children measure and explore space with their bodies, the giant ear creating a feeling of wonder because of its larger-than-life scale.

As Haider, Maggi, and I leave Brooklyn, surfacing to ground level through the giant people tube, Haider talks about how both the exhibit and the space the exhibit occupies must be designed to engage the visitors of a children's museum. "It's very easy to design gadgets, and buttons that kids can press. They will press all the buttons, then they will get bored. But an empty box," Haider smiles now, perhaps thinking back to his twins. "Kids can manipulate an empty box in so many ways. The child's imagination works with the box."

Jawaid Haider, Ph.D., is associate professor of architecture in the College of Arts and Architecture, 203 Engineering Unit E, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-0875; Funding for his research has come from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Graham Foundation, and from the College of Arts and Architecture. He will publish his research in a book titled Designing Spaces for Children due out later this year. Claudia Leal received her master's degree in architecture in Spring 1996. Ray Maggi graduates this spring with a B.Arch. Dana E. Bauer is an undergraduate student who is still not too old to play at museums (and in boxes.)

Last Updated May 01, 1997