“We shape our buildings, thereafter our buildings shape us.” – Winston Churchill
Source of quoted text: www.fengshuilondon.net
The environment that we live in has a huge impact on how we behave – human psychology is directly related to architecture. To study user psychology, when designing spaces for adults is feasible as adults can articulate their ideas in enhanced ways. But what about children, who not only are unable to get a say in shaping their environments but also are the most affected by it. Academicians agree that the built environment is highly responsible for molding the social, emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of children. Due to the lack of attention and the unfamiliarity of architects to the psychological characteristics of children, there is a pressing need to have a proper understanding of their perception of spaces. It is essential to study architecture from the perspective of child psychology.
Let us first categorize children in different stages of age, as done by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and investigate the psychological characteristics of each stage.
The four stages are as follows:
1. Sensorimotor: Birth to ages 18-24 months
Children spend the most sensitive years of their life in the family and home environment, and each of these two factors impacts the child’s behavior and character. Child growth at the time after birth (especially till three years age) is the foundation for its later life. The period sees the growth of children in different aspects occurring through basic reflexes, senses, and motor responses until it reaches the later stages of development. As the child learns to walk in this period, an environment of adequate day-lighting and freedom of movement are key characteristics for this stage.
2. Preoperational: Toddlerhood through early childhood (age 7)
Early childhood is a period of incredible fantasy and wonder. Through sensorial and motoric activities with others, children rapidly develop their language and communication skills. During this stage, children begin thinking about things symbolically. This is the ability to make a thing stand for something other than itself.
For example, empirical research found that hospitalized children reacted regressively after recognizing the unfamiliar conditions of their ward. The indoor environment of a hospital, limited children to practice different motoric and sensorial activities, and induced stress, boredom, and anxiety. On the other hand, when they played in the ward’s garden, they became aware of the presence of animals such as birds and insects.
3. Concrete operational: Ages 7 to 11 years
This is the period when the child gets enrolled at a school, and begins its formal education. Piaget considered this stage a major turning point in the child’s cognitive development, as it marked the beginning of logical or operational thought. Psychologists have researched the area of school satisfaction, in regards to this stage.
In the simplest terms, school satisfaction would mean statements like “I like being in school” or “There are many things about school that I like.” Understanding that school satisfaction is subjective and depends on a vast number of reasons, psychologists and researchers listed out all the factors that affect it. These factors included environmental characteristics such as school social climate, classroom structures, school organization, as well as person-centered correlates such as peer contexts, academic ability, gender, race, mental health, and family contexts. As architects, attention towards the environmental characteristics could improve school satisfaction, and consequently mental health, and academic success. This would include school practices that:
- enhance children’s meaningful connections to others in the school environment (more interactive spaces),
- enhance children’s sense of competence as learners (self-regulated learning), and
- promote a sense of autonomy and self-direction (accessibility)
4. Formal operational: Adolescence to adulthood
At this stage, the adolescent begins to think abstractly and reason about hypothetical problems. They become capable of seeing multiple solutions to problems and start to think scientifically about the world around them.
What is common with all these stages is the need for a sense of attachment to the place. Children of all ages, at home or school, are in an attempt to own a space. They prefer smaller and more intimate spaces, an area of research for the concept of a school within a school. Traditionally, a school within a school approach establishes within the school, a smaller educational unit with a separate educational program, its staff and students, and its budget – with common spaces like an auditorium, playground, etc. This model has been proven to have benefits like- a greater sense of belonging, involved faculty, and an enhanced self-perception of the student, to name a few.
Apart from this, the psychology of color and forms has been given substantial attention by psychologists researching this area. This includes a basic understanding of various colors, the emotions they evoke, and where to use them in the built form.
Nonetheless, this area still needs further research and practice. A trans-disciplinary approach is needed to integrate the concepts of cognitive development and architecture. The importance of this approach needs to be realized because when we design spaces for children, we design our future.