Saturday, October 23, 2010

How to Survive Living with Kids

During the course of our endless, one-wall-a-year kitchen renovation, young designer Aldo Lavaggi loaned us the architecture student's Bible, a seminal text called A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Alexander, Ishikawa, Silverstein et al, Oxford Press). In this text, architecture is broken down into primes, as the study of patterns of living, a means of structuring physical space for human application. Surprised and delighted to find a book that explicitly delineates how to organize space to survive life with children, I want to quote verbatim the section these writers call "Children's Realm":

"If children do not have space to release a tremendous amount of energy when they need to, they will drive themselves and everybody in the family up the wall."

I could not have said it better myself. In New York state, trampolines are all but illegal; two home insurers cover them. In my household, the trampoline is an essential (outdoor) energy-releasing space. Next in the book is a photo, entitled "A frenzy in the dining room," then the text continues:

"For a graphic example, visualize what happens when children bring in friends from school and have a whole number of ideas in their heads about what to do or play. They are loud and boisterous after being pent up all day and they need a lot of indoor and outdoor space to expend all this energy. Obviously, the mood calls for space which contains long distances because they suggest the possiblity of physical freedom much more.

And, in general, a child's world is not some single space or room - it is a continuum of spaces. The sidewalk where he sells lemonade and talks with friends, the outdoor play area of the house into which he can invite his friends, the indoor playspace, his private space in the house where he can be alone with a friend, the bathroom, the kitchen where his mother is, the family room where the rest of the family is - for the child, all of these together form his world. If any other kind of space interrupts this continuum, it will be swallowed up into the child's world as part of his circulation path.

If the private rooms, the couple's realm, the quiet sitting areas are scattered randomly among the places that form the children's world, then they will certainly be violated. But if the children's world is one continuous swath, then these quiet, private, adult places will be protected by the mere fact that they are not part of the continuum. We therefore conclude that all the places which children need and use should form one continuous geometrical swath, which does not include the couple's realm, the adult private rooms, or any formal, quiet sitting spaces. This continuous playspace needs certain additional properties.

1. Children are apt to be very demanding of everyone's attention when they are in this specially energetic state. The mother is particularly susceptible to being totally swallowed up by them. They will want to show her things, ask her questions, ask her to do things..."Look what I found. Look what I made. Where shall I put this? Where's the clay? Make some paint." The mother must be available for all this, but not forced to be in the thick of it. Her workroom and the kitchen need to be protected, yet tangential to the playspace.

2. The family room is also part of the continuum since it is where children and the rest of the family have contact with each other. The playspace, therefore, should enter the common area -- preferably to one side - see COMMON AREA AT THE HEART (129).

3. The children's private spaces (whether they are alcoves or bedrooms) can be off the playspace, but it must be possible to close them off. Children naturally want to be exclusive at times -- they often invite their closest friends into such a space for a private chat or to show off some prized possession.

4. It is usually too expensive to create a special playspace; but it is always possible to make a hallway function as the indoor part of the playspace. It needs to be a bit wider than a normal hall (perhaps seven feet) with nooks and stages along the edge. Children take up the suggestive qualities of spaces -- on sight of a little cave-like space, they will decide to play house; on sight of a raised platform, they will decide to put on a play. Thus, both indoor and outdoor parts of the playspace need different levels, little nooks, counters, or tables, and so on. A lot of open storage for toys, costumes, and so forth should also be provided in these spaces. When toys are visible, they are much more likely to be used.

5. The outdoor space just adjacent to the indoor space should be partially roofed, to provide transition between the two and to reinforce continuity.

...If the home is organized so that the children's world gradually spreads throughout the home, it will disrupt and dominate the world of tranquility, preciousness and freedom that adults need to live their own lives. If there is an adequate children's world, in the manner described in this pattern, then both the adults and the children can co-exist, each without dominating the other.

Start by placing the small area which will belong entirely to the children - the cluster of their beds. Place it in a separate position toward the back of the house, and in such a way that a continuous playspace can be made from this cluster to the street, almost like a wide swath inside the house, muddy, toys strewn along the way, touching those family rooms which children need - the bathroom and the kitchen most of all - passing the common area along one side (but leaving quiet sitting areas and the couple's realm inviolate), reaching out to the street, either through its own door or through the entrance room, and ending in an outdoor room, connected to the street, and sheltered, and large enough so that the children can play in it when it rains, yet still be outdoors."

This has certainly given me insight into why my house and my nerves are in a constant state of uproar. Please comment if you have figured out how to better organize your space along these lines, in order to save your sanity.

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