Exploring the possibilities of co-creation between children and design students of Estonian Academy of Arts in the new studio space of VIVISTOP Telliskivi

“Children are undoubtedly the most photographed and the least listened to members of society.“ — Roger A. Hart

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Students help children build arcade games of their own design. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia.

VIVITA strongly believes in children’s capacity to self-initiate and self-organise. To foster such attitudes and behaviours, we often encourage children to share their skills by organising and facilitating creative workshops for other children. This is how they build up their creative confidence and grow increasingly more aware of their own expertise and powerful voices.

“Amplifying children’s voices through designing for play allowed the students to develop empathy as a necessary skill to their design approach. As designers’ role moves gradually away from (only) making things, it is a crucial part of any design education to familiarise students with co-design methods applicable in a variety of real-life contexts.” — Kristi Kuusk, Head of Textile Department, Estonian Academy of Arts

With the open sharing of knowledge running as a red thread through all our activities, we partnered up with the Estonian Academy of Arts to offer an elective course on social design focusing on co-creation with children. For three months, a multidisciplinary group of 8 students partnered up with 14 children from VIVISTOP Telliskivi to tackle the brief of reimagining the new studio premises of VIVISTOP Telliskivi. The course was facilitated by VIVITA designers Eva Liisa Kubinyi and Vera Naydenova.

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The empty space triggers children to imagine endless possibilities. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia.

The soon-to-be inhabited space served as a trigger for countless new possibilities and alternatives for the organisation of the creative lab, both spatially and content-wise. This was an opportunity for design students to experience first-hand our ways of working with children and to consider how to incorporate our core values to further develop their design practice. Students were guided through a design process that involved collaboration with children from beginning to end. They reached new levels of understanding of how design decisions can protect children’s rights, facilitate children’s roles in society and ultimately, enhance children’s daily lives.

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In a warm-up activity, children navigate students through the VIVISTOP Teliskivi studio. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia.

The course began with students getting acquainted with principles behind designing for children’s rights and researching relevant tools and methods to encourage children’s participation in projects directly related to their learning environments, their development and recreation. As the collaboration between the Estonian Academy of Arts and VIVISTOP Telliskivi set the frames for an adult-initiated project, students and tutors committed to a process that would allow shared decision-making with children and involve them as design partners, making it possible to foster genuine participation. Creating the right conditions for children to take part on equal terms as the experts of their own realities helps them to articulate their own voices. Projects that support shared decision making with children empower them to change their surroundings and serve as their first experiences in assuming an active role in the democratic society.

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Children talk about their dreams while students actively take notes. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia.

Design, democratic values and citizen participation are directly interlinked. The built and the social environments are the result of design decisions that influence our behaviour, emotions and interactions, and this naturally affects children, too. To make sure their needs and desires are addressed, designers need to involve them in their ideation and decision-making processes and do so in ways that take into account their specific ways of communication and expression. To support this, the course followed a co-creation process structured by the students in iterative steps which spread over ten sessions:
1) meeting with the children and mapping the space;
2) observing and interacting;
3) mapping experiences;
4) defining problems;
5) research;
6) generating ideas, experimenting and seeking feedback;
7) selecting the ideas;
8) prototyping,
and finally
9) presenting concepts together with children.
This last stage was envisioned as an event of “togetherness”, a celebration of having worked on the projects collaboratively from start to finish.

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Children present their dreams to other children and students. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia

Due to restrictions related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, from mid-March onwards, the course had to be organised through distance learning, with half of the sessions happening via Zoom. Still, we strived to adhere to the initial course plan as much as possible. Unfortunately, creating prototypes together didn’t materialise, but children continued to give feedback and improve on shared ideas, actively taking part in person or online in six out of ten sessions.

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Meetings continue through interactive sessions via Zoom. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia.

Co-imagined possibilities for the new space

Throughout the process, VIVITA’s children expressed various desires that perhaps wouldn’t have been identified if it weren’t for this special collaboration with design students. Among them was the need to relax in VIVISTOP after a long school day and to enjoy some privacy or the opportunity to be “alone with others”. Solitude and relaxation were sought after just as much as active play and creation, along with the possibility to share the products of their creativity not only with other VIVISTOP members, but with their friends and families, and the community.

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Mapping of all the collectively imagined possibilities for the space. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia.

In conversation with the children, students identified potentials that were novel to the setup of the makerspace. This revealed the need to rethink the studio experience and incorporate playfulness, relaxation and time spent in solitude as part of the creative process. Thanks to the dynamic, playful and flexible co-creation process, the children’s boundless imagination took flight and their eagerness to share their thoughts paired well with the students’ readiness to listen actively and uncover the kids’ true, underlying desires. This led to a multitude of possibilities for reinterpretation of the space and how it could be used for creation and recreation. Taking into account VIVISTOP Telliskivi’s production capacity and available materials, children and students prepared seven unique proposals varying from permanent structures to temporary event concepts.

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Captions (from left to right): nature-inspired wall installation; DIY modular storage unit and exhibition furniture; public event series “Made in VIVISTOP’’ to showcase children’s projects; wigwam made from natural materials; playful objects made from industrial leftover fabrics; modular, stackable soft furniture for play and relaxation; experimental analogue machine for music and animation; workshop for experimentation with kitchen tools and unconventional materials. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia.

The process-oriented approach to the design brief meant that students had to let go of preconceived notions and attitudes in designing for children and assume new responsibilities in designing with children. They could no longer rely on familiar ways of using materials as starting points or collecting information through interviewing.

“As we are working as an extra tool that is driven by children’s dreams, we are currently ears and translators into this specific context.” — Course participant

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Design students and children figure out together how to connect materials. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia.

Mutual understanding, transparency and dependability are key to building a trusting partnership between children and designers, and leads to the design of objects, environments or situations that take account the children’s genuine needs. In the long run, child-centered approaches provide for more sustainable and durable design solutions. In their final feedback on the project, the children expressed that it was interesting and enjoyable for them to take part in the project, but what they appreciated the most was being listened to and treated with respect. It was important to them that their participation could continue online despite the circumstances.

“[This project] taught me a lot about losing control in the entire design process. As a product designer, I am usually the only one that takes decisions and here I wasn’t, the children were. I don’t feel like I designed something, I feel like we designed something together. [It] reminded me how important it is to listen carefully and not listen to change the conversation in my direction.” — Course participant

Children were involved on a voluntary basis, however, their sense of belonging to the space of VIVISTOP Telliskivi helped build their motivation and commitment throughout the project. The semi-structured process and the employment of playful elements was crucial to the effectiveness of the partnership built between children and students as it created an engaging and safe atmosphere.

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Design students and children test out the collaboratively created structure. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia.
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Partnership is defined by imagining, making, testing and playing. Photo credit: VIVITA Estonia.

VIVISTOP Telliskivi provided a low-threshold context for design students to interact directly and design with children. In return, the Estonian Academy of Arts students helped open the door to meaningful changes in the children’s creative learning environment. At the conclusion of this fruitful collaboration, we are especially thankful to all the participating children for their willingness to share and the design students for their “open ears” and tireless commitment to this project. All co-created proposals are considered as new starting points in the process and we are committed to continue involving the children in developing them further. Lastly, this project convinced us to stay open to and invite future collaborations with designers and educators who wish to explore the possibilities of co-creation with children.

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Kids and Youth Creativity Accelerator

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