This year, Children’s Mental Health Week is taking place between the 1st and 7th of February. The theme in 2021? Express Yourself. Children across the UK have had a pretty rough time as of late. The various lockdowns have prevented the normal kinds of social stimulation so vital for childhood and teenage development. That’s why – arguably more than ever before – we need to look for greater and more varied ways in which our younger generations can express themselves.
The built environment has a big part to play in that; whether in our schools, our public spaces or anywhere else for that matter. The team here at Munday + Cramer, who have provided architectural design and project management for countless school projects in the past, wanted to look at the role architecture has to play in aiding the mental health of young people and, in particular, how it can help children better express themselves.
Designing For Wellbeing
Countless academic papers (the majority of which are far too lengthy to unpack in this blog post) have shown the importance of encouraging creativity and expression within children. In facilitating this encouragement, it’s important to recognise one of the most fundamental differences between children and adults – the way we view the world. For children, the world they inhabit is simply one big playground; an imaginative fantasy in which every aspect can serve as inspiration.
That’s why building design is so important in a developmental context – because what, to adults might simply seem functional, to children represents something else entirely. The materials used, their colours, the decorations chosen, the spatial organisation of a building and much more all have their part to play. The idea of mental ‘fatigue’ is something we’re probably all grappling with at the minute. For children, however, this lack of stimulation has had an amplified effect. Architecture has previously been shown to help in combating such fatigue.
Back in 2003, for instance, The New York Academy of Medicine surmised that “Architectural features that support fascination, curiosity or involuntary attention ought to enhance recovery from mental fatigue”. Never will architects have had as great a responsibility in helping the younger generations than they will post-pandemic.
Thinking Outside The Box
Clichéd though the phrase “think outside the box” might be, there’s a reason that history tends to favour its more lateral thinkers. Children’s spaces are (obviously…) designed by adults and whilst academics and psychologists alike can debate until the cows come home as to just “what’s best” for a child’s mental development, there’s an argument to say… why not ask the children, themselves?
Now we’re not, of course, suggesting that you go and give a four-year-old free reign over the design of a new kindergarten – fun though the results would unquestionably be – but in gauging what’s important to a child, from the child itself, is almost always going to end up in a space more suited to them – more suited to stimulating their minds.
‘Greenery’ Within Architecture Has A Huge Part To Play
Something that children are being asked to do, more specifically, as part of this drive to ‘express themselves’ is to ‘dress to express’. This got us to thinking, why shouldn’t our built environment be the same? Now we’re not just talking about the odd draping of colourful bunting here (though that’s always a sure-fire way to liven the place up), we’re talking more broadly about the role of greenery and plant-life in supporting children’s mental health, particularly in urban areas.
Meta-analyses have previously shown a significantly higher prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders in urban areas when compared with their rural counterparts, and though no causal relationship has yet been shown, it wouldn’t be surprising were there to be one. The more oppressive, hemmed-in and typically grey nature of towns and city environments is almost always going to be conducive to poorer mental health than when compared with the more expansive, nature-filled alternative of the countryside. That’s why the idea of the urban jungle is so important, especially in a time where children are being almost-constantly confined to the four walls of their home.
Designing Interesting Buildings
A Move Away From The “Pre-Fabricated”
Pre-fabricated and so-called ‘flat-pack’ designs have seen prolific successes over the past half-century or so; their standardised approach to construction and design is undeniably cost-effective and efficient. These paint-by-numbers buildings don’t exactly inspire, however. If we want the mental environment of our children to be varied and well-rounded growing up, then their external environment must match this.
Exploration, for instance, is one of the purest, most unadulterated of all childhood joys. If architects can look to introduce more interesting and organic approaches to the spatial design of buildings and encourage that spirit of adventure and exploration, then children will get more out of the space serving them.
The Power Of Patterns
Of course, good design doesn’t just constitute the spatial planning of a building. It includes its overall feel as well, and what better way to introduce an ‘expressive’ feel to space than by using patterns. Babies have been proven to show interest in patterns in the world around them from a remarkably early age. There’s a much broader developmental reason to utilise patterns in building design beyond simply keeping the little ones entertained and out of your hair for a few minutes, however.
Patterns help children better understand and make sense of the world around them, in fact they’re vital in that regard. It figures that a drab and uniform building won’t do much for the mind of a child. Incorporate a variety of patterns, however – whether that be in the interior design, the way shapes are organised or anything else – and a child’s imagination will be much more stimulated.
In Order To Function, We Must Look Beyond Simply Functionality
Functionality will of course be amongst the leading decision factors in the design of our built environment, and rightly so. What good, after all, is a building you can’t use? However, if the past year has shown us anything (and particularly in the context of children’s mental health) it’s that our spaces need to enrich us as well as simply being places which we occupy. If we’re asking children to express themselves, then shouldn’t we aim to do the same?
Contact Munday + Cramer
So, if you’d like to find out more about our school projects or about any of our other services (which include building surveying, bid applications and project management) then get in touch! Contact us on 01245 326 200 or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Children’s Mental Health Week, visit their website here!