Architecture and Design Pop-Up Play

by Chad Kennedy, ASLA

Children used left-over paper tubes, rope, and other materials to design chairs, cabins, and other cool things during the Modesto Architecture Festival
Children used left-over paper tubes, rope, and other materials to design chairs, cabins, and other cool things during Modesto Architecture & Design Week. / image: Chad Kennedy

Most autumn Saturday mornings at the downtown library in Modesto, California are decorated with shoppers and families enjoying artisan organic foods and searching for hidden gems and trinkets at a seasonal farmer’s market along a closed-off section of 17th Street. There is always plenty of music, food, and social dialogue, and everyone enjoys themselves. Once a year, however, this same location is overtaken with laughter, giggles, and smiles as hundreds of families and children swarm the area, overshadowing the events of the farmer’s market, to participate in an annual pop-up play event meant to raise awareness within the community about the design industries.

This pop-up play family event was developed by members of the local ASLA and the AIA chapters as a way to involve children and families in the wildly popular Modesto Architecture Festival, a week-long festival celebrating local architecture and design (now branded as MAD Week). The hope was that over time, more of the community would become familiar with the design professions and enjoy what they have to offer. The pop-up play family event is consistently held on the third Saturday of September each year, and this past year was the eighth consecutive year it was held. For months prior to the event, a team of landscape architects, engineers, library staff, architects, and volunteers coordinate and determine how to bring their skills and passions together to best showcase how fun design can be. Those same professionals donate their time and resources as they gather on the day of the event to mentor, guide, and help families learn, play, and enjoy their time together.

image: Chad Kennedy

Over the years, children and families have been introduced to a variety of activities that encourage them to expand their minds, develop their creativity, and get their hands dirty. A few highlights over the years are shown below as examples of what activities have been enjoyed:

Children learned about sustainability as they built a dog house from insulated foam building panels and installed an actually plumbed and irrigated live green roof. The green house was then auctioned off and proceeds went to a local charity who was building the City’s first dog park. / image: Chad Kennedy
Children used rolled-up tubes made from left-over magazines and tape to create engineered trusses that formed stable arches and domes. / image: Chad Kennedy
Children worked with structural engineers to build structures out of household materials (like spaghetti noodles, straws, and marshmallows) and then tested them for seismic stability on an earthquake table to see how they would stand up to lateral movements. / image: Chad Kennedy
Children were challenged to think in three dimensions as they were provided with 3D puzzles of architectural landmarks, insects, planes, and other items. Puzzles ranged in difficulty from simple (only ten or so pieces) to difficult (hundreds of pieces). / image: Chad Kennedy
Children get their hands dirty as they learn about plants, how to pot them, and the importance of soil and water. / image: Chad Kennedy
Children participated in a Cardboard Challenge competition during which they had all the cardboard, doohickeys, markers, crafts, and tape they could ever want. They were given no rules governing what, or how, to develop their ideas, just free reign of loose materials and access to adult guides if they needed them. First, second, and third prizes were awarded for the most creative use of the materials on hand. Winners created a guitar, a moving scroll video game, and a 3-dimensional dragon. / image: Chad Kennedy
Children typically have free play options as well, such as drawing, coloring, and Legos. Many of the children that come are exposed for the first time to Lego and other fun crafts. / image: Chad Kennedy

Other activities children have engaged in during the event include: architecture-themed reading time in the library, architecture exhibits in the children’s department of the library, architecture drawing competitions, spatial planning games, life-size Jenga builds, loose play corners, AutoCAD and SketchUp learning stations, and much more.

This past year the ASLA California Sierra Chapter also utilized its Park-in-a-Pod concept to make the event more comfortable, playful, and engaging through the addition of color, shade, and seating that is otherwise unavailable on the grounds of the library.

This event is now under the umbrella of a larger effort known as the Modesto Design Collective that hopes to expand on what amazing things have happened in the community and looks forward to exploring more ways to introduce the community to the amazing world of design.

Chad Kennedy, PLA, ASLA, CPSI, LEED® AP BD+C, is Co-Communications Director and Past Co-Chair of the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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