Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Creating Wobbly World -- An Interview with Liza Rawson and Cas Holman

Recently Liza Rawson, Head of Exhibition Development + Design at the Liberty Science Center (LSC), and Cas Holman, founder and principal designer at Heroes Will Rise, were kind enough to share some thoughts about the Wobbly World exhibition for early learners (aged birth to 5) at LSC that they worked on together as part of a complex collaboration with many other creative partners.  (In the photo at the top of this post, Liza is on the left and Cas is on the right.)

What prompted your collaboration on Wobbly World?

Liza: We had been playing around with the concept of balance for a young learner gallery for a while. The idea had a lot of the qualities that we look for at LSC. It’s rooted in science, connects to art, lends itself to interactivity and iconic features, and, importantly, inspires and draws inspiration from early learners, who experiment with balance from their very first movements. Balance is something that adults will understand and kids will do. In a nutshell, balance is an invitation to activity. 

Our goal was to turn this concept into an iconic, child-led, no-fault play zone that supported kids’ open-ended exploration, experimentation, performance, and imagination. A place that meets kids where they are in their development at a particular moment, but allows for and accommodates their growth and expanding abilities. And a space that was beautiful, delightful, joyful, and accessible for children and their adults, and completely unique to LSC.

Totally out of the blue, a former colleague reached out and told me I had to watch the Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design, specifically the episode featuring Cas -- Cas Holman: Design for Play.

I knew Cas’s designs—the big blue Imagination Playground blocks and the building system Rigamajig—but the episode really dug deep into her design process and philosophy and I was hooked.  I watched it twice in a row—the second time I took notes! 

Cas’ way of designing toys and manipulatives that inspire intuitive, imaginative, open-ended, collaborative play across a broad range of ages and skill levels really resonated with our own approach. Cas’ belief in children’s agency to direct and shape their play and, by extension, their world, seemed like a natural fit for Wobbly World.

I wrote to the general “contact us” link on the Rigamajig website asking if Cas would be open to coming to play with us to re-conceive our existing young learner gallery and to our delight she accepted.

Cas: The first few meetings with a new collaborator or client feel a lot like a date. Are we compatible? Do we understand each other? Do we inspire each other to imagine something exciting?  In our initial video call, Liza explained the broad strokes of what they were interested in. It aligned with what I’m interested in designing, so we met again.  

The second meeting was with Paul [Hoffman, LSC’s CEO] for a tour of the space, and that’s when it became really clear that we could create something really special. We spent a morning together walking around LSC and in their descriptions of the exhibits I heard: trust of children, respect for open-ended activities, and a desire to have truly unique spaces that put play at the center of the learning. Clearly, we were meant to collaborate. 

Why is the exhibition called Wobbly World?

Liza: Nearly every movement of early learners exemplifies the concept of balance—of being unbalanced, off-balance, and rebalancing. From the time babies first try to balance their big heads and sit up (and fall over), to their first steps and beyond, children are testing and strengthening their balance skills with their bodies and with things. As they grow, kids naturally experiment with balancing blocks, food on a spoon, and other objects. 

In addition, we were conscious that this generation of children in particular has had a formative relationship with the unknown, the unpredictable, and the imperfect. We wanted to create a space that through play, allowed more comfort with the precarious balance we live in. We wanted a play space where process, exploration, and curiosity are valued over known outcomes and mastery.

When it came time to choose a title, we brainstormed a whole list of words that might express the activity of both balance and unbalance. Wobble World was the top pick. But when Cas was prototyping with kids, they kept calling it Wobbly World because they thought it was more fun to say. And they were right!

Cas: The entire design, prototyping, fabrication, and installation process happened in the midst of the pandemic. Along with all the reasons Liza listed relating to a toddler’s experience embodying balance, we, the adults, were experiencing new challenges to balance in our lives. I love that we created a space where we can see, manipulate, and play with our Wobbly World. Notice the goal is not to control or fix it. The activities are wobbly and stay that way. 

What are the most surprising or unexpected visitor behaviors in the space?

Liza: The Body Mobile is the central feature of the gallery.  It’s an interactive, full-body, collaborative experience, inspired by the stabiles of Alexander Calder, where kids work together to move elements that spin, rotate, teeter, and wobble. 

When we first opened in late fall 2021, we noticed that children were hesitant to play together, preferring to be alone or with a caregiver. We wondered if it was because they had few opportunities to be together in a shared and collaborative play environment due to the pandemic. Thankfully this seems to be less of an issue in recent months.

Another unexpected behavior is how kids play with the Balance Blocks. The blocks are surprising shapes that allow kids to build off-kilter structures that balance (or not). The blocks slide into a puzzle wall for storage. We were surprised by the number of children who are more interested in the puzzle wall and cleaning up than building. 

Cas: I’m curious to continue learning about how children are using the Balance Blocks. We playtested them early and found that kids loved them, but they are a very new idea and there is a lot to learn there. We designed them to facilitate trial and error, pattern matching, and process over outcome. The forms do not lend themselves to building any particular defined thing, but rather a somewhat zen stacking and restacking of the pieces. I call them “precarious stacks.” So far visitors have engaged extensively with them, and I suspect as they become more familiar with the whole space, we’ll see them settle in to engage with each feature for longer periods of time. 

What lessons from Wobbly World would you share with other folks developing early childhood spaces?

Liza: One of the more challenging aspects of thinking about an early learner space is the big differences in development in this age range, and creating a space that can “grow” with the child as they move through developmental stages and can safely accommodate the different levels of energy, coordination, and size.  We knew we had to design a space welcoming and safe for infants, five-year-olds, and everyone in between. 

We thought hard about zones based on different levels of ability–a level, simple crawl space for the littlest ones vs. a wobbly off-kilter series of platforms and ledges to challenge the oldest. And we limited the age of children who could enter the gallery to five and under. 

Cas: Because of the zones and variety of needs within this age range, we spent a lot of time considering the flow within the space. As elements within the space changed throughout the design development, we continuously returned to flow. It was important to the team that we kept a defined space for quiet, focused play. The tendency is to put up dividers or walls, which obstruct sightlines so caregivers can’t see their children. I think we successfully provide multiple modes of play while keeping the space open and sightlines visible. 

What aspects of your design foster adult/child interactions?

Liza: We thought about this a lot and did prototyping around our mobile-making and scale stations to ensure we could create spaces that naturally welcomed adults and kids to work together. These experiences are small motor activities with lots of loose parts.  We designed several stations of different heights and points of access, so an infant can stand and play at the lowest tables while a higher table can accommodate a seated adult and older child. Seating is cleverly integrated into the play spaces–like the tiered platforms (we called them “cake steps”) on the BalanceScape, built-in benches close to activities, and having the Balance Blocks double as moveable seating,  

Cas: I really like that the design affords adult-child cooperation and child-child cooperation. My preferred type being unfamiliar children interacting and cooperating. In the Body Mobile, a child might be using their body to spin something and realize that another child is making them bounce! Or they may sit on a curious shape and see another similar shape a few feet away that will “activate” the one they are sitting on. When another child comes along and sits, they are suddenly playing!

Can you give us basic numbers -- cost(s), square footage, etc.? 

Liza: Our approach was a collaborative design-build process with the LSC team,  Cas’ studio, Heroes Will Rise, Art Guild, Bala Engineering, and Focus Lighting. Due to the pandemic and the always-changing availability of materials, we were constantly iterating. Costs per square foot ended up at about $500, excluding internal LSC personnel costs. The gallery size is 2540 square feet.

Does Wobbly World create content connections between other LSC spaces?

Liza: Nope!  The goal was to create a space uniquely for this audience.

What were your choices regarding digital technology in Wobbly World?

Liza: To not have any.

How did your design decisions accommodate the wide developmental differences between children birth to age five?

Liza: Before we began to design, we did a deep dive into children’s developmental stages to ensure we were providing relevant experiences. As we moved through the design process we went back to the framework to check the design against the research.

One of my favorite pieces of information, that LSC’s developer Lauren Aaronson uncovered, was that toddlers fall down an average of 17 times per hour while learning to walk (yup, neuroscientists have counted), so we made sure to have a deep layer of shock-absorbing carpeting cover the gallery floor!

Cas: The beauty of open-ended activities is that children are figuring out what it is, and how to use it by playing with it. The features meet children where they are. Some of the features were designed with a specific age in mind, and some are features that facilitate different play for different ages. 

How did aesthetics inform your decisions during the development of Wobbly World?

Liza: The aesthetics were hugely important. One of our core goals was to create a beautiful, welcoming, bright, and sophisticated space. Cas was incredibly thoughtful about all the possible permutations of materials and colors for every surface and part. Each element was carefully considered to balance and play off each other on different scales. The shapes of the blocks are repeated in the pieces for the Mobile Making station and in the overhead motorized mobile hanging off one of the arms of the Body Mobile.  

The colors are repeated in the floor, the graphics, and each of the elements. Focus Lighting contributed to the look and feel through clever lighting techniques that washed the walls in a glow and lit the mobile so it animates the space with movement and color. The graphics were a collaboration with Cas and LSC designer Naomi Pearson based on shapes that mirrored the blocks and other exhibit elements. 

Cas: The driving formal concept was to create forms that were unfamiliar and undefinable (open-ended for the imagination). We wanted visitors to recognize the shapes in their many different scales—from the 3” version they use to make the scales move, to the 3’ version they walk across, to the 6’ version they sit on with their friend. 

The color palette varies from the somewhat muted tones of the floor and built-in multi-level elements, to the bright jewel-tone color accents. These inspire stories or signal interactivity at specific points.  Children have very sophisticated color palettes, and variations in color and texture become their own play inspiration. 

Liza: It is a joyful space that delights our littlest guests and their adults. I couldn’t be more proud of our awesome team listed below!

LIBERTY SCIENCE CENTER: Lauren Aaronson, Naomi Pearson, Kengo Yamada, and countless others!

Thanks again to Cas and Liza for sharing the scoop on Wobbly World!

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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