Creating Playful Spaces

Posted by Liz Kramer July 15, 2021


Thirty-eight high school scholars from across the St. Louis region harnessed their creativity and powers of visualization as part of the Design Thinking course for WashU’s College Prep Program. 

The College Prep Program seeks to help talented high school students from the St. Louis region succeed in college. For three years, they are immersed in a learning experience designed to support first-generation college students in preparing for academic success through an intensive summer session and academic year programming, which includes workshops, and learning opportunities.

This year, senior lecturer Audra Hubbell developed a hybrid experience for the College Prep scholars that gave them the chance to explore the concept of play in public spaces. The course met one day per week in person, with the other days held online. 

Students worked in small groups with one teaching assistant to learn about the concepts and benefits of play, including how play can be applicable to people of all ages and what play looks like when it’s designed. 

Some of these lessons were delivered by experts who virtually visited class. Jayvn Solomon, a designer in St. Louis, spoke about LouTopia, his concept for integrating artists, designers, and creative people of all kinds into the landscape of St. Louis. 

“Solomon is a graphic designer, but he’s devoted all of his attention to spaces,” Hubbell said. “He showed us that anyone can see the world around them as a canvas and offer something.” 

Samantha Lee, founder of Pocketparks, a nonprofit organization that reimagines and redevelops unused plots of land to provide communities with active and beautiful recreational spaces, also joined the class. Lee led a workshop to help students conceptualize their ideas, developing from a single word and feeling to a full concept. 

“Lee showed prompts of shapes and asked the students to think about their response to the shapes,” Hubbell said. “She used a series of questions to help the group get from the inanimate object to a persona. They then created a mind map of responses, which evolved toward what a park bench would look like.” 

In their small groups, the students collectively identified a theme they wanted to respond to. Themes ranged from topics like LEGOs to mushrooms to abstract art. Each student then selected a site in their own neighborhood, or somewhere else that inspired them — a vacant lot, a bus stop, etc. They also went out and took pictures of different places and sites. 

At the end of the project, each student created a proposal for their playful space. To get to that final proposal, they created in-depth sketches, built models, got feedback from family and friends, and finally, created a cardboard prototype. Each student designed a website to share their proposal and process. The final concepts were presented to the whole class, and the websites were shared with family and friends. 

“It was extremely inspiring to see just how much of an impact these students could have on their own communities, even if they came into the course with no design experience,” said teaching assistant Emma Schumacher, who is studying communication design. “Design thinking encourages students to consider all possibilities, regardless of how outlandish they may be, which opens many doors beyond traditional takes on community engagement. The work I saw from students as a result was innovative, unique, and confident, opening them up to a process which has little constraints in turning an idea into reality.” 

Schumacher was one of the eight WashU student teaching assistants — 2 graduate students and 6 undergraduates, most with some connection to the Sam Fox School — who worked with the Design Thinking students.

“Design is rarely taught in high school, and it was great to be able to expose the students to a new way of making and learning,” said MFA-IVC candidate Jillian Ohl, who was also a teaching assistant. “Unfortunately, as students make their way through school, they are encouraged less and less to create and use their imagination. It is rewarding to be able to give them that chance to be creative again.” 

The final proposals responded to the groups research and prototyping, developing ideas that responded to the audiences they had explored, including children and adults. 

“At the end of the program, watching everyone's project presentations made me so happy,” Ohl said. “It was so exciting to see what all of the students came up with and the wide variety of ideas. Their designs were so considerate of their audience and being inclusive.”  

Learn more about the College Prep Program.