The New Planner — Summer 2013

Designing Our World:
Introducing Children to Planning

By Carol Myers Flaute

A day camp sponsored in part by the University of Georgia is introducing middle school students to architecture, landscape architecture, and planning — with the hope of inspiring the next generation to enter a design field one day.

Created through a collaboration between the Gwinnett Environmental & Heritage Center (GEHC) and the University of Georgia's College of Environment & Design (CED), the "Designing Our World" camp offers a one-week program for students ages 11 to 13. Over the course of a week, the children take field trips, practice using design tools and techniques, and discuss issues related to planning and design. In addition, they have the opportunity to meet and interview design professionals, including some CED faculty.

In its first three years, "Designing Our World" has given more than 40 middle school students a taste of what it is like to work in environmental planning and design fields.

In addition to providing a unique and engaging experience for campers, "Designing Our World" is well aligned with the educational objectives of both collaboration partners. For CED, the camp presents a great outreach opportunity to introduce potential future students to the majors it offers, such as landscape architecture and environmental planning.  For GEHC, which is housed in a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold facility, "Designing Our World"offers a chance to share information about sustainable construction and land use practices. GEHC now handles most of the responsibility for organizing, marketing, and running "Designing Our World," but during its initial design and implementation phases, a CED graduate student developed the camp, helped lead it, and served as a liaison between GEHC camp staff and CED faculty.

Camp Structure

While the exact order of events is flexible to accommodate the schedules of visiting professionals, camp activities generally progress from a small spatial scale to a large one: architecture, then landscape architecture, then community planning. The activities for each topic usually begin with an introduction to tools and techniques used in the field, followed by examples of their applications. For instance, campers learn about architectural scales and drawings well before they begin activities focused on green building or disabled access. Combined, this progression from small to large, and from technical to applied, best enables each day's activities to build upon what was covered the previous day.

Some of the basic architectural topics addressed include architectural styles, construction drawings, scale, and model building. The highlight of the week for most campers is the construction of a model tree house.

'Designing Our World' campers design and build a model tree house — the favorite project of most camp participants

"Designing Our World" campers design and build a model tree house — the favorite project of most camp participants. Photo Carol Myers Flaute.

For landscape architecture, much of the focus is on creating site plans, including selecting plants, and ensuring that basic needs such as safety, access, and comfort are met. Some sample landscape architecture activities include suggesting improvements to GEHC's main entrance, touring GEHC's butterfly garden with the master gardener who designed it, and creating site plans for a hypothetical dream park.

Some of the camp's planning activities focus on community character, infill development, and adaptive reuse. One simple activity involved having campers rate how well statements like "it is easy to walk from place to place" and "there is an interesting mix of building styles" fit their community. The survey revealed that even 11-year-olds can have strong opinions about topics like sprawl and cookie-cutter houses. During a lesson on infill development, campers were asked to draw building facades that either complemented existing buildings or were not at all appropriate for the space.

Some tasks, such as role-playing an interaction between a client and a design professional, are applicable to all three career fields. In order to make some of these potentially dry concepts accessible and interesting to middle school students, every attempt is made to engage the campers by relating activities to experiences the children have had in their own lives or people and places they are likely to have heard of. In addition, whenever possible, the campers are given the opportunity to experience or observe each topic firsthand, either at GEHC or on a field trip.

For this infill development activity, half of the campers were asked to draw a new building that fit in well with existing structures, while the other half were asked to draw a building that was inappropriate for the space

For this infill development activity, half of the campers were asked to draw a new building that fit in well with existing structures, while the other half were asked to draw a building that was inappropriate for the space. Photo Carol Myers Flaute.

Downtown Buford Field Trip

One of the field trips the children participate in during the week is a tour of downtown Buford, Georgia. This gives them a chance to view a variety of architectural styles, and also provides great opportunities to discuss planning concepts such as adaptive reuse of historic structures and how the city's form relates to its history.

Buford's predominant influence for over a century was the presence of Bona Allen, Inc., a successful tannery and leather goods manufacturer that finally closed its doors after a fire in 1981. Because of the company's longtime success, the town's main street is lined with fine examples of a variety of architectural styles, including Georgian, Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Italian Renaissance, and Craftsman. The juxtaposition of mansions and former factory buildings on the main street with nearby mill housing provides an interesting talking point. An active railroad, which once carried supplies and products to and from the factories, still runs through the middle of town.

The idea of introducing middle school students to concepts like architectural styles and a city's form can be intimidating for camp leaders. Several things helped make this field trip a success.

First, the camp leaders contacted the town's historical society to gather as much information about the town's history as possible. Sharing historical influences and personal details about the people who built many of the houses holds the children's interest much more than a strict focus on architectural styles ever would have. Second, downtown Buford, like many other towns, is centered around a town square. Scheduling the field trip to allow for a lunch in the square provides shade and a welcome break. Third, and probably most important, the field trip is always preceded by an activity that introduces some of the architectural styles to the children ahead of time, to give them a feel for the kinds of features that make each style unique.

The first year that "Designing Our World" was offered, camp leaders were surprised by how excited the children were to see real-life examples of the types of buildings they had seen in a slide show an hour before. While there are many great learning opportunities within a classroom, nothing beats the experience of observing something firsthand. Buford made a particularly good field trip site because of its architectural diversity and manufacturing past, but every town has a history that might help excite young minds about planning or a related field.

Campers view a large Georgian home in downtown Buford, Georgia. Buford's architectural diversity makes it especially suitable as a field trip destination

Campers view a large Georgian home in downtown Buford, Georgia. Buford's architectural diversity makes it especially suitable as a field trip destination. Photo courtesy Brian Sterner.

Careers in Planning and Design

One of the best ways for children to learn what design professionals do is to meet the professionals and see examples of their work. Each year, "Designing Our World" campers encounter architects, master gardeners, and landscape architects, including some University of Georgia faculty from CED. The design professionals have all represented their fields differently, according to their own backgrounds and interests. For example, CED faculty Scott Weinberg and David Spooner have both visited the camp as landscape architects, but Weinberg introduced campers to park design and AutoCAD, while Spooner focused on site planning and hand graphics. Regardless of the topic, the campers were very eager to be talking with and doing activities with real design professionals, and their enthusiasm was so much greater than it would have been if the same topics had just been covered in activities led by camp staff.

The professionals who have participated in "Designing Our World" have found it to be a rewarding and eye-opening experience.  Weinberg commented on the "unbelievable enthusiasm" of the students, remarking that "they were all engaged and asked many good questions.  They also did not hesitate to give their own opinions."

Campers look on as visiting landscape architect Scott Weinberg walks them through an exercise using AutoCAD to create a plan for a park

Campers look on as visiting landscape architect Scott Weinberg walks them through an exercise using AutoCAD to create a plan for a park. Photo Carol Myers Flaute.

Pratt Cassity, from CED's Center for Community Design and Preservation, was amazed at how quickly the campers picked up on concepts that often take college students several lectures to understand. Cassity also found it encouraging that the gender bias toward male participation that tends to be evident in design professions by college age was absent from these middle school students; male and female campers found it equally suitable to participate in design discussions.

Overall, the camp's guest speakers have expressed satisfaction with the experience, and most have indicated that they would enjoy the opportunity to share their work with children again.

Tips for Starting a Camp

While architecture, landscape architecture, and planning tend to be thought of as complex fields, "Designing Our World" demonstrates that they can be made interesting and accessible to middle school-aged children.

For professionals or universities that might be interested in starting a similar program in their area, GEHC and CED offer the following suggestions:

First, partner with an educational center with existing programs for the age group you would like to reach. In such a partnership, the educational center can host the event, market it to its existing clients, and provide experienced educational staff, allowing design professionals to focus on the parts of the program where their expertise is most needed.

Second, while "Designing Our World" is a week-long camp, potential outreach opportunities with this age group can be as short as an hour or two.

Third, anticipate the need to be flexible, as every group of children has its own unique personality and interests. Have a back-up activity planned, and be prepared to adjust the time allotted for activities depending on how well they are being received.

Finally, to the greatest extent possible, make sure that everything you do is hands-on, visual, and engaging.

Carol Myers Flaute

Carol Myers Flaute earned a Master of Environmental Planning and Design degree in December 2012 and an M.S. in Conservation of Ecology and Sustainable Development in August 2007, both from the University of Georgia. As a College of Environment & Design (CED) representative, she developed the "Designing Our World" camp, was in charge of running it in its first year, and helped run it in its second year. She is currently seeking employment as an environmental, urban, or regional planner. Author photo courtesy Courtney Goldman Photography.