It was the 70s and Lego, in the boxes of his famous bricks, he put a sheet. It was an indication for parents. “The urge to create is equally strong in everyone. It is the imagination that counts, not the ability. It is right for girls and boys to build whatever passes in their heads, and in the way they prefer. It's important to get the right material in their hands and make sure they create what they like best”.
Beyond the Danish giant, forerunner of an educational approach that has always been a school, designers and planners have been struggling and struggling, since the early 1900s, with the spread of Maria Montessori's pedagogical methods still used today throughout the world . The question remains: how to design products that know how to combine the useful – stimulate, educate and make the game grow – as a pleasure – and not the dust of some forgotten shelf?
“There is nothing more serious than the game, said Bruno Munari. And he was right” says Silvana Annicchiarico, the architect who in 2017 curated and designed the edition of the Triennale Design Museum Giro Giro Tondo. Design for Children, an exhibition and historical journey on what Italy has designed for children, from toys to furnishings, from graphics to urban architecture.
“Whoever dismisses play as a playful activity of little relevance in life and in training has not understood the centrality it assumes in the processes of growth and knowledge of the world of a child” says Annicchiarico. “Often it is with play that the child experiences and acquires his space-time coordinates. And he can also do it with a bottle cap: the important thing is to let your head travel and ignite the imagination. Sometimes, certain objects that are too designed, too closed, lead to only mimetic or repetitive actions that do not necessarily stimulate the imagination and creativity. A well-designed object is not the one that satisfies the eyes or expectations of adults, but the one that triggers the imagination and frees the child's mind”.
Doing so is not easy. In fact, the list of those who have ventured into the kids design challenge is long. The first to experiment with the theme were Gerrit Rietveld, Alvar Aalto and the Eames (later followed by Enzo Mari, Riccardo Dalisi, Kengo Kuma, Philippe Starck, Nendo, Marc Newson, Piero Lissoni to name a few). How many have really succeeded in the intent?
“Certain games designed by Charles and Ray Eames designed and designed for children drive adults crazy, but leave little ones cold or indifferent” continues Annicchiarico. “Like House of Cards, a paradise of order and rationality in which everything is already planned and the child is not given the opportunity to interact or break the mold. An analogous discourse for the Eames' Plywood Elephant, designed in 1945: a delight for the eyes, an incredible formal lightness, but which serves more to experiment with the production of complex objects in curved plywood than to ignite the imagination”.
“Between a Munari game and a puppet, what would a child choose?”, Italo Rota wonders. The Milanese architect, in addition to having designed museum installations, houses, shops, clubs and hotels all over the world, has designed the Bruno Munari Theater in Milan, named after one of the most important personalities in the world of design for children, author in 1980 of Pre-Libri, a cult collection of books for under 7s.
“Design for children was born with the wealth of the West, in the East there are no similar examples” continues Rota. “Just go to the most desperate places on earth to find out how toys are replaced by guns, food, waste. With us there is a tendency to keep children in a sort of prolonged childhood: it would be important instead to push the little ones towards asymmetrical creativity and show them constructive examples, in any field”.
How you do it? According to Annicchiarico with open objects, in fact. Suggestions given to the little ones designed with the tip of a pen. “Like marbles, Lego or hula hoop”.
Objects able to last, therefore, and able to create a bond of affection with those who use them. “Growing up by playing with good design means appreciating the beauty of the products that grow with us, communication wells that help us to nurture affection and passion for what surrounds us in our homes.”, says Matteo Ragni, who has created together with other designers ToBeUs, a series of wooden toy cars. “The houses where I lived with my children have turned into disposable toy dumps, while the few toys we have kept – like Enzo Mari's 16 animals – are the ones that have been able to become life companions”.