Designing for a family learning: safe space and facilitating independence

by Lilia Efimova on 19 February 2016

I’m trying to articulate what are the ingredients for mixed age learning that includes adults and kids as a series of posts. In the first part I talked about the importance of including meaningful activities for adults. A family-friendly environment is important as well.

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When Anna was a baby we spent hours in our local library. The part for the young kids had a playspace, a mat where a baby could lay without a risk of being stepped on and a coin-operated toilet in sight of the playspace. Both of my kids had something to do there and I didn’t have to take both of them with me to the toilet because it was a few meters away from the place where Alexander would play. I could also help him to open the toilet and then he was fine on his own. And, as a bonus, books in English were close to the area, so I could pick up something for myself with a few extra minutes.

After renovation and redesign of the library things have changed. The kids area moved up, adding stairs or elevator to the path to reach it. Baby mat disappeared. Toilets were now further away and behind the corner, not directly visible from the play area. So every time one of my now three kids wanted to go to the toilet, I had to take all of them along. After walking back and forth to the toilets nobody had the energy to walk to the part of the library where I could get books for myself. Needless to say that our visits to the library became pretty unfrequent until the kids became older and could handle a few minutes of not having me (or the door where I went) in a view.

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When kids are relatively small (say 0 till 10), parents spend a lot of time sorting out the logistics (getting there, food, clothes, toilets and stairs) and overheads (planning and communicating on behalf of the kids, taking care of safety of a child and people/things around her). Some parents have to juggle taking care of multiple kids of varying ages and interests. In a homeschooling settings all those tasks come next to the actual work of facilitating kids’ learning.

Designing for a family learning means creating an environment that doesn’t complicate or, better, lifts up parents’  caregiving load, so they have energy not only to get there, help their kids and keep everyone safe, but also to do something meaningful for them.

I find two things important for that: creating safe* space and facilitating independence of every family member at their own level. Those factors are usually more or less present in the houses of homeschooling families and it doesn’t take long for the guests to learn how to operate in the space. When families get together in a space that is not designed for families, the following things might be good to think about:

  • clarity and basic rules about the basics – food and drinks, accessible toilets, using space and materials, safety concerns;
  • safe place/materials/activities in sight of adults to keep younger kids busy;
  • easy access to space, materials and tools that older kids can use by themselves without asking permission;
  • time, tools and expectations that everyone puts things back and helps to clean after themselves.

* Safe might not be the right word here. Too safe kills all the fun. Something like “serving basic needs and not creating unnecessary obstacles or risks” would work.

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