Archives for posts with tag: affordance

In this article I explore some thoughts about…

  • What environments say to us about individual’s rights and societies expectations and culture?
  • How can the design of environments and spaces in the public and private realm shape how we feel?
  • Is a focus on function and form enough when planning street furniture, spaces and buildings?
  • What do we understand by function? – As in the literal function of something, e.g. as a bollard to stop cars damaging a tree, property or people, or its wider cultural and emotional affordances, as an indicator of the value placed on pedestrians as opposed to cars?
  • Does it matter and how might it help better shape environments for children?

Take a look at these bollards on two Budapest streets and jot down any thoughts and reactions that they evoke. I did just that and this is what my list included. I then grouped these into the following different themes:





Eye catching







THEME Novelty

Sense of humour




THEME Playful


Art forms

Public art

‘Look at me!’


Reclaiming the streets

Pedestrian power THEME Control


Influenced by the world of design and planning (the focus of my MA); our knowledge of the emotional benefits of the environment and the importance of sensory engagement for wellbeing; and the exciting field of new materialism (the idea that environments and objects shape us as much as we them, and the potential in the ‘space’ in between this intra-action, for creating and experiencing a unique assemblage), four qualities of spaces and environments emerge for me:

Legibility – how clear it is about how spaces, structures or environments can or should be used and experienced?

Emotion – if and how spaces, structures and environments influence our feelings?

Safety – how safe or unsafe these spaces, structures and environments feel?

Engagement – if and how these spaces, structures and environments invite or resist interactions and if so, whether as individuals or groups?

All the above factors will influence an individual’s and community’s sense of Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence within the space. These three psychological needs are cornerstones of Deci and Ryan’s Self-determination theory (2000) which is founded on the idea of humans being naturally curious, and provided they feel secure, intrinsically motivated to explore their environment. Relatedness encompasses caring for others and feeling connected and belonging to a community, while ‘competence is defined as the need to experience oneself as effective in interacting with one’s environment’ (Whipple, Bernier & Mageau, 2009). Autonomy is about having a sense of being able to make your own choices and is not at all equated with independence. If all of this seems unrelated to those bollards let me try to make the connections!

ARC in Action

If we view bollards simplistically as a barrier to movement, then we see that a barbed wire fence will fulfil much the same function as the bollards, but with startling different effects:SMALL arc BOLLARDS

Of course, barbed wire is an extreme, but there are a plethora of other barriers to our entry in streetscapes around the world, which have been created with their function, (primarily as a device to keep people out), prevailing over form. Without much if any consideration, these utilitarian designs will be subtly influence if and how we interact with environments, how we behave, how we experience these environments and how they make us feel.

Returning to the 4 qualities identified above, lets compare our potential experience of the following environments as pedestrians:

  1 2 3
LEGIBILITY I can choose to move quickly or slowly. I feel safe and protected. I have permission to move within the barrier. The barrier is to keep me and the tree safe not to restrict my movements. This space is part of the public realm and I can use and enjoy it. This is not intended for me. If this sturdy building is at risk from cars then I must be too. This is a space to move quickly through. I need to be cautious and vigilant as there is a danger of hazards. I am not allowed to access this area. I don’t belong there and it is not mine to use. I mustn’t be curious but accept the limitations. I can’t interact with the environment.
EMOTION A sense of fun, laughter and playfulness. I feel positive and enriched. I feel capable and in control of myself. I feel like a valued member of the community. I feel liberated not trapped. Austere, harsh and jarring. An eye sore and reminder of the power of the car. I feel on the periphery. Excluded and caged. Trapped and not free. Negative and controlled. Questioning why the area is restricted and is it safe.
SAFETY I can interact with the environment and feel empowered by it. I don’t need to rush. I could pause perched on a bollard and children are beckoned to run around the bollards. I must be unsafe. Accidents are likely. I need to be vigilant, cautious and not linger. Cars are threatening and powerful. I am vulnerable. Is the fence protecting something or keeping me safe? What’s the threat? How could I safely get over the barrier if I needed to escape? Am I being watched to see if I behave?
ENGAGEMENT My interaction is welcome and invited, whether as a positive feeling when quickly passing by or as an open invitation to linger and pause.  I have a strong sense of autonomy, relatedness and competence (ARC). My interaction is not welcome. The colour and stripes make me cautious and alert. This is not a place to linger. I don’t have rights of way. I don’t feel valued, capable or in control so have a poor sense of ARC Keep moving and don’t come too close. Lingering here could be seen as loitering with intent. If I look round, I’ll look guilty.

I don’t feel included, able to make choices or interact with the environment so have a poor sense of ARC.

These are just four possibilities and you may have come up with your own equally, if not more valid tools for appraising spaces, structures and environments, in which case I’d love to hear these. Of course, I’ve purposely picked extremes of environments for maximum effect, but I hope in doing so it has made apparent the effect, whether intentional or not on our experience as pedestrians. So far we have viewed this through the lens of an adult, but change the scale to introduce the child’s perspectives, and these positive or negative consequences are potentially considerably greater.

Context is Key

Returning to those delightfully animated bollards, their designer clearly understood the importance of context and consistency, ensuring that the paving and other street furniture – in this case the wonderful eye-like tree openings, acted in harmony with the jaunty bollards, so that they complemented rather than competed with each other. Quality materials were also key, as was a natural palette of colour that would have been intrusive. Rather than creating them in highly visible colours and uniformly spaced and angled, which would facilitate quicker and easier parking, the bollards serve as a traffic calming measure, effectively slowing down manoeuvres and reclaiming the streets for pedestrians. For a child coursing down the street the quirky angles break up the bollard’s height, provide a sense of movement and invitation for a child to run round them. They also create exciting shadows to be noticed and delighted in.

I’m conscious that by trying to quantify something ethereal I may be devaluing the very source of wonder and delight which was worthy of sharing! Like Maria’s Montessori’s plea that we don’t try to ‘pin the butterfly to the board’ in our eagerness to understand a child’s actions. The best design solutions are not born out of a checklist of do’s and don’ts, but an awareness of the power vested in environments to shape people’s experience, emotions and perception of rights and values.

Food for thought

Having praised these bollards for their playfulness and appeal to people, unfortunately this is the very thing that’s missing from the photo! So picture a child you know (or the child within you!) and think about if and how they would notice, react to, interact with and be affected by these quirky structures? What might they do? How would they use them and the space? How might their experience of these differ to the utilitarian bollards in the article? Now think about the environments in which children spend much of their time – these are likely to be early childcare centres. Next time you have an opportunity, position yourself at a child’s height and consider how does the existing design, layout and qualities affect children? Try to view he environment and spaces through the lens of a child. What messages and emotions do the spaces and designs convey? What changes if any, could improve children’s experience? Whose purpose do they fulfil? What impact, if any, do they have on children’s sense of safety, control, rights and values?

I’d love to hear your ideas and any challenges you may have to my wonderings!

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Sue’s inspirations and background

Sue Gascoyne is a qualified Town and Country planner with a focus on design, conservation and architecture.

Sue is also a qualified Creative Arts & Play Therapist – an area which has given her an insight into the impact of environments on children’s emotional, behavioural and cognitive wellbeing.

As an Early education researcher, with a specialism in sensory engagement, environments and new materialism Sue has an interest in not just the affordance of environments but how these actively shape human’s actions and experiences as agents in intra actions.


shell-sand close upIf we take the time to watch children, and I mean really watch them rather than pre-judging or paying lip service to this as we busy adults are prone to do, then they can do as Rudyard Kipling suggest, ‘teach us delight in simple things’. It doesn’t happen though unless we give them the time and freedom to become truly absorbed in whatever captures their interest, be it an unusual stone, an insect or inviting puddle.

If you’ve ever tried to walk anywhere fast you’ll know how much there is for young children to marvel at in everyday life and how open they are to its possibilities. Us adults in contrast miss so much by virtue of being in a rush and plagued by preconceptions. With this in mind storytelling guru #MiltonErickson implores adults to look afresh at our environment saying “Did you know that every blade of grass is a different shade of green?” 1 In so doing we can open our minds to new possibilities and be rewarded with wondrous awe and wonder, discovering a wealth of patterns, symmetry, joy and inspiration in everyday nature.

If you need a reminder of nature’s awe and wonder then google ‘sand grains microscope’ on the internet and be amazed by the gloriously detailed, highly patterned images that you will see.  I guarantee you will never look at a sandy beach in quite the same way again! Inspired by the sticky globule left by some gorgeous Longiflora lilies, my 11 year old dusted off her magnifier to take a closer look. What followed said it all, as she gasped with awe as a multitude of dash-like lines came into view. How fitting then that her science homework was to create a cell? Choosing a plant cell to make, she set to work with jelly, a bouncy ball and loom bands to create the different #cell parts! If you want to have a go at making your own cell or even a cellular cake, check out For more microscopic inspiration treat yourself to The Natural World Close Up (Giles Sparrow, 2011). Much more than just a coffee table book, children and adults alike will be wowed by the close up views of nature revealed. So go ahead and enjoy nature close up this weekend.

1 (My Voice Will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson, Sidney Rosen, 1991).

Image source –

After some intensive days at the recent international ECEERA conference I made some time for some R and R. On a beach near Porto I sat absorbed watching the children (of what appeared to be two families) enjoying their time at the seaside. Whilst walking along the beach, the children (two girls aged about 5 years and two boys aged about 18 months) had stopped surprised by a sudden surge of water landing nearby. Each time a wave hit the beach, jets of water were sprayed in the air by a natural rock formation. Their parents loitered, presumably unsure of whether the children were ready to move on. After some time stood watching, one mother and father sat down on the beach clearly detached from play. The other father in contrast remained standing, closely watching, offering a supportive and encouraging hand to his toddler and periodically joining in with the children’s play.  Chasing them in and out of the narrow channel of sand between the rocks further enhanced the children’s excited squeals. As if attached by an invisible thread the father kept tabs on his tottering son and the two excited girls. His subtle presence and ever ready hand to steady his teetering son supported his exploration and venturing ever closer to the sea.

A game then developed between him and the other children. It was not clear who had instigated this timeless game of chase by a ‘monster’ but judging by their outstretched hands, excited cowering behind their parents and shrieks of joy when tickled, the children were clearly enjoying it. The father masterfully maintained a conversation with the adults whilst occasionally lurching towards the children, making tickling gestures. Every now and again he interrupted his discussion to chase them, generating peals of laughter and delight. The playful and attentive disposition of this father were evident as from time to time he threw a cupped handful of sea water over the seated adults and took delight in grabbing them with his icy cold hands – this was the Atlantic after all.  Throughout he skilfully and effortlessly attended to the children’s needs, supported without stifling and joined them in their game.

One particularly playful episode culminated in the father picking up his daughter by her legs and pulling her along the sand towards the water edge where he dropped her in the sea. What happens next gives a real measure of his playfulness as seeing his daughter crying it appears that his boisterousness behaviour may have backfired as she has scratched her tummy on the course sand. He looks at her with concern and then seemingly reassured that she is ok, drops immediately to the ground gesturing for the two girls to drag him to the water. Unable to pull him, he uses his body to help them manoeuvre him to the sea where they triumphantly ‘drop’ him. His actions instantly transform the atmosphere, uniting the children and him and infusing the moment with fun.

With his involvement reaching a natural conclusion, the two girls run up the steep sandy bank that you have to negotiate before reaching the sea, running back down with arms outstretched, screaming as they do so. It’s not long before the young boys join them and all four are happily engaged in walking up the bank and running down it towards the sea, experimenting with their noise-making as they do so.

Sitting there taking it all in, I couldn’t help think that this beach offered huge play potential and affordance in two key ways. The natural rock formation with its intermittent jets of spray and the inviting sandy bank provided excitement, surprise, interest and challenge for these four children. But this alone would not have been sufficient to engage them without the positive emotional environment provided by that playful father. This play episode encapsulates perfectly the dance-like qualities of play and the importance of environmental and emotional affordance in helping children reach their potential.