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The built environment and child care work (1)

Hy Resnick

If as Aristotle said, “character is fate”, then I would argue, so is architecture.

This column will suggest that the built environment (architecture ) is  a potential influence on the behaviors of young people in care —  as well, of course, as a means of protecting them from the elements.  I will discuss this view of the built environment as it relates to its impact on the lives of children living in a group home by listing five dimensions of a space and discussing how they can be used to affect the behaviors of the children in a group home (or the behaviors of any group of people living in a facility).  These dimensions are:

 1. Purpose or function of a space.
 2. Interactivity potential provided by a space.
 3. Control potential of a space.
 4. Language of a space
 5. Social value of a space.

1. Purpose
There are two aspects to this dimension — the explicit purpose of a space and the other is an implicit purpose of a space that seems to develop over time. For example, bedrooms or kitchens have a clear purpose in a group home i.e. a bedroom is a place in which to sleep and a kitchen is a place in which to prepare and cook food.  But a bedroom can also be a place to hide in, keep the world out and in which to have some alone time. And a kitchen can be a place to come to when a deep part of you need smells of food to remind you of home or it can be a place in which to  ‘schmooze’.

 So spaces can serve more than their explicit purpose. And knowing that can lead to an agency allowing their youthful clients to hang around the kitchen while the cooks are preparing the next meal. They can even encourage kids to help out in preparing the food — despite the inconvenience for cooks. However for this dimension to be used effectively the agency leadership must hire cooks  who are not only willing to put up with kids ‘getting  in the  way’ of meal preparation but seeing the kids presence and interaction with them in the kitchen as an opportunity for a therapeutic moment or a chance to build healthy relationships with working people.

2. Interactivity
This dimension has to do with the extent to which the space is designed in such a way as to encourage appropriate interaction between the room ‘owner’ and others. Interaction between young people is not only normal but necessary for healthy growth and development.

3. Control
When a space is so designed to allow the user to increase their sense of control over their environment then to that extent this space contributes to the normal development of a user. For example users  benefit from being able to choose the color of the walls of  their room, or being able to put posters of their choosing on that wall, or place a picture of their parents on a night stand near the bed. Not being allowed to do such normal/reasonable things in one’s own room violates what we know about helping young people grow.

This dimension has to do with the extent to which a space ( or its parts ) gives  off a specific message to  others e.g. two chairs facing each other sends a message of  ‘sit and lets talk’. An  old, unpainted  bench in a bleak waiting room in a public welfare agency says clearly ‘you’re not important or you’re not really welcome here’. Add to this picture  magazines that are months or years old and newspapers that are days old  scattered around the bench, which reinforces that message.

Another message is received when you visit an upscale dentists office and notice the dates of the magazines and newspapers (this week probably), the rugs on the floor and the plants placed gracefully around the waiting room. You recognize that a welcoming and respectful message is being sent.

 Space and how it is configured speaks sometimes quite clearly without the use of words.

5. Social value
In any facility some spaces are ‘more equal than others’ — are seen as better than others.  In a corporate building an office close to the boss is more desirable than offices further away from the boss. In a group home a room close to the rooms of the ‘elite’ kids is more desirable than down the hall away from the action. 

 Perhaps architecture is not fate but there’s no doubt that it can influence behaviors (even attitudes and perceptions) of the kids child care workers try to help. Knowing this should encourage child care workers to make use of this means of influence.

(See part 2 here)