Free Play

The projects featured in this exhibit were developed in Professor Chris Bullʼs Industrial Design course. The class began with discovery of free play, observation and understanding of child development. The dioramas before you were just a stepping stone towards final projects that were installed in the Providence Childrenʼs Museum. This exhibition is a varied collection of the studentsʼ interpretations of childʼs play—displaying anything from a setting in which a child might enjoy playing in to an abstract manifestation of free play.

Free play promotes imagination, and imagination is limitless. A child knows no creative boundaries and continuously exercises this creative muscle to learn in their own unique way. This free play is the purest form of learning and contributes strongly to the child’s character.

However, I find it difficult to physically demonstrate the limitless imagination of a child. As children climb through tunnels, adults don’t see as anything more than an underground passageway, but we can only guess at what a child might imagine with it through free play. This diorama is meant to convey a child’s reflection into their own imagination through play.

Bridget van Dorsten graduated from Brown in the class of 2019.5 with a degree in Environmental Engineering specializing in Energy. Her passions include: language, learning, music and helping others.

The wooden frame of the piece is made of tinker toy like parts. This structure encloses an illuminated tulle cloud filled with brightly colored feathers, pom poms, string, and tinsel. Hidden in the rainbow explosion are some sticks and leaves. Its entirety is wrapped in tulle and sealed on either end with caution tape.

In this piece I comment on the types of play a child experiences. Starting from the outside, the caution tape notions to society’s extensive measures to ensure a child’s safety when playing. However, this perspective disregards the benefits of risky play. The dowel and block structure shows how something so simple can have infinite range when it comes to play. Building with these pieces of wood encourages freedom of thought and creative problem solving. The mish mosh of colorful items inside represent the importance of senses when it comes to engagement with a toy or game. (Light, color, texture, smell, taste…) In contrast, the sticks and leaves show how many of these elements are unnecessary to entertain a child.

Many of my childhood memories are of my friends and I playing in the woods while building our own worlds. In summary, I made this piece to remind myself that a child experiences play by discovering something for themselves. Whether that be how something works, what world they are in, or how to create and solve problems.

Mollie Redman is a third year undergraduate student at Brown University studying Mechanical Engineering and Visual Arts. She is interested in human centered design and using her skill sets to create beautiful and functional pieces of work.

One of the primary manifestations of free play that we observed at the PCM was imaginative play in areas like the ship. I took that idea of world creation in an abstract direction and made a small device that visually allowed for limitless visual exploration and creation. The box is nondescript, with only a small aperture on one side. Any object placed inside becomes endlessly replicated and creates a tiny world full of the object’s reflections in all directions. The box can be opened and allows the viewer to change objects and manipulate the visual world contained within. The cube’s implication of boundless, impossible spaces challenges visual and spatial perception, but is still at a manageable scale for interaction.

Charlie Bares is a senior graduating from Brown with a degree in Urban Studies and a completed pre-med track. He is incredibly passionate and has devoted much of his college career to the student-run formula racing team and much of the engineering curriculum.

Defined as Mischievous or Deceitful Behavior, it is to my best belief that as children gradually turn into adults, their idea of free-play begins to dramatically alter; suddenly, the idea of playing with no rules, no direct consequences and unmonitored becomes an opportunity to engage in mischievous behavior that is by no means safe for an office like environment. As to embody this philosophy, I was hoping to create a prototype for a “light up neon wall sign” of sorts. The letters of the final product are to be made of black acrylic, the backing of clear acrylic, and lighting them all would be a strip of red LED that would back light the letters. 

Vlad Barbulica is a senior at Brown University studying Engineering and Product Design. His practice revolves around creating sleek Design solutions that almost always have a sense of humor. He enjoys the art of making and is almost always working on some type of hands-on project.

The Crystal Cave functions as an imaginarium for pretend play. Children visiting the Crystal Cave encounter a series of tunnels, each with small curiosities – jewels, lava flows, families of moles – nestled into the walls and ceilings. The Main Hall of the crystal cave is a clearing at the center of the walkway and tunnels. The tight spaces with close up curiosities will open up to a subterranean playground with rock slides and giant stalactite crystals which light up when you pass under them. Flows of “lava” and glow worms light corners of the room, while a fossil exhibit can be found along the back wall. Children entering the exhibit can pick up helmets with low headlights, and can find small climbable smooth obstacle courses along the walkway that cuts through the exhibit. The primary goal of the exhibit is to provide both quieter solitary exploration with nooks and crannies, as well as cleared highways with disguised playground features to allow for fast paced motoric play.

Materials for the exhibit could be very inexpensive, if purchased in bulk. Large rolls of black canvas or linoleum can be painted to be the backdrop in the lowlight space, while foam sculpted and coated rock features can be affixed over the canvas cover the walls and ceilings. Tunnels can be made from playground tunnel features, which can be modified to blend into the tunnel setting and accommodate curiosities. Crystals, lava flows, and glow worms can all be achieved by lighting resin casts with RGB leds. Small arduino microcontrollers with ultrasonic or infrared sensors to modulate the light based on when someone passes below, or just animate the light color in general. 

From an educational perspective, the Crystal Cave presents a lot of flexibility and variable content with its “curiosity” features, which could be interactive, visibly engaging, or engage motor skills. There are areas for more high-energy play with the inclusion of small climbable features and slides along the walkway and in the Main Hall. Solitary and associative play can be engaged throw the fossil area and interactive light crystals.

Daniel Tompkins is a senior completing an independent concentration in Human Centered Design at Brown. His passions include sculpture and fabrication, perception research and psychology, philosophy, emerging technology, and design of both digital and physical products.

Play is central to the development of the child.  As children play, they learn about the world, develop physical capability, and build social skills. Play helps children develop cognitive functions, including memory and thinking about the past, present and future. Swedish researcher Monica Nilsson says that “fantasy and reality are dialectically related (two parts of the same process) and inherent in both play and exploration.”  This diorama represents a world that children would enter for imaginative play. The setting, a simulacrum of reality, is meant to foster both fantasy play and exploration. Rather than prescribe a certain way to play, the elements of the world are a jumping off point for children’s imagination, allowing for multiple entry points to play. 

The inspiration for this sky world for play came while watching a group of children come together to play on the “ship” at the Providence Children’s Museum one Saturday morning.  The children, most of whom were strangers to each other, came together organically to imagine multiple realities: they were pirates; they were looking out for pirates; they were at sea; they were on a ship wreck. They seamlessly interchanged realities and negotiated use of popular manipulatives like the steering wheel.  The children I watched appeared to be between 4-7 years old, putting them in the “early childhood” range.  In this stage of development, children are developing symbols. For example, some children were enjoying lowering and raising the anchor on the ship, a symbol for something that keeps the ship in place.

In my sky world, children would have control over a symbolic fire that heats the air in the balloon.  They would also be able to manipulate the weights to throw over the side of the basket, and of course, be able to “ride” in the balloon.  I also created a miniature world down below, so that children would be able to explore scale. On the ground, they are giants. Up in the sky, they see the tiny world below.  Other sky play elements could include: dragons, magic carpets, airplanes, blimps, or gliders.

Hannah Mintz is graduating in May with a Masters in Teaching high school science. Hannah has also taught math and design-build courses. She loves making things with her hands and working alongside young people to bring ideas to life.