While prototyping a new exhibit for a children' s museum recently, I observed children trying out a " Design a City" challenge. The activity provided children with a plot of land to build on, and colorful foam blocks that represented many of the buildings, businesses and services you might find in a typical city. Some "building regulations" were suggested, like not putting a water treatment plant next to a hospital, etc. and children came up with some of their own reasons for placing buildings where they did. One of the objects provided was a school. A few children placed a "neighborhood" , cluster of houses, near the school. That made sense. The children wouldn't have to be bused, they could walk to school. More than one child put the police station right next to the school "for security." Another put the jail next to the school and a child nearby explained," don't do that cause if a bad guy gets out of jail he'll head straight for the school." One child added a military base as well as a police station near the school. Perhaps the most poignant was the child who surrounded her school with objects that represented houses. It looked like a charming neighborhood to me. When I asked her to tell me about what she had built she stated," those aren't houses. That's a wall around the school to protect it."
It has only been a month since the Sandy Hook tragedy and not surprisingly those events have altered the way some children think about schools and safety. Shortly after the tragedy one of the schools in this city received a bomb threat. The school went immediately into "lock down" and children were sent to "hide" in closets for about 6 hours. This happened to be the same school where we did much of the prototype testing, although going in none of the designers or researchers were aware of this.
It is always amazing to me how resilient children are. They take tragic events and incorporate them into their play as though they are normal, while not seeming to be upset. This is a reminder of how important play is for children, even as therapy.