Q. & A.
Jane Jacobs, the famed urban activist who thought deeply about the streets and spaces where we live, wrote of children: “Their homes and playgrounds, so orderly looking, so buffered from the muddled, messy intrusions of the great world, may accidentally be ideally planned for children to concentrate on television, but for too little else their hungry brains require.” Alexandra Lange quotes this thought from Jacobs in the introduction to her new book, “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.” In Ms. Lange’s book, schools, playgrounds, toys and other habitual features of young people’s lives are closely examined: the origins of their design, their strengths and shortcomings, and their short-term and long-term effects on children. Below, Ms. Lange discusses Minecraft and Legos, her surprise at the feminist angle of her book and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
The short answer is I had a baby, in 2007. All of this new stuff started coming into our house. Stuff that was recommended to me, stuff people gave to me, stuff that just appeared overnight. I’m a design critic and an architecture critic, and I couldn’t turn that part of my brain off as all that new stuff started coming at me. So I started asking questions, like: Where does it come from? Why does it have to be this way? Why is it made with this material instead of that material?
I started writing pieces on the side about certain toys I hated. I also started thinking more deeply about things like, why aren’t cities designed for families? I think the most important piece I wrote before I decided to write a book about this was called “The Moms Aren’t Wrong.” I had written about 15 pieces and I realized that I hadn’t even scratched the surface. It’s a great way to talk about design where people are — we have intimate relationships with all these things and lots of memories, especially in terms of toys, but we don’t often think about them in an intellectual way.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
How many women there were involved in the design of childhood. I am a feminist and I write about architecture, and sometimes it’s really difficult, because women haven’t been allowed to have prominent roles in architecture until the very recent past, and even now representation isn’t as good as it should be. It wasn’t hard to make my book inclusive, at least in terms of gender. Many other things I’ve written, I’ve had to look hard and dig. Many of these women weren’t classified as architects or designers, but nowadays we would see them as creators, designers. People thought of things for children as minor. I wanted to say: This is not minor; this is major.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I had two chapters in my proposal that I dropped. One was about technology and one was about transportation. I didn’t really drop those topics, I just realized they made more sense not as stand-alones but as part of the narrative in other chapters. Technology, especially. I had been thinking of construction video games as a whole separate subject, but as I did more research, I learned that all the designers of these video games had played with Legos. Games like Minecraft are really based on what’s considered common cultural knowledge of using building blocks. They’re part of the longer-term narrative of the design and innovation of construction toys. To me, it was important to put those things back together, because they’re always talked about in separate spaces. And there’s this sense that we’ll abandon the physical world for the digital world, but even the creators of these products don’t want that. They understand the two are linked.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
Lillian Gilbreth, a psychologist, engineer and a pioneer of what’s called motion study. She and her husband, Frank Gilbreth, invented this field, which breaks down industrial processes into a series of set movements using film. They used it in the beginning of the 20th century to teach workers to do tasks more efficiently and to redesign machinery to accommodate the way people worked. “Cheaper by the Dozen” was written by two of their children. That book really captured my imagination. I was a very design-y child, and I internalized all these lessons about trying to use the minimum number of pots to make dinner, or how to take the minimum number of steps.
She was the co-author of all these papers with her husband, and then in 1924 he died very suddenly of a heart attack, and all the companies that would hire them together wouldn’t hire her as a single woman. She learned that the kind of companies that would hire her were catering to female consumers, and they assumed she would know about women. She ended up working for Macy’s, and for the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company on kitchens. I love how she made lemonade out of lemons. I feel there are lots of lessons in her life for women in all kinds of industries.
Persuade someone to read “The Design of Childhood” in 50 words or less.
Childhood is fleeting but what we play affects our lives forever. For anyone interested in child development, design or architecture, my book uncovers the thinking behind toys and children’s spaces and shows how parents, teachers and planners can foster kids’ independence and creativity.
This interview has been condensed and edited.