Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Aren't Kids Great?!!!!

I had the great honor last Wednesday to speak to a wonderful group of kindergarteners from the Big Little School, a nonprofit preschool here in Eugene. Lee Bramwell of the Big Little School informed me the children were fascinated by the construction activity at the site of the future Lane Community College Downtown Campus and wanted to learn more about the project. She asked me if I could answer questions from my perspective as a member of the design team. I told her I would be more than happy to do so.

I met the preschoolers and their grownup entourage at the Eugene Public Library, located directly across the street from the LCC Downtown Campus property. We trekked upstairs to the Singer Conference Room, which provided a cozily safe front-row view through an expansive window of the hustle and bustle.
Aerial view of the Lane Community College Downtown Campus project (photo courtesy of Lease Crutcher Lewis, LLC)

I explained what the project is all about. I pointed to the brightly colored plans I brought with me, detailing what would go where in the building. I rattled off pertinent specifications: the number of student apartments and classrooms, the elapsed time of construction, the green building strategies being implemented. Moving to the window, I waved my arms about wildly as I described what the dozens of safety vest-clad workers were up to. I talked about what it is I do every day as an architect.

I rattled through my spiel quickly, careful to leave time for what was certain to be a flurry of questions. I opened the floor, anticipating an earnestly inquisitive query. I didn’t expect what followed.


No questions? Not a one? Surely I had enthralled at least a few of these bright-eyed youngsters. Didn’t any of them find my presentation so interesting that he or she had to learn more about the project or about what an architect does? Wasn’t anyone paying attention?

Finally, after much prompting, Kelsey raised her hand to ask me a question.

“What’s your last name?” 

“Umm . . . Nishimura,” I replied.

“Good! I’m going to call you ‘Nishimura’ from now on! Nishimura! Hey, Nishimura!”

This is going well . . . not” I thought to myself. It was painfully clear to me that I was out of my depth when it comes to communicating with five-year-olds.

Grant asked the next question: “What kind of wheels are those?”

Huh? Wheels? “What wheels?”

It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about. Grant mistook the trees on the site plan as wheels. After all, they were drawn as green circular things with what looked like spokes. Yeah, I could see that. The drawing was no longer a depiction of the podium level of the LCC Downtown Campus and its proposed site improvements. Instead, it was a fantastical and magical many-wheeled machine rolling through an imaginary landscape. 

I changed tactics. Maybe if I asked the questions, they’d become more engaged.

“Does anyone know how many years of school it takes to become an architect?”

“Ten thousand years,” Gavin replied. Hmmm. Exactly how old does he think I am?

So, question period was a bit of a bust. I had better luck offering each of the kids the opportunity to have his or her photo taken while wearing my hardhat. Each put the oversized lid on and grinned for the camera before passing it along. They became restive, crawling over the backs of their chairs for a better view of the action. Going with the flow, I encouraged them to press their noses against the glass as we all watched the huge crane in action. “Whoa!” Chase exclaimed. “That’s how the porta-potty got up there!” They waved at the construction workers, and the workers waved back.
Up, up, and away! (my photo)

Less than thirty minutes after I began my presentation, my visit with the kindergartners from the Big Little School was over. Their teacher, Lori Brodie, and the accompanying parents thanked me. The kids thanked me too. “Bye, Nishimura!”    

*  *  *  *  *  *

John Bramwell, Lee’s husband and a co-worker at Robertson/Sherwood/Architects, reported the next day that according to Lee I was a hit with the children. Apparently, commanding the interest of five-year-olds for anything beyond twenty minutes is a considerable achievement; knowing that made me feel better about my performance.

John delivered an envelope containing drawings the kids had sketched as impressions of their visit with me. The absolute lack of pretense in children’s art is its greatest appeal. Five-year-olds freely interpret what they see, often with a developed vocabulary of recognizable forms (although each child’s symbols are most often unique to the child). According to Wikipedia, their drawings are based on their understanding of what is being drawn rather than on observation.(1) Judging by the fantastic images I pulled from the envelope, I’m not so sure this is true.

For example, Chase’s drawing (at the beginning of this blog post) clearly depicts the project’s tower crane, as well as the shoring for the post-tensioned concrete deck formwork that is still in place. Grant’s rendering (below) likewise is his interpretation of the crane.

The subject, form, and content of Kelsey’s illustration (below) are a little harder to decipher. But look: that’s the tower crane on the left with its enormous boom extending across the top of the page. The crane operator is clearly visible in his cab at the top of the crane. Below the boom, members of the building crew are hard at work on the top level of the building.

I misread Gavin’s drawing (below) at first. I initially believed he similarly chose to represent the building under construction. Wrong! In fact, what appears to be the rising structure is actually the window of the Singer Room. And that’s not a smiling construction worker—the pointy headed guy is me speaking to the group. The tower crane does loom over my right shoulder but that’s because I was describing how it works.

*   *   *   *   *   *

I feel privileged to have shared time with this group of preschoolers. The potential evident in every young child is amazing. Theirs is an unfiltered, untainted view of the world. They see possibilities rather than obstacles. They’re optimistic. They’re passionately curious. Adults—certainly architects— can learn a lot from kids.

(1) In his book Creative and Mental Growth, Viktor Lowenfeld described drawing development in children as passing through various stages. Lowenfeld described the first conscious creation of form as occurring during the pre-schematic phase (ages 3 to 5). The first representational attempt is usually a person, with a circle for the head and two vertical lines for legs. Later other forms develop, clearly recognizable and often quite complex. Children continually search for new concepts so symbols constantly change.


Heidi Peschel said...

This is a fun post Randy, thanks for sharing your experience. This brought a smile to my morning.

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...

Thanks Heidi, I'm glad I was able to successfully convey some of the priceless moments from my visit with the kids.

Mary Truchot said...

I loved reading this and had to laugh out loud at the questions you were asked by my kids! However, I do want you to know that Grant and Kelsey were so excited to tell my husband and I all about meeting you and what they learned from you over dinner that night!

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...


I'm happy that Grant and Kelsey enjoyed my presentation. Since my wife and I don't have children of our own, I really did find myself out of my element. I'd love to once again be five years old, or at least understand how a five-year-old thinks. Their view of the world is so different from ours as adults!

Barbara Brasted-Maki said...

I have kids, Randy, and it's still hard to manage a group of them. I remember giving a presentation on veterinary medicine to a group of kindergarteners. Who knew that a stuffed animal and a little extra bandaging material could be a point of such contention?! But then we never know who me might inspire. I met a prevet student once who referenced my treatment of her dog five plus years earlier as a factor in her decision to become a veterinarian.

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...


If I can leave a positive impression about architecture upon a kindergartener, and he/she goes on to become a successful architect, that would be incredibly satisfying. Sounds like you did your part to help a young women find her calling!