Coming from an industry where experience, innovation, style, and name recognition are highly valued, it was refreshing to learn from children with no design background while volunteering for the Southwest School of Art’s Kids Initiating Design Solutions (K.I.D.S.) program this fall. I signed up to impart my “expertise” to the kids and received an unexpected lesson in the value of an unfettered imagination and the pure joy of discovery.

Uncomplicated Creativity.

Students from Brackenridge Elementary, C.C. Ball Elementary, and KIPP Camino Academy met last week at VIA’s multimodal transportation center to show off their innovative bus stop designs, completed as part of the K.I.D.S. program. Charged with the task of enriching people’s lives through thoughtful design, ideas included a drop-down video screen, a party bus stop, a bus stop with a tree growing through it, a bench that converts to a swing, and—clearly inspired by some ancient architecture—even an oculus.

Creative solutions poured out of each participant’s imagination and inspired the older and more self-conscious of us who often overcomplicate the creative process. Young children are less constrained, less fearful about diving in. They aren’t worried about the end result, but rather enjoy coming up with fun ideas.

Students construct their bus stop ideas

Ben Rosas, Albert Condarco, and I served as K.I.D.S. program teachers and design advisers to 4th– and 5th-graders from Brackenridge Elementary. The course consisted of twelve lessons that taught fundamentals of design—like color, material, form, and structure—along with two studio projects—a bus stop design and a series of interventions on their elementary school. In addition to lectures and studio time, the students engaged in field activities: visits to bus stops and walks around their school and surrounding neighborhood so they could better understand ideas of scale and context.

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Also participating were the students’ elementary school teacher, an art teacher from the Southwest School of Art, and an architecture student from The University of Texas at San Antonio.

The program was an enriching experience for both students and instructors. We walked the students through lessons on the relationship of art, architecture, and technology, and challenged them to think about how they could use these tools to create impact on their own neighborhoods and communities.

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Dreamers of the future.

As the course progressed, a profound sense of empowerment emerged from many of the students. They began to think critically about the immediate context of their lives, to think beyond themselves, and realized their ideas could make a difference in their community—concepts which they had never thought about. It was incredibly rewarding to witness this evolving awareness. They started noticing how colorful the surrounding neighborhood was in contrast to their lackluster school buildings, and even asked why all the windows were the same. They noticed that their place of education did not mirror its context, nor did it physically inspire as—when their eyes were opened—they believed it should.

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It became evident to me the profound impact art and architecture can make on children’s attitudes. For some, it was clear that there was trouble at home or they were shy and had trouble communicating, but they began to open up as time went on. The K.I.D.S. program provided a confidence-boosting venue for self-expression and the participants realized that creative thinking has meaning. They also learned public-speaking skills for the presentation of their final projects in front of their peers, VIA (the main sponsor of the program), and Fox 29 News.

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I, the student.

Though a volunteer instructor, I became a student of joy and freedom and the children my instructors. I learned that when we give ourselves permission to use our imaginations in their purest state—not focused on a bottom line or on our own enslaving perceptions of “good” design—we often surprise ourselves with exciting solutions and fun ideas. Whether or not they make it into our architectural plans is negligible, for they are valuable to the creative process and therefore enrich our professional practice. Not every idea is supposed to come to built fruition, and we must not expect ourselves to come up with creative solutions only when there is a client asking for one. Instead it is in the persistent discipline of throwing sophistication out the window and exercising our uninhibited childlike imagination that we continue to churn out creative ideas that develop us as designers and lead to more joy in this journey.

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