A tiny clinic for the soul?

I visited the British Library in London a few evenings ago to listen to a talk given by Alberto Manguel, the author of The Library at Night and A History of Reading. Manguel, no stranger to poetic metaphor, described libraries as a “clinic for the soul” and spoke of learning to read as “akin to falling in love, like an epiphany or a contagion.”

Listening to someone talking with passion and authority about the places and spaces where readers read is something that I treasure, partly because it is so rare to hear anyone mention the built environment in connection with reading or even with learning but also because the primary research question for my doctorate is: Where do beginner readers read in schools?  This question has led me to explore the concrete spaces where beginner readers  read in schools and I have been poking around in dusty school corridors where children are to be found reading aloud to classroom assistants, and anyone else who happens to be walking by. At the other end of the spectrum, I discovered  thoughtfully-designed, child-scaled reading corners that are comfortable and secluded.

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I’m especially interested in the materiality and physicality of reading. The avid reader often “seems lost in a textual world, cut off from the life of the body and the real world that surrounds it” (McLaughlin, 2015:1) but in my thesis, I argue that this erasure of the body in order to focus on the text is not a simple matter for the inexperienced reader. Reading involves a variety of complex physical procedures such as turning the pages of a book, moving one’s eyes in the right direction and sounding out the letters or words of the text. All of these tasks, when they haven’t yet been incorporated by the reader, can distract from the meaning of the text and as a consequence, the possibility of self-abstraction. So while avid readers can erase, or at least dull, their own physicality and surroundings to dive into an absorbing text, inexperienced readers may need a little more support from the environment in which they learn, for example, with the provision of seclusion and privacy;  qualities not generally associated with the school building.

I’ve co-designed a freestanding reading nook for my research: a tiny library or den about the size of the seating area inside a small car. The reading nook is made from toughened cardboard and has an abstract, blank quality to its design that means that children can project their own imaginative interpretations onto it: the five and six year old children who are using it in their classroom have described it as being like “a toy shop”, “a cottage”, “a tent” and “an igloo”. Three or four of them can sprawl across “the fake grass” with their books.  The doorway is deliberately designed to be too small for adults to use comfortably, although, of course, it must be accessible to them too. I’ve been surprised by how much of a sense of ownership the children have over the space and how much they love the dimness of the light inside. I hope that at least sometimes it feels like a tiny clinic for the soul for the children in their bright and busy classroom, where many hours each day are spent working at their desks.

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I’m using a design research methodology adapted from a framework by Fallman (2008) which has encouraged several iterations of the reading nook in collaboration with an architectural studio in London and a manufacturer of postural support products for children in Sheffield. The realisation and installation of the reading nook has allowed me to observe how it is actually used by children and what they and their teachers have to say about it. The manufacturers of the model expected it to be demolished by the children within a week or so and yet it remains pristine and, it seems, cherished by the class. The class teacher and I both suspected that when she began to also designate it as a space for ‘time-out’ by sending a child there to calm down, then it might have negative connotations and be seen as a punishment space but that hasn’t been the case at all and the children are as eager as ever to use the reading nook and claim ownership of it. Above all, the children’s sense of pride in their own secluded place for reading in the classroom remains undimmed, despite the fact that the reading nook has been designed by me, an avid, experienced reader rather than the beginner readers themselves.

So that’s what’s next on the agenda: reading nooks designed by beginner readers. How different might they be?

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References:

McLaughlin, T. (2015). Reading and the body: the physical practice of reading. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

Fallman, D. (2008). The interaction design research triangle of design practice, design studies and design exploration. Design Issues 24(3), 4-18.

 

Emma Dyer is in her fourth year as a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, as part of an AHRC-funded collaborative doctorate with SCABAL architects. She also co-curates a blog with Dr Adam Wood of Florence University  https://architectureandeducation.org/ and warmly welcomes contributions about the complexities of lived school design. She is on Twitter at @Emmamolim.

 

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