The Truth About Kids (How To Design Kids’ Spaces)

Posted by Sasha on Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Manitoba Children's Museum Illusion Tunnel

When it comes to designing children’s spaces, adults tend to make a lot of assumptions about kids – namely, that they like bright colors, plastic, and lots of stimulation. But it takes a discerning eye to know the difference between what we expect kids to like and what they actually find enjoyable. Laurent Carrier and Kurt Hibchen of Toboggan Design have spent nearly two decades cultivating this discerning eye.

Kurt Hibchen and Laurent Carrier

Kurt Hibchen and Laurent Carrier

With a name as playful as its designers, Toboggan creates children’s environments with theme park whimsy and a healthy dose of sophistication. Laurent and Kurt began their partnership as product and exhibit designers, and have found themselves increasingly entrenched in the world of children’s play and discovery. One of the things that makes Toboggan unique is their background in product design – often, they will design custom play elements for their spaces, such as the foam building bricks (Playbloks) found at the Manitoba Children’s Museum.

Manitoba Children's Museum Tumble Zone

Kids building with Toboggan’s “Playbloks”

In talking with, Laurent shared Toboggan’s story, revealing the essential ingredients to creating successful kids’ experiences:


How did Toboggan get started?

Kurt and I met in school, where we both studied industrial design. We went our separate ways, Kurt focusing on product design while I went to the museum world. We decided to pool our expertise in 1999, founding Toboggan. At first, we did a lot of museums, and then we got more and more involved in doing environments tailored for children.

The difference between traditional museums and children’s exhibits is this: Historically, traditional museums are hands-off collections on a wall or in a display case, but they have evolved to have themed exhibits with more of a storyline around the collection. Children’s exhibits rarely have artifacts on display, but the design still has a lot to do with theming and visitor experience. Kids’ museums need to have the same playfulness as a Disney park, while delivering content and a message.

What are Toboggan’s values?

We take a holistic approach to design. We’re not just interested in what the space looks like – we’re concerned with producing a quality experience, which takes into account the content and overall message, opportunities for playful interactivity, the environment, and visitors’ comfort. Sometimes, we ask very mundane, logistical questions at the start of a project, such as, “Where are the washrooms?” The reality is that when families arrive at a museum, the first place they go is usually the washrooms. Clients often say, “We’ll deal with it later,” but we like to deal with it up front.

What have you learned from designing museum exhibits?

In product design, we know that we’ll be producing many units of whatever it is we create, which are then sold around the world. Museums are the exact opposite: there is only this one place, and you only get to do it once. As a result, we’ve learned how vital and important prototyping is. Once a project is up and running, it’s too late to fix it (and the museum doesn’t have the money to fix it for the next 10 years or more). Prototyping saves our clients money because it allows us to get the project right the first—and only—time.

Manitoba Children's Museum Splash Lab

Splash Lab in progress

Manitoba Children's Museum Splash Lab

Splash Lab up and running

What do museums need to know about kids?

Museums want to overfeed kids with stuff and give them too much to do. Most of the time, simple things work the best. For example, we designed a space in a museum that was packed with stuff. We created a separate nook area – a simple place for kids to crawl into and find books to read. The client wasn’t comfortable with the nook and saw it as unsuccessful, but after doing an audience survey, they found that people really appreciated it because it gave kids a needed break. At times, kids literally just want to crawl away from the stimulation to relax quietly or read some books.

How do you approach designing kids’ spaces? (And how do you know what kids like??)

We’re always looking for the hook in kids’ exhibits, or in other words, what’s going to make them interested in finding out more. It usually has to start with the kids. We start with their interests, and from there the message can expand out to their family, neighbors, friends, and so on.

We learn a lot about kids from prototyping. We get audiences in to gauge their reactions and have them test things out before we settle on a final design. We often discover that kids can’t do something that we took for granted, such as pulling a lever. Sometimes the smallest changes need to be made: While creating a climbing structure for the Manitoba Children’s Museum, we invited kids to our shop so we could fine-tune the height of two levels. We found that it needed to be adjusted 2 inches, which doesn’t sound like much, but makes a world of difference to small kids.

Manitoba Children's Museum "Lasagna Lookout" Structure

“Lasagna Lookout” structure at the Manitoba Children’s Museum

Telus World of Science Edmonton - DiscoveryLand

Work in progress for DiscoveryLand (Telus World of Science)

Telus World of Science Edmonton - DiscoveryLand

Finished plane for DiscoveryLand

Material choices have a huge impact on how kids react to the space. Adult perception is that kids are more comfortable in a space with basic, bold colors, lots of plastic and rounded corners. In reality, kids are much subtler than we allow them to be. They like spaces that are refined and more complex. For example, we designed two different traveling exhibits with similar content and experiences: the first was full of bold colors and plastic finish, and the second had natural woods and subtle shapes. Audiences perceived the exhibits radically differently. In the first, adults complained that the kids were such a pain – they would run around and yell, whereas the adults in the second exhibit exclaimed how calm and engaged the kids were.

discoveryLAND at TWOS Edmonton – Design by Toboggan from Kurt Hibchen on Vimeo.

How does your design approach adjust for different age groups?

It’s very important to keep in mind the difference in scale between age groups. Even more challenging are the huge divides in mental development. A three year old and a nine year old are on completely different planets! Some museums deal with this by segregating age groups and others try to combine the audiences together. We find that an older kid in a younger space will often override the younger kids. But at the same time, if you segregate the older and younger kids, chances are that the three year old will want to hang out in the nine year old section anyway. Case in point: the climbing structure in Manitoba had a minimum height to keep the younger kids out. Everyone ignored the height limit, though, and kids were helping each other to do the big kid activities. There are very distinct differences between each age group, and as long as you’re aware of it, you can design something clever.

Manitoba Children's Museum "Lasagna Lookout" Structure

Children of all ages and sizes are drawn to this food-focused play structure

What’s next for Toboggan?

Right now we’re developing a concept and storyline for a new children’s space in an Oklahoma City science museum, opening in 2015. We’re also working on a traveling exhibit in Canada about celebrations. The “hook” for this exhibit is centered on the one celebration that’s meaningful to all kids: their Birthdays.

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