Aidan O'Connor is a curator and consultant based in Brooklyn with 16 years of experience in Design + Culture. A native New Yorker devoted to museums since childhood, she has enjoyed working at the Met, Cooper Hewitt, MoMA, and Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, as well as collaborating with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and Vandalorum in Värnamo, Sweden. She has organized and participated in dozens of exhibitions and programs on modern and contemporary design, including the major international survey "Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000" at MoMA.
I am a curator with a special interest in design for children that has mostly emerged from a long and very wide-ranging project at MoMA, where I was a Curatorial Assistant from 2008 to 2012, called Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000, in which we were looking at the entire 20th Century and modern design as it overlapped with the changing definitions of childhood and all of the preoccupations that different avant garde designers and artists had with themes that are integrally related to childhood. So, play is a key one of those, but also different ideas of utopia, innocence, and freedom, and just the openness of children's minds and their natural ability to create, and how that changes over time as we become adults.
On open-ended play
In the 20th Century, there was this natural overlap between modern designers' and artists' interest in minimalism and the capacity for children to impose their own definitions and visions and imaginations on things, especially when they're not too predefined. You see that take the form of all sorts of blocks - from the Froebel blocks, the earliest kindergarten blocks - to furniture to larger scale installations and playgrounds.
Today, a lot of people think about children's things as being specifically marketed or defined by one character or one franchise or one theme. But we really found a lot of examples where the more open the better, the more open-ended the better. Kids can just add on and add on and add on to something, in the same way that they will ask, why?, and you give an answer, and they'll ask, why?, why?, why?, why?, why? Children can have this non-linear way of thinking where a block can become a car, can become an entire city, and things can layer upon each other in natural ways. We just grow more stiff - probably through traditional schooling methods - and lose that ability over time. But that non-linear way of thinking is very natural to kids. Being able to stimulate and encourage that through open play was very interesting and a natural tendency of a lot of Modernist designers and architects.
An invitation to play
Something has to be inviting in some way. That could be through color or texture or the posing of some sort of challenge, but it can't be so abstract that it is invisible to a kid. But there are infinite ways to invite play - for something to be inviting, intriguing, maybe suggesting possible areas for development or augmentation. Openness is what is complementary to that non-linear, creative child's mind. You're leaving things open to the widest possible interpretation.