Hitting the Yellow Brick Road

This latest guest post comes from Negar Ebrahimi, a PhD student in Architecture at the University of Edinburgh. Here, she gives a review of her pre-COVID workshop, Designing My Happy City: Playground, and discusses the importance nature has in our every-day lives.

The government’s road map in controlling the global pandemic promises an easing of the restrictions on outdoor activities in Spring. I am particularly looking forward to re-bonding with nature without the shadow of currently necessary restrictions looming over my head. A research project that I led in November 2019, before the pandemic, highlights the significance of nature in our happiness, and so this blog is to encourage you to squeeze some time out in nature whenever you can by recounting some of my findings.  

Designing My Happy City: Playground was a hands-on workshop tailored for primary school children, providing 54 kids with crafting material to design their favourite playground in groups; and permitted a closer look at patterns of users’ experience in playground settings, that is vital in promoting its spatial quality. Designing My Happy City was generously funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to collect the participants’ outputs by exploring the design of a playground, in the hope of enriching it and of expanding the range of children participation. In addition to inspiring further research on the children’s contribution to our understandings of happiness and its spatial narratives, children used recreational architecture means to draw and model creative solutions for a happier city.

A group of children standing around a craft table and participating in Designing My Happy City: Playground.
A group of children participating in Designing My Happy City: Playground. Photo Credit: Negar Ebrahimi (2019)

The drawings and models could be gauged as a reflective evidence for what children find imperative to a happy place and more than 40 percent of the workshop’s drawings include natural elements: the sun, stars, trees, clouds and mountains, as well as water. Alison Clark explains that the current literature landscape has identified the vital role of nature in children’s learning processes (2005). But it seems that children’s fascination with nature is not limited to its ability to stimulate learning; as we get to know the world we are living in, we start bonding with its familiar traits. The daily rise of sun and the appearance of stars at night, anchor us to the world and are entwined with our experience of life. We are also in awe of nature, it never ceases to make us wonder, as we keep ‘rediscovering the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in’ (Louv, 2016). It is therefore no surprise that tourist attraction maps often highlight best points of the city for sunrise or sunset watching and at times, stargazing hotspots. All the natural elements in children’s drawings are indicators of their appetite for nature and therefore the need for intertwining urban and natural environments.

Children also drew flowers, or fruits on the trees, like a cherry tree. Both empirical and theoretical studies have attributed children’s fascination to the interactive nature of such elements. A case of foundational approach to the study of ‘active investigation’ was concluded by Sue Waite in her article, Memories are made of this, in which Waite investigates outdoor learning benefits by means of 334 survey practitioners with children aged between 2 and 11. Waite argues that active investigation is a form of play that incorporates autonomy and perceptible contact that increases memorability.

Researchers have often discussed this, exploring the possibility of discovery, and the spatial variables that escalate its likelihood. For instance, where deciduous trees are reportedly popular and more accessible for climbing and swinging, fruit trees are able to provide distinctive opportunities for children’s engagement with smell, taste, gravity, material and so on. Senses are awakened in nature largely, however, the field components can ignite even more sensations. Matluba Khan explains that ‘children find flowers necessary for aesthetic (beautiful), atmospheric (nice-smelling) and restorative reasons (making people happy). Alongside aesthetics, being able to explore and interact in and around the flower garden was also important to the children’ (2017). Through this study’s drawings that included plants and animals, (more than 11 percent of drawings were dedicated to animals) an intriguing point is conceived: children are interested in spatial settings that allow and encourage inter-species emotive engagement. Clearly plants, fruit trees and bushes can draw birds, butterfly and bees, while providing routes for cats and dogs; and children are seeing themselves at the linchpin of this interaction. In a radical interpretation it is arguable that children are also implying no one’s happiness would be complete without the happiness of its companions, including other people or animals.

It is no coincidence that nature is the most highlighted theme in the workshop results. As Richard Louv, the prised author of Vitamin N suggests, for a healthy, happy and fulfilling life, nature can make all the difference (2016). So, this spring take some time out in nature, and ask others to do the same. If you are a designer or writer, let it be your muse; if you are in policy making, let us have more green spaces! Whatever field you are in, open the door to nature and let us build the ‘yellow bricked path’ together, one brick at a time.

For more details about this and other ESRC-funded events, visit: https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/research-office/2020/01/14/our-researchers-and-public-engagement-in-the-festival-of-social-science/ or #esrcfestival.

Inspired by this post to spend more time with nature? Negar suggests viewing TripAdvisor’s reviews for sunrise/sunset watching in Edinburgh. https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g186525-d190124-r161007770-Calton_Hill-Edinburgh_Scotland.html

A head-shot style photo of the author of the post, Negar Ebrahimi.

Negar Ebrahimi is an architect and a consultant in spatial analysis with a Master of Science in Spatial Design; Architecture and Cities from The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Currently, she is completing her PhD in Architecture while teaching at the University of Edinburgh. Negar is passionate about promoting people’s wellbeing through architecture and urban design and her ongoing research interests focus on the correlation between happiness and spatial design. Her work has been exhibited in the London Festival of Architecture (LFA) 2017 (in collaboration) and at the UCL Doctoral School exhibition in London as The Best Hundred Research Images of 2018. She was awarded multiple grants for her research; including Social Responsibility and Sustainability Award (UoE SRS) 2020, IAD Action Fund (Institute of Academic Development) 2019, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funding award for the FoSS 2019, and Festival of Creative Learning (FCL 2019) Award. In 2020, as a Young Women Lead (YWCA @youngwomenscot) committee member she worked on an equal rights and inclusion report with The Scottish Parliament (@ScotParl); and also received the Clinton Global Initiative recognition of Commitment to Action (CGI U). See more on her latest project on https://edinburghccc.eventbrite.com and find more about her on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/negar-ebrahimi


Clark, Alison. ‘Views from inside the Shed: Young Children’s Perspectives of the Outdoor Environment’. Education 3-13, 2007. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004270701602483.

Khan, Matluba. ‘Environment, Engagement and Education’. The Uninversity of Edinburgh, 2017.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. New York, USA: Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.

———. Vitamin N; The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life. New York: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016.

Waite, Sue. ‘“Memories Are Made of This”: Some Reflections on Outdoor Learning and Recall’. Education 3-13, 2007. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004270701602459.

Would you like to write a post for the SGSAH blog? Email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk for more information.

Featured image by Akshay Nanavati on Unsplash

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