[Image: The finished “math playground” in Uganda, by Project H Design].

Project H Design recently completed the installation of a “math playground,” or Learning Landscape, at the Kutamba School for orphans of AIDS in rural Uganda.
Part outdoor classroom, part spatially immersive lesson in arithmetic, the project gives students a place to study in at least two senses of the phrase. On the one hand, it’s simply a forum for learning; on the other, it is literally a place to study: the space itself, if I’ve understood this correctly, serves as a model for play-based education.

[Images: The “math playground,” by Project H Design].

That is, within the numbered arrangement of tires and benches is a spatial pedagogy: using the landscape itself, any number of spatialized games, such as “Around The World” and “Match Me,” can be used to teach elementary mathematics.

[Images: One the finished benches, via Project H Design].

The didactic landscape was, at one point, simply a kind of mathematical test-landscape in a U.S. gymnasium before being tried out by the students on site in Uganda, before reaching its final installation.

[Images: Testing out the landscape, via Project H Design].

Check out the whole research, design, and installation process through their Flickr sets.

[Images: Via Project H Design].

I absolutely love the idea, though, that it might be possible to derive mathematical lessons from the built environment surrounding us. That, somewhere in the walls, roads, and buildings we find ourselves alive within, are equations waiting to be deduced, geometries to be studied, forces that we can isolate, graph, and understand. Whether through games or lectures, it is the spatial world itself that we study.

[Images: A handbook to spatial learning, via Project H Design].

Of course, this is one of the most basic things you do when you first study engineering: you look at a bridge, tower, or other structure and you try to figure out how it stands or works. Or you stand behind Notre-Dame in Paris, staring at those stone cobwebs of intersecting buttressed supports, and you try to understand how it is that cathedrals gravitationally function.
But how incredible would it be to realize that, say, your entire city had actually been organized by urban planners two hundred years ago as a kind of inhabitable lesson in mathematics or logical reasoning, like something from the early theories of Friedrich Froebel?
In an unbelievably interesting exhibition held two years ago in Pasadena, the Institute For Figuring explored the educational system of a now relatively under-known man named Friedrich Froebel and his influence on what we now call kindergarten. To quote from their online exhibition at length:

Most of us today experienced kindergarten as a loose assortment of playful activities – a kind of preparatory ground for school proper. But in its original incarnation kindergarten was a formalized system that drew its inspiration from the science of crystallography. During its early years in the nineteenth century, kindergarten was based around a system of abstract exercises that aimed to instill in young children an understanding of the mathematically generated logic underlying the ebb and flow of creation. This revolutionary system was developed by the German scientist Friedrich Froebel whose vision of childhood education changed the course of our culture laying the grounds for modernist art, architecture and design. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller are all documented attendees of kindergarten. Other “form-givers” of the modern era – including Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Georges Braque – were educated in an environment permeated with Frobelian influence.

I don’t mean to imply here that Project H’s “math playground” in Uganda is an example of Froebelian education – because, as far as I’m aware, it is not – but I do mean to say that it would be amazingly cool if the spatial environments of modern life were organized more along educational lines.

[Images: A Froebelian garden for kids – that is, a kindergarten – brings spatial education to Los Angeles in this archival image, courtesy of the The Institute For Figuring].

Your every commute to work becomes part of a spatial curriculum, carving out education through space.
One of the questions here would be: could you reverse-engineer mathematical lessons from the environment that already surrounds you? Or do you need to purpose-build pedagogic spatiality?
In any case, read more about Froebelian education through the fascinating Institute for Figuring, and stop by Project H Design to find out how you can support the philanthropic construction of future Learning Landscapes elsewhere.

5 thoughts on “Mathscape”

  1. great post. We will be looking at the playground as an urban planning approach with a group of students this semester at ESA in Paris, as proposed by our guest Norwegian architects and this will be very useful. Thanks

  2. Thanks for this post. I’ve been interested in pedagogy as a question of design for quite awhile ( and this project is inspiring.
    It’s not clear from the project description, but it would be incredible if this landscape were designed not only to derive mathematical lessons–but also to
    stage a spatial and temporal environment that invites young people to invent entirely new, previously unthought ways of making sense of the world.
    (p.s. William Morrish has published some provocative pieces on the potential of urban infrastructures to act as “civic pedagogy”)

  3. First and foremost, I would like to say what an interesting project this is and, as well, the ideas and discussions which it evokes. I think it is clear that Project H has an obvious goal in mind with the math playground and after seeing this, I believe that it is successful. Their manifesto states that they are here to “encourage the reorientation of the design industry towards a more socially-impactful and humanitarian entity”, and therefore the design of their projects must inherently serve dual-roles. The primary or realistic role (in this case the playground and place to study), and secondly, the role in which you call the “spatial pedagogy”. Your questions of a society in which our environments are geared towards education are interesting when applied to schools and even universities, but unfortunately, I would argue that when put in a situation such as your everyday commute to work they would prove as wasted design efforts. Nevertheless, the fact that we are discussing this is reason enough for Project H to inject such a project. In addition, to further the discussion, I recently read an article by acclaimed architect Lebbeus Woods, titled “Metastructure”. In this, he proposes a fantasy-driven idea towards a defense mechanism for the conflict in Bosnia. This is relevant in that the idea was basically a wall that would serve dual purposes. The fortification would be built as a spatial labyrinth that would separate and slow groups of soldiers to either their death or their eventual inhabitance of the wall. To further the fantasy, Woods goes on to say that the metastructure could eventually become a city in itself as the Bosnian farmers would move closer to supply food and water to the soldiers as a means of economy. Although both of these ideas have dramatically different trajectories, I see them as both being relevant in that no matter how effective they are in their primary roles, their secondary purposes are worth studying in order to achieve a greater design initiative. In this case, one in which conventional architectural elements, such as the wall or classroom, is pushed beyond the realm of typical uses.

  4. It’s interesting that, in the recent turn toward quantification in architecture, spaces are composed of increasingly complex mathematical equations. I see these equations as quite distinct from the traditional rules or order of the Renaissance, yet one has to wonder if part of the pleasure of architectural perception, or in perceiving space in general, is derived from deducing the rules of order upon which that space is based.

    If the spatial learning of mathematical concepts is dependent upon the clarity of those rules, do increasingly complex built spaces, modeled by increasingly complex mathematical equations, make us smarter, or lead to a growing sense of civic confusion?

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