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Professor uses felt to create play mats for children

Features | September 1, 2007 | By:

A University of Minnesota professor develops a design for a children’s play piece out of fabric.

John Comazzi, Assistant Professor of Architecture, College of Design, University of Minnesota, entered a competition for an open-ended children’s play piece and left with his hands full of fabric. Participants were challenged to create a non-prescriptive educational play item. And while there was no specification for any materials, Comazzi decided on felt. “I came up with felt for a variety of reasons,” he says. “One, for its environmental impact, or lack thereof. Organic felt—which I thought would work well in terms of lack of adhesives and chemicals—was an easy decision to make in that respect.” The additional benefits of removing materials from the waste stream, flexibility and ease of manufacturing made felt all the more appealing.

Comazzi’s entry piece, called In The Fold, is a floor mat or surface that transforms into a pliable, playable terrain. In The Fold supports active learning for children ages 3-5; is open to interpretation through imagination and manipulation; supports solitary, parallel or group activity; is simultaneously singular and multiple; stimulates small-motor and psycho-motor skills; teaches classification and association through color, sound and texture; and encourages active participation in the transformation of one’s surroundings.

Comazzi designed three mats (MEW, Zig-Zag and Spiral), each allowing for multiple arrangements, connecting combinations and configurations. Connecting points range from zippers to magnets, and several mats can be linked together to create a large surface area for group activities. “Children can create numerous spaces and terrains that support a range of extended-play opportunities,” Comazzi says. “The open-ended potentials inspire children to become active partners in the staging of their learning environments … through a variety of folds, twists and bends.”

Each mat is 22m by 22m and backed with rubber made from recycled tires to provide a slip-resistant surface and a pliable yet stiff sub-structure.

Comazzi worked on the design with his research assistant, Adam Jarvi. The two originally planned on using 3-D modeling software for the design, but ended up working with paper, folding and bending it as models for In The Fold. “We realized that we could take a pretty low-tech approach and just took photos of paper and drew over them in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop as a really quick way of developing the project,” he says.

Comazzi plans to search for funding to create a full-scale mock-up of the play piece. “I’ve been talking with several early childhood educators,” he says. “I hope to develop the design’s ability to stimulate mental development and physical motor skills in children.”

Jake Kulju is a freelance journalist who has written about design for numerous magazines.

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