When good intentions clash with everyday life

The ideals underlying design and architecture do not always harmonise with how structures are used in actual practice, a study reveals.



Ergonomist Maiken Marie Jordal has engaged in participative observation in a large, modern kindergarten in Oslo. The kindergarten was part of the project “Ergonomics and pedagogy hand in hand – Health in every movement”.

One of the project’s visions was for employees to be in better health after working for some years than they were when they first started their jobs. The idea was to make them more aware of how to take better care of their own bodies and health. The project was also intended to reduce sick leave.

The intended use of a given materiality and how it is actually used do not always coincide. 

The children were supposed to become more self-reliant

In addition to the adults avoiding positions that place strains on their bodies, the children were to become as self-reliant as possible. For example, even the toddlers were to be encouraged to climb up on their chairs by themselves.

Picking things up from the floor repeatedly every day is a prime example of an activity that can cause wear and tear on adult backs. At the same time, tidying up can be an educational activity that teaches children to collaborate, count and organise things. The idea was that pedagogy and ergonomics would go hand in hand in this kindergarten.

Pedagogy and ergonomics – hand in hand

The modern architecture of the kindergarten was based, among other things, on the idea that most of the equipment that was not directly dangerous for the children should be kept near the floor. That was supposed to make the children more independent, especially when tidying up.

To make it easier for the children to tidy more efficiently, the adults set out boxes and baskets to store objects and to help the children learn where things belonged.

The kindergarten was also equipped with so-called “protective gear”, including chairs on casters placed where they could reduce the risk of stressful bending.

Supposed to allow more time

The organisation of work in the kindergarten was also an important aspect of the project. The daily routines were supposed to allow time for employees to perform tasks with as little strain as possible. At the same time, the routines were intended to promote children’s mastery skills.

In particular, transitional situations, such as dressing and undressing or setting the table and tidying up after meals were considered valuable pedagogical arenas rather than chores that “simply had to be done”.

Architecture leads to poor work posture

‘Linking ergonomics and pedagogy together to benefit children and adults is an important goal. My job was to determine how this worked in actual practice’, recounts the researcher Maiken Marie Jordal.

She carried out observations at the kindergarten for a total of 14 days at the onset of the project. She recognised that the kindergarten’s architecture created some challenges in terms of the intentions of the project.

‘The employees had poor work posture in tight spaces, and they leaned over to clean small toilets. They walked around picking things up from the floor and they bent over low tables when cleaning and tidying.

High-chair safety

In the study, the researcher opted to take a more detailed look at one particular object, i.e. the high-chair. At mealtimes, the toddlers sat in high-chairs. At this kindergarten, all the children were to be encouraged to climb up onto their chairs themselves. The adults stood by and provided help, if needed. That saved the adults from some heavy lifting, while challenging the children’s’ motor skills, making them more self-reliant.

‘The high-chairs were equipped with a safety belt that could be snapped on and off with a simple click. In actual practice, this safety belt was rarely used’, Jordal clarifies. ‘The toddlers were the ones who used the safety belts, when they were used at all. That made it hard for them to climb up and down on the chairs themselves.

‘I also noted that using the safety belt when the children sat at the table generally limited toddlers’ opportunities to be self-reliant. They weren’t always able to help themselves, and whenever they dropped anything off the table, an adult had to pick it up. The overall mealtime experience led to several unfortunate working postures for the adults’, reports Jordal.

Taking a closer look at physical surroundings, at objects and understandings that we usually take for granted, can give us greater insight into what goes on in a kindergarten.

Observing the little things

Jordal maintains that her research indicates that even if there is an intention inherent in a design or in architecture, interpretation still takes place in the encounter with people and their needs.

‘The intended use of a given materiality and how people actually use it do not always coincide’, says the researcher.

The high-chair is just one example. The use of the safety belt is basically at odds with the project’s goal for the children to become more self-reliant. This, in turn, puts the employees in situations that compromise their work posture. On the other hand, seatbelts give staff more control of the children. Taking the seatbelts off gives the children more freedom. However, the consequences of taking them off may create other ergonomic challenges.

‘Taking a closer look at physical surroundings, at objects and understandings that we usually take for granted can give us greater insight into what goes on in a kindergarten. Studying objects, and how they impact our actions, may bring factors to light that are easily overlooked when introducing different initiatives in a kindergarten’, concludes Jordal.