Modelling community

Photo: Laura Fulton

Many of us begin planning and building communities from a very young age. The configuration and placement of blocks, train tracks or makeshift forts in the forest represent our early thoughts about built environment, what belongs in a community, and what is important to us as individuals. This is an invaluable process, both as children learning about the world around us, and as adults exploring the nature of community. Here are a few examples of how ‘play cities’ can be useful learning experiences, for people of all ages.

Photo: Laura Fulton

At École John Stubbs Memorial School, grade two teacher Denise Drouin recognizes the importance of this activity. As part of the social studies curriculum, her students have been busily building their own community out of recycled cardboard. The students needed to work together to decide what was important to include in their community, their roles as builders, and how it would all fit together. The end product is quite impressive.

Photo: Laura Fulton

For middle school students, the University of Washington runs a summer camp for students called “Community Architecture: Solving Social and Environmental Issues Through Design.”This takes cardboard city making to the next level – pushing young people to think about both the human and environmental aspects of community building.

Kids aren’t the only ones who can engage in building model communities. By taking a step back from the real world, we can consider the possibilities and challenges of communities in a fun, abstract way. This may inspire us to then enact what we want to see in our communities in real life. The consultancy, ‘Foam’, understands the relevance of adults working together to build miniature communities – they included it as part of their professional development method to encourage leaders to “think with their hands” in a collaborative way – which ultimately leads to better business practice.  This has been so popular that thee toy company LEGO has now taken over and rebranded this program the “LEGO Serious Play” method of team building in work contexts.

Examples of adults learning through toy cities can be found around the world. The Home Sweet Home exhibit that took place this past spring in Vancouver is

Photo: Home Sweet Home Exhibit, by Helen at

a larger scale version of what takes place in Denise Drouin’s grade two class. Cardboardia, a popular event in Moscow and Berlin also gives adults an opportunity to play with the idea of community – hopefully taking lessons learned from the experience back to their real lives.

At any age, the idea of taking a step away from reality and refocusing on working together to build a ‘play’ community can hold tremendous value. It allows anyone to play the part of mayor, urban planner, or active community member. Principals, teachers and students can also come together to  re-imagining their school communities in this hands-on way. The process can refine our ability to work together as a team, while encouraging us to think creatively about what our ideal communities should include and how we can get there. Although I’ve listed a few examples here, I’m interested to find more! Please leave a comment or contact me.

6 responses to “Modelling community

  1. Certainly not as extensive as what you’ve described but my oldest son did a summer camp at Taliesin West one year. They did a love of visioning and modeling – more personal than community.

  2. Hi Tammy!

    This sounds really interesting. Can you tell us more about what this involved?

  3. from the Taliesin West website:
    Ms. Rorke-Davis stimulates a learning environment in which students with the full spectrum of learning styles will be challenged. The combination of theory and philosophy with hands-on manipulation of materials during “Designing Your Dream Space,” a highly individual design and model-building program, develops creative expression and problem solving in multifaceted activities adaptable for grades 4-12.

  4. Thanks Tammy! This program looks really interesting. I would love to take the ‘design a dream shelter’ course :).

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