Introducing Susanne Seitinger: Playgrounds Are Not Just for Children

bridges vol. 12, December 2006 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad

by Stefanie Baumgartner


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susanneseitinger_portrait_small After a long, exhausting workday you might want to liberate yourself from adult responsibilities and be a child again. Spending the day on a playground sounds like a lot of fun, but have you ever imagined how different your own childhood was from growing up in these days when digital developments and cutting-edge technologies have become part of our daily lives? How can and does technology affect children on the playground? Susanne Seitinger, a 28-year-old Austrian graduate in architecture from Princeton University , now a Ph.D. candidate at the renowned MIT Media Lab , is investigating this question in her research on how science and technology shape cities - and children.

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Undergraduate education at Princeton

Growing up in Vienna, Chicago, and Sydney, Susanne Seitinger herself was confronted from an early age with different living situations. She went to high school at the Theresianum in Vienna, where she spent the last two years at boarding school. And like many, she did not know exactly which subject to study after graduation from high school.

The open, flexible approach of the US higher education system was more tempting to her than the rather rigid Austrian University system. Having lived in the US before, Susanne Seitinger decided to apply to several colleges in the United States. She remembers: "In the end, I had to choose between Yale and Princeton. I decided to go to Princeton, mainly because of its strong emphasis on undergraduate education."

Her background of living in different urban settings and an interest in "collective living situations" led Susanne Seitinger to pursue her undergraduate studies at Princeton in architecture. "Architecture is much more than planning a city and building houses and infrastructure, it is a reflection of society. Studying how people live and use space is not an isolated discipline, but integrated in the development of societies and ultimately 'a way to understand the world,'" she adds.

"I have always been interested in social interactions," Susanne Seitinger points out, and a lot of her architecture work reflects sociological aspects: Her bachelor's thesis at Princeton focused on emergency shelters, a topic that applies to victims of disasters as well as to political refugees. "These people's housing requirements are reduced to the basic need for shelter and protection," she explains, "but there are still important architectural issues that need to be addressed: Questions regarding where and how to accommodate victims and refugees affect not only their physical well-being conditions but also the longterm reconstruction of their society."

After finishing her undergraduate education at Princeton, she wanted to gain some hands-on experience in urban planning. She got in touch with Project 55 , a nonprofit organization established by members of the Class of '55 of Princeton University that assists Princeton graduates and others in finding jobs "outside the box" of typical companies that have the capacity to recruit. Through this, she worked for one year at an affordable housing developer in New York named Telesis . "I really enjoyed that," she reveals, "because it brought together many different aspects of what I learned in my undergraduate education."

This experience intensified her impulse to explore "why people live the way they do and use spaces the way they do" and to study "how urban spaces come together as a result of many different forces including architecture." Susanne Seitinger pursued graduate education at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning of Massachusetts Institute of Technology , the biggest and most well respected urban planning department in the United States.

A 2003 summer project with the city of Cannes, where she upgraded a high tech development area, aroused her interest in the way technology shapes cities. Subsequently she decided to dedicate her master's thesis in city planning to "technopoles," innovation hubs in the urban landscape that attract talented individuals and high tech firms, which in turn stimulate economic growth. Her fieldwork took Susanne Seitinger to four different "technopoles" spread across the globe, namely Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and New York, where she analyzed how urban planning can contribute to building innovation poles.

In 2004, she received her master's degree in city planning. Looking back, Susanne Seitinger remembers, "MIT offered me not only a broad range of research areas but also an unconventional atmosphere and a practical, hands-on culture."

The MIT Media Lab - T as in Technology
"My strong interest in technology developed during my time at MIT," Susanne Seitinger explains. After receiving her Master's of City Planning, Seitinger's drive to learn why innovation in technology shapes cities so profoundly brought her to the MIT Media Lab , an unconventional research laboratory where interdisciplinary research groups work across numerous subjects. In the summer of this year, she completed her second master's thesis - one on "Animated Props for Responsive Playspaces " in media arts and sciences.

The Media Lab is a unique facility and, as Seitinger puts it, "cannot be compared to any of the places I have been to or studied at." It is a "hub focused on innovation and technology, bringing together different disciplines." A sponsor-driven, independent research lab, the Media Lab contains a unique collection of people who work on developing the technological innovations of our future.

Although some criticize the relationship between the lab and its sponsors, this symbiosis may be exactly what makes the unconventional research on cutting-edge technologies possible - and extremely successful. The approximately 100 sponsors provide the main part of the lab's annual budget of more than $30 million. "There really is a give-and-take between the sponsors, researchers, and students," Seitinger explains, "and students here are much freer and more able to pursue directions that are interesting to them." Since its establishment in 1985, faculty members and graduates have started more than 60 companies, another positive side effect of the strong collaboration between the lab and industry.

All work and no play . . .
mis_en_scene_large "Children are amazingly honest," Susanne Seitinger laughs when asked about the empirical work with preschool children for her second master's thesis. "The playground," she explains, "is one of the most important domains in children's development where they are able to construct knowledge through play. The "mise-en-scène," or setting, consists of three components: child, space, and object. And it is the object, or prop, that connects children with their surroundings."

The starting point for Susanne Seitinger was the research of Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist whose research focused on one question: How do we come to know? Piaget studied both the development and meaning of knowledge, a research field referred to as genetic epistemology. He studied the formation of knowledge by looking at the way children learn. One conclusion Piaget drew is that children construct knowledge about themselves and their surroundings by interacting with objects in their environment. Susanne Seitinger kept those findings at the back of her mind when she analyzed the role of technological props in today's playgrounds.

Her master's research identified two principles of outdoor play that contribute to children's development: open-ended play, in which children are free to develop their own play patterns without limits or rSpace_explorer_smallules, and full body engagement, which refers to physically active play. Numerous existing digital toys such as computer games dictate the play rules and require little physical engagement, thereby not allowing for open-ended play or full body engagement. Not surprisingly, many parents have developed a skeptical attitude towards digital toys. Susanne Seitinger, however, disagrees with this preconception and shows that digital toys are perfectly capable of enhancing open-ended play and full body engagement.

She developed a digital prop called "Space Explorer," a digital, animated playground ball. It is a social toy that moves autonomously on the ground and interacts with the children.

Playground_small "Designing space and objects for children and viewing the world through their eyes is difficult for grown-ups because what is child-friendly in our mind might not be something a child desires," Susanne Seitinger explains. "Looking at the spaces in which we live today, planned and created by adults," Seitinger concludes, "cities are not built for children at all." As a positive role model for other cities regarding child-friendliness she points out Reggio Emilia, a town in northern Italy famous for its exceptional approach to child care and education, in which children learn through the interaction with their environment.

A place called home
Looshaus_small Although Susanne Seitinger has been living and working in many different parts of the world, she still calls Austria her home. Whenever in Vienna, she visits her favorite building - the Looshaus on Michaelerplatz across from the Imperial Palace (Hofburg), built around 1910. At the time it was constructed, the plain, ornament-free facade created a scandal and even provoked a stop in work. For Seitinger, the impressive building in the heart of Vienna is an example of how "architecture can really impact the environment and change people's impression of the world around them."

Future Outlook
With her Ph.D. work, Susanne Seitinger wants to continue her previous research path on the interaction and influence of technology on cities and children.

As part of the research group "Smart Cities Group " at the Media Lab, she will continue her studies of the interaction between society, architecture, and technology. "Already an omnipresent element in most cities today, technology continues to shape the urban environment," Susanne Seitinger elaborates. "In the future, most of our environment will have more digital capabilities. Unfortunately, however, technology alone cannot make a city smart." Seitinger laughs and stresses an important fact that people sometimes tend to neglect: "Technology is just a vehicle or means to an end, not the essence of what makes a city liveable or a successful form of collective living."


The author, Stefanie Baumgartner, is a graduate from the University of Applied Sciences in Graz, Austria, and has been working at the Office of Science & Technology as an intern from September through December 2006.

The primary source for this article was an interview conducted with Susanne Seitinger on November 6, 2006.

Work of Susanne Seitinger:
Web site of Susanne Seitinger: < >

Seitinger, Susanne. "Animated Props for Responsive Playspaces ." Master's thesis in Media Arts and Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006.

Seitinger, Susanne. "Spaces of Innovation: 21st Century Technopoles ." Master's thesis in City Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004.

Seitinger, Susanne. "Emergency: Shelter ." Senior thesis, Princeton University, 2001.

Other sources:
Jean Piaget Society. < >

MIT Media Lab Overview Document.
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Piaget, Jean. The Construction of Reality in the Child. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955.
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Piaget, Jean. "Genetic Epistemology," a series of lectures delivered by Piaget at Columbia University. Translated by Eleanor Duckworth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.
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Reggio Emilia Approach. < >

Wien-Vienna: Looshaus. < >