Making Things that Make Things Better by Noah Kenneally

September 29th, 2011 by Rubina Quadri

Noah wrote an article for Free Paper, produced by Whippersnapper Gallery and Paper Pusher Print Works. It was called “Making Things that Make Things Better”, and here it is.

Last year I got involved in a pretty amazing project. I’m an early childhood education student at Ryerson University, and was hired on as a research assistant with Dr. Jason Nolan, who runs a research lab called the EDGE Lab. EDGE stands for “experiential design and gaming environments”, and is an interdisciplinary lab involving a bunch of different faculties at the University – New Media, Radio and Television Arts, Engineering, and our Faculty of Early Childhood Education to name a few. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the lab, the research going on there is all over the place – ranging from inquiries into how online interactions influence children’s offline interactions, the potential for autonomy provided by social technologies, what kind of social learning happens in games, and why play is so important.

I build things for kids with disabilities out of cardboard, and have been learning, together with a bunch of other folks how best to do it all summer. We use cardboard that I pull out of the University recycling dumpsters, and we build specific objects for specific people for specific needs.

The project started a couple of years ago, when Dr. Nolan was strolling down the street in Manhattan one day with a friend who uses a wheelchair. They happened upon a storefront with an intriguing window display, and were overwhelmed when they wandered in and discovered that it was packed with “assistive objects”, things designed to help people with disabilities live more comfortable, interactive and independent lives.

The place was called the Adaptive Design Association, and what they did there was nothing short of revolutionary. They work one-on-one with people to construct devices specific to that person, using cardboard. Cardboard is a cheap, strong, flexible and forgiving building material that is available all over. You can prototype really quickly using cardboard, test out an object to see if it will do what you want it to do – and if it doesn’t, you can recycle that first try and try something new.

Dr. Nolan, who is pretty involved in disability advocacy, was so impressed with the Adaptive Design Association’s work that he enrolled in some of their training programs, learning their techniques and bringing them up to Ryerson, where he and his research assistants began to experiment with them. He developed a relationship with the Early Learning Centre lab school at Ryerson, and began to build objects for some of the children there.

I worked as an artist for fourteen years before coming back to school to train as a kindergarten teacher. My artwork was mainly a combination of visual art and theatre, and ultimately boiled down to performance art. My favourite medium to build with was cardboard, and I used it in pretty much everything I did, so when I started working with Dr. Nolan it was with a lot of previous knowledge and skills.

I got really excited by the potential it had for upcycling – which is using something typically destined to be thrown away for some other end, taking stuff out of the waste cycle. Using stuff that’s being thrown away to improve someone’s life is pretty gratifying. Objects built with adaptive design techniques are specific to the person using it, adapted to their particular needs to improve their quality of life and interactions. A chair that was built for a 4 year-old in the preschool room at the Early Learning Centre not only helped her sit up on her own and play in the sandbox – it also helped the rest of the children in her class understand that she was a kid just like them, and facilitated some real social contact. Small, light cardboard benches with rocking-chair legs help children who need the stimulus of movement be able to get that stimulus and still participate in social activities like circle time and listening to a story read aloud more easily.

The cardboard is glued together in layers to create sheets of light, strong building material. There’s a reason everything is shipped all over the world in cardboard boxes – it’s really strong! With only a few layers of cardboard we’ve built things that can support the weight of full-grown people. The cardboard construction techniques used in adaptive design processes are simple and brilliant, and can be done with basic hand-tools that are easily available. Our basic toolkit is made up of utility knives, white glue, dowels and paper. With a little know-how and practice, you can knock together a host of multipurpose, useful objects that are environment-and people-friendly.

There’s so much potential to use so much of what we throw out in different ways, and doing so could make all kinds of things better, in all kinds of ways. For more info about the EDGE Lab’s Adaptive Design Studio, please email

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