Exhausted Pirates and Insomniac Astronauts Blog by Dr Dylan Yamada-Rice

Exhausted Pirates and Insomniac Astronauts

Using design-based workshops to understand children’s sleep knowledge

Dr Dylan Yamada-Rice, Acting Head of Information Experience Design, Royal College of Art

This blog post reflects on sleep workshops that myself and Amy Clark undertook on behalf of Dubit in order to inform a new play about sleep called Sweet Dreams by tutti frutti, a theatre company specialising in productions for young children. The development of the play is funded by the Wellcome Trust and includes Sheffield Children Hospital NHS Trust and the Children’s Sleep Charity as partners. These two partners are experts in child sleep, and along with a wide body of research, can testify that sleep deprivation has a serious impact on emotional, physical and mental health, and is a growing problem for children and their families.

Thus, Tutti frutti decided to respond to this need for wider knowledge about the importance of sleep by embedding information on its benefits and the fears children may have of it, into the Sweet Dreams play they are producing for 3–7 year olds.

Why We Sleep

A book by Mathew Walker describes all the things that can go wrong if we regularly neglect our sleep or develop sleep difficulties- and they are not nice! Sleep is, he describes, of extreme mental and physical importance providing a vital period of recovery for both types of health:

‘It is well known that sleep is the universal health care provider’ (Walker, 2017, p. 108)

Despite this, Walker goes on to describe how our attitudes to sleep are culturally driven, and that in the West there can be a tendency to feel embarrassed if we sleep too much because it is seen as lazy. Walker suggests that we need to reframe this and reclaim a love of sleeping.

Designing Sleep

Such cultural attitudes were present in conversations myself and Amy had with young children when we undertook a series of workshops in an infant school in the UK to inform the design of the play. For example, when we asked children to draw where they sleep, and then place it on top of a clock to indicate what time they go to bed, some placed their drawings off the scale to show they sleep exceptionally late.

Children’s expressions of the time they sleep

Although some of these children might have been exaggerating their bedtimes, the excitement with which they described late nights was evident. Again, this fits with Walker’s claim that sleep is one part of a careful balancing act along a sliding scale that includes the desire to stay awake.

Following the above exercise to understand where and when children sleep, Amy and I asked the child-participants to design a bedroom to help a series of exhausted Lego mini figures go to sleep. The idea was to allow children to explore their existing knowledge of what makes good sleep through a hands-on design project. This allowed the child-participants to think and express their ideas through making which can be easier for young children than directly entering into a conversation about it with an adult-researcher. It also responds to Sander’s (2006) ideas about the importance of involving audiences in design as an essential element of production. Ideas which are increasingly being applied to the design of experiences too (Lee, 2008), which is the case here with the production of a theatre performance.

The day before the workshop I came across a disused doll’s house with all but one room missing- the bedroom- perfect serendipity!

The Design Challenge

Researcher: “This is really important. I borrowed these Lego figures from my son and none of them have been able to sleep for a long time so they are so tired. One of them is a gold medallist Olympic swimmer and he hasn’t been able to sleep, and one of them is an astronaut and hasn’t been able to sleep…so I am wondering if you can design a bedroom to help these tired people sleep? What might help them sleep? It can be anything you like“

In analysing the data from the workshops some key themes emerged:


Perhaps because of the young age of the children who could remember being rocked to sleep or by watching younger siblings, many of the groups included movement in their designs for better sleep. This included rocking bunkbeds, hammocks, and upside-down beds that could move in the wind.

Rocking bunkbed

Intruders and Monsters

Many groups created designs that would allow them to feel protected from imagined intruders or fictional monsters:

“It’s a Hammock.

”Researcher: “Why do you think a hammock will help him sleep? “

“Because it is up high and no predators will get him.”


The biggest theme to emerge from the data was that good sleep requires comfort. Many children spent a long time making comfortable and cosy spaces to sleep that included elaborate pillows and oversized blankets and duvets.

Oversized bed


Part of being comfortable involved being the right temperature and having a choice of what blankets to use. Some children described how being enclosed was comforting and provided warmth.

This work is needed more than ever as is demonstrated by the following slide from Sheffield’s Children’s Hospital NHS Trust providing an indication of the scale of the problem:

In the next stage of this project, the key themes found in the design-workshops data will be fed directly into the development of the play. In addition, I will work with three Information Experience Design students at the Royal College of Art to develop new techniques for theatre audiences to participate in research about sleep. These will be physical-digital interactive means of collecting data either before, after or as part of the play. For now I’ll end with the poem that began the project:

Leave the ordinary behind and step into a place of wonder;

snuggle down in a place of still, silent sleepy slumber, a place just for you…..

When I go to bed at night,I tuck myself in very tight,

Dream catchers and stars sparkle bright,

Fears and worries now out of sight,

Soon my sweet dreams dance in the cool moonlight.


Lee, Y.(2008) Design participation tactics: the challenges and new roles for designers in the co-design process. Co-Design, Vol. 4, No. 1, p.31–50.

Sanders, E. B. N. (2006) Design research in 2006. Design research quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1.

Walker, M. (2017) Why We Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams. Allen Lane

Dylan Yamada-Rice


Acting Head of Information Experience Design, Royal College of Art & Senior Research Manager, Dubit. Research and design of digital play for children.