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The building blocks of learning

So much of the teaching in early learning revolves around the importance of a child’s environment on their development. Over the last 100 years, many divergent philosophies have evolved with a wide breadth and depth of thinking and with an equally wide range of architectural responses.

In my recent travels I visited about 50 children’s centres and each one was unique. In some the various philosophies have blended, but quite a few clearly identified themselves with one particular branch of thought.

For instance, the Froebel schools I visited reflected Froebel’s belief in the importance of children partaking in meaningful activities discovered through play – cooking, gardening, looking after animals and so on. “Children learn by doing” was one of his famous axioms. Froebel viewed the child as an autonomous individual, able to take risks and responsibilities. This is reflected in designs that provide for such autonomy, where essentially all parts of a centre are child accessible.

At the Cowgate Centre in Edinburgh, a self-declared Froebel school, the kitchen is within a playroom with a child height bench interface between the main working area and the play area. The storage along the main corridor wall has built-in steps to allow the children to reach to the highest levels and put away their own things.
Similarly, at the Kindergarten Friedrich-Ebert-Straße in Heilbronn, Germany the children climb between the small cubby like playrooms via the internal climbing stacks, while the adults must use the rear stairs to visit these child-owned spaces.
Continuing with the forefathers of early learning, perhaps the best example of Rudolf Steiner’s architecture is, in fact, his own Goetheanum, built in 1924-28 on the remains of the 1913 timber original. Inside, colour is used to evoke emotion and resonate with our inner being. Geometry takes on a symbolic role, expressing both the intangible and the abstract. However, there are no straight lines or rectilinear rooms. Every aspect of this building has been designed to reflect Steiner’s theory of mankind as a threefold manifestation, not just the intellect but the spirit and the body as well.

A more contemporary interpretation of an equally well established philosophy is The Children’s School in New Canaan. Seeing itself as being Montessori inspired, rather than fully Montessori, this beautiful centre reflects the pared down structured simplicity of Montessori’s child-centred approach. All clutter is removed, hidden away in a formidable series of concealed wall cupboards. Every aspect of the design conforms to a rigorous minimalism: black, white, grey, pure geometrical forms set out with formal order, softened only by the fluid open plan of the space. The activity happens at the child’s level: on the floor, so there are few chairs and the floor plane features steps and pits to provide variety. The Montessori emphasis on naturalism is realised in that the centre is entirely outwards looking with indirect natural lighting flooding through the ceiling and vistas of trees or expanses of sand visible in every direction.

In total contrast, the schools of Reggio Emilia, with their focus on experience, experiment and expression, are an exercise in multi layered enrichment. Each built environment consists of an internal hierarchy of space, form and colour. While quite inward looking, all are interconnected. Nothing is completely open or completely separate. In the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre preschool, a rich 19th Century warehouse has been re-cycled, its generous timber roof structure contrasted against the pop modernist fit out of soft plastic lolly coloured cubbies.

In Scandinavia, rather than trying to create it all indoors, one school of thought has transferred the focus entirely back to the outdoors. The Mulle ‘In Rain or Shine’ schools function outside every day and all day, believing that it is healthier, more natural, more stimulating and more fun to be outdoors. So, architecturally, they have provided only minimal installations within the natural setting. But the natural setting is still very much manipulated to provide child scaled alcoves, secret cubbies as well as more challenging physical courses.

Designed, in fact, to provide a variety of options to keep everyone busy all day. The attached buildings are still required to provide storage, respite and some formal structure to the day as the children are required to form into groups just to fit inside.

Elsewhere, Alison Clark, an educational researcher in London, explores the idea that the child is an expert on what the child needs, and so should be given a political voice. The program she carried out, assisting the architects at Ashmole Primary & Pre School, was to design the new additions using the children as clients helping to define the brief. This has led to a fairly typical inner London school building being customised to provide specific microcosms that have altered the way the school is used and perceived. It has become “user friendly” with more interface between the usually segregated communities within the school and with more attention to the links between inside and outside. The work done on the school was not statement architecture; it was about establishing relevant child friendly spaces and creating relationships between those spaces and the rest of the building.

Current emergent thinking, while not moving away from the child-centred approach of all the above, is now embracing a bigger picture. This involves looking not just at the child but towards the child’s context of family and community and the role of facilities in contributing to this interface. Part of this thinking is the current emphasis on integrating children’s facilities with family services and outreach facilities, but there are also architectural implications.

For instance, in Stockholm, Klisterburken Preschool, the House of Possibilities aims not to provide just a centre for children on a domestic scale, as in the past, but to provide a school with a more public face, a place of connections. The preschool and long day care are built around a central communal space that can be utilised by all. This model is also used in Finland, where several schools are combined on one campus but with a central and transparent communal space that is often a dining area and gallery or library combined. These buildings are designed to have an impact on the neighbourhood and to be seen as a feature and focus, a beacon within the community.

I embarked on my Churchill Fellowship with the aim of exploring the best that architecture has to offer for early learning environments. Along the way, I discovered that architects can learn a lot from the disciplines of early learning teaching. In reverse, I hope this article reinforces to teachers that architecture can and does have a huge impact on the way we respond to each other and to our community.

Sarah Scott is a partner of Scott & Ryland Architects. In 2009, she undertook a Churchill Fellowship to study the design of exemplary children’s centers in Europe, Scandinavia, New York and Japan. Her consequent book, Architecture for Children, has just been released.

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