When I went to school, my classrooms were so boring. Because of that, in the back of my mind I’m always gathering information and thinking: how can I design this school to make it feel like a place I want to be, like a place a child would want to be?
Melissa Greene, Associate, HMFH Architects
We call that kind of thinking child-centric design because it focuses on the student’s needs and interests, and it’s critically important in the design of environments for children. As designers of schools, we’re always thinking about children and how they move, think and play. We want to make sure students’ physical environments are emotionally engaging, supportive of their learning and their creativity. That critical concept travels through all our design decisions. This means we spend time understanding the students’ daily activities within the school or classroom and anticipating how the spaces might support those activities and we talk with educators and students to get their input and to make sure our choices support their goals.
For instance, we think a lot about designing to the scale of the child. Windows, cubbies, lockers and seating areas are carefully designed and scaled so that students know the spaces are specially created for them. Particularly for younger children, we build in whimsy and fun through playful use of color, form, and pattern; and the unusual juxtaposition of design elements sparks a student’s curiosity and inspires creativity.
At HMFH, designing child-centric spaces also means keeping up to date with neurological research on learning and understanding the implications of that research on the spaces we design. We are seeing clear themes in that research that reinforce our current design ideas but also point to new ways of thinking about the design of learning places. For instance, research is telling us that students learn more readily when emotionally engaged in the subject matter. We know that stress reduces the ability to learn because the thinking lobes of the brain’s prefrontal cortex shut down when we are stressed. Conversely, creativity is fostered when students feel safe, supported and free to explore their interests. We know that neural connections are strengthened, reinforcing learning, when students are exposed to the same ideas through different types of learning activities. We also know that physical activity reduces stress and has a positive impact on a child’s cognitive performance. So what does this all mean for how we design schools?
At the Thompson Elementary School we designed the school to be a joyful and supportive learning environment. To minimize any stress associated with students’ first school experience, we made sure it was a welcoming place for their families. The design draws the families into a colorful and light-filled lobby space and then provides a clear path to special transition spaces outside of classrooms where students can spend time with their family members before or after school. This is a place where the students know their whole families are welcome and supported.
For older students the first step towards creating a warm environment is to break down the traditional institutional feel of school.
We do this by getting the students engaged in the design process. At the Bristol County Agricultural High School, we had individual conversation threads with the students about the new building and how they would like to use it. The students asked for connections to outdoor areas, and a community space that really flows between the outdoors and indoors. That connection to nature was important, but they also valued the option for flexibility and to shape their space over time. Those elements were key to creating a comfortable and welcoming place for them.
Bobby Williams, Senior Associate, HMFH Architects
We also bring spaces for a range of activities close to one another, so it is easy and natural for students to explore different types of activities with any learning experiences.
At the German International School’s Early Education Center, which isn’t very big, we used colors to articulate the corridor and section off projects areas, quiet reading nooks, and a range of areas for individual and group activities within and outside of the classrooms. We make it easy for teachers to set up and for small students to test out different activities and build confidence in different ways of learning.
Alexandra Gadawski, HMFH Architects
For older kids, we include break-out zones for activities like individual study, collaborative projects, social conversations, or crafts, so that students have space to develop their own interests, and to feel creative within a larger school setting. Such project spaces are now a regular component of our school designs. We want to design to the scale of their ideas.
No one likes to sit still for long; physical activity is important and has a positive impact on learning. We are building in opportunities for movement at all scales, from wonderful new types of seating allowing students to wiggle and squirm without disturbing others, to spaces for project-based learning that allow for movement while building stuff, to creating connections from the out-of-doors to learning spaces so students can move in and out easily. Even providing different types learning spaces allows student to take a break and reengage by simply moving from one place to another.
All of these techniques are child-centric. Whether providing a small child with a small nook to curl up in to read a book, or carving out a small group area off of a corridor for teenagers to perform a skit they have written, every design decision should help support the student socially and emotionally as well as cognitively.
At HMFH we design spaces that will resonate with the students and help them understand that they are important and that learning is important, and that their school has been designed for them. Spaces have the power to re-awaken thinking, provide comfort and support academic growth. That potential is at the core of why child-centric design is so powerful.