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school building design

Say goodbye to the brick schoolhouse

Think back to your kindergarten classroom. If you can stretch your memory that far, what, if anything, do you recall? Do any significant details stick out? If you’re like most people, you probably don’t remember much aside from your teacher or maybe a few friends, but that’s not necessarily because your memory is failing you. Maybe there just wasn’t anything that special about your kindergarten or pre-K classroom to begin with. That’s not to say that you didn’t receive a good education there, but researchers and educators are increasingly finding that a classroom’s physical environment and a school building’s design as a whole can have a profound impact on the learning and development of young children and babies. In the last several years, architects have gotten in on the act, too, creating not only the most innovative and beautiful kindergartens you’ve ever seen but also some of the most striking and impressive buildings in the world—period.

Before we take a look at some of these structures, we have to understand a few things about how children learn. Unlike schools for older kids, early-childhood education focuses, yes, on education, but even more so on development: teaching the social and behavioral skills that children carry with them for the rest of their lives. How they learn—by seeing, touching, feeling, smelling, even tasting—means their immediate environment has a huge effect on their growth. It’s a no-brainer that anyone, children included, learns better in an environment that he or she likes being in. And since researchers have found that children prefer the outdoors to being inside (another no-brainer), progressive educators have done everything they can to bring what children like about being outside to the indoor classroom, incorporating things such as constant variation; a flexible environment; manipulable parts; opportunity for physical challenge, exploration and discovery; and a wealth of sensory richness. Gone are the days of the brick schoolhouse where children sit at desks arranged in rows facing a teacher at the head of the room. Now educators actively seek to break down the hierarchy that used to exist between teacher and student, and they’ve called on architects to design spaces where this is possible. 

Of course, some standard practices of early-childhood development apply. Children still respond to things such as light, texture, bright colors and the occasional change in scenery. Architects have responded with features such as floor-to-ceiling windows; sloped floors; climbable classroom elements; and, in one case, even a rooftop play space. Unfortunately, the United States continues to lag behind the rest of the world in this area, but we can look to some key players in Norway, Brazil and Japan for inspiration.

Fagerborg Kindergarten in Oslo, Norway, designed by RRA (2010). Images courtesy of RRA.

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Oslo’s new Fagerborg Kindergarten has been getting a lot of media attention ever since its completion in December 2010. Designed by Reiulf Ramstad of the Norwegian-based architecture firm RRA, Fagerborg had to abide by several neighborhood construction guidelines. The local authority required that it have a “contemporary expression” in contrast with the area’s 1920s- to 1950s-era homes. This was hardly an issue for Ramstad. Fagerborg, with its oblong profile, wood-paneled exterior and scattered window placement, has since become something of a beacon of modern design in Oslo. More important, it provides a great learning environment for kids. Four classrooms for children ages 1–3 and 3–6 are configured so they can be joined together or remain separated. All the classrooms share a common room in the heart of the building that facilitates a sense of community, and all the rooms and hallways are lined with wood of various textures and patterns, like circular cutouts. The inclusion of wood as an outdoor-meets-indoor element seems to be more design-driven than a conscious choice with regard to early-childhood development, but it’s been met with an overwhelmingly positive response from the children as well as their parents, who are signing up in droves.

Primetime Nursery School in São Paulo, Brazil, designed by mk27 – Marcio Kogan and Lair Reis (2007). Photographs by Nelson Kon.

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Happy accidents are not the order of the day at Primetime Nursery School in São Paulo. At 9,700 square feet, Primetime is roughly three times the size of Faberborg and, as such, is one of the largest and most ambitious kindergartens ever built. In addition to architect Marcio Kogan and his partner, Lair Reis, the project involved nine other architects, two interior designers, two lighting designers, a landscape architect, a structural engineer, a kitchen consultant and various other consultants. At first glance it looks more like an art museum or design studio than a place suitable for children, but every aspect of the design was specially conceived for Primetime’s “exclusive educational concept,” for infants to 3-year-olds. Kogan used a system of ramps to achieve an open “operational ergonometry” that considers both the children and the adults who use the space. Air and water quality were top priorities, as were the soft-flooring used in most of the rooms and the yellow, orange and red color palette that was carefully chosen to balance light and create a harmonious and “stimulating atmosphere.” Child psychologists will certainly approve, as research has shown that infants, in particular, like luminous colors such as red, orange, yellow and pink. 

But for all its modernity, Kogan installed a playhouse in the school’s backyard that’s a page right out of the fairytale playbook. Even his own daughter, who attends the school, prefers it over the main building. “I did not like the roof,” she purportedly writes on his website, “because it is very high...but I did like that it has little round holes, like a cheese. I also liked the ramp that I can crawl on and that everything there is very colorful. Yellow is my favorite color. I have a lot of fun with the windows that are really big and everything there has a lot of light.... But the spot that I liked best is an old wooden house in the backyard. There I can play a lot, everything is my height and nothing can hurt me! I thought that this was very cool.”

Fuji Kindergarten in Tokyo, Japan, designed by Tezuka Architects (2007).

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Though Primetime does seem a little overkill for infant care, it’s thoughtfully designed and beautifully appointed. Still, the school I’d most like to attend if I could do it all over again is Fuji Kindergarten in Tokyo. A few years ago, its students began to outgrow the school, so the principal (who’s the grandson of the original principal) decided to rebuild. He called on husband-and-wife architects Takaharu and Yui Tezuka, who designed a circular building with a playground in the middle and a slightly canted rooftop where the children can play, doubling their outside area. The roof is clear of any toys or games, encouraging them to create their own, and its slight incline toward the outer edges encourages them to run around it. Each classroom has a skylight and a rope ladder that the children can climb up and out of to get onto the roof. They can then slide down or use the staircase.

Further freedom is afforded with the school’s open floor plan. The classrooms have no partitions between them, and sliding doors in each room open up to the outside space. Informal seating arrangements break down the barriers between student and teacher that can inhibit the learning process. It’s an approach so progressive that the government refused to fund it, but so far it seems to be working. The kindergartners literally run all over the school, jumping and climbing on any available surface. Playtime is monitored, of course, and adults still have the run of the school, but the key element to why Fuji’s plan works so well is that the children feel equally important. With all the freedom they could ask for, there are no impediments to learning, developing and enjoying what could otherwise be considered the arduous and awkward process of growing up.

Perrin Drummis a California-born, Brooklyn-based writer with strong feelings about design, architecture, art and film. She’s currently working on her MFA in fiction. You can see her work at

Top image: Fagerborg Kindergarten in Oslo, Norway, designed by RRA. Photograph courtesy of RRA.

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