It really does take a village.
My 4-year-old son guides an overflowing spoonful of scrambled eggs from plate to mouth. Lean over, I remind him. Half ends up on target, the rest plopping to the floor. Good job. Please clean up the mess, I encourage. Hopping off his chair, he scoops up the stray bit of egg and pops it in his mouth with a proud grin. Dissatisfied with his attempt with the spoon, he reaches across the table, and crams a final fistful of breakfast into his mouth and runs off to play as I call out, please wash your hands. And so it goes, day in, day out, year after year – patience, encouragement, patience, encouragement, love, and patience.
Articles in the New York Times and elsewhere about the success of New York City’s Universal Pre-K reflect the millions of working parents in similar patient, loving and sometimes exhausted shoes as my own. The ages from three to six are a “magically” profound time when physical development and social organization place them on the cusp between dependent toddlers and self-sufficient individuals. Will my child put his shoes on the right feet today? Will she play alone or with new friends? Will he advance his base ten counting from ten units to hundred units? This period of a child’s rapid evolution requires teachers to be specially trained and focused on daily life skills. This is very different from caring for infants or teaching upper elementary students. Likewise, the design requirements for facilities that support children at this age – and their teachers – are also specialized. Dedicated toilet rooms, additional changing space, lower sink and counter heights, available places to nap.… The list goes on.
As MGA&D begins designing our 7th public school for the NYC School Construction Authority in 11 years, it is glaringly evident that the demand for well-designed new schools for America’s next generation is rapidly accelerating.
Successful environments for early-childhood education are a fine balance between specificity and flexibility — specificity in accommodating the particular needs of toddlers and teachers, and flexibility that allows and even encourages a range of simultaneous activities. Classrooms should have ample controlled natural light, views to the outside, good acoustics, storage and shelving. There should be enough space to create smaller, distinct rooms within the room, with furniture and finishes appropriate for the intended uses, such as easily cleaned surfaces for eating areas and soft flooring for story time.
Although they contain a variety of features, these environments should not be over-complicated. Instead, they should be intuitive and simple to use so that teachers spend their time focused on the children and not on re-arranging the room.
As MGA&D begins designing our seventh new capacity project for the New York City School Construction Authority in 11 years, it is glaringly evident that the demand for well-designed new schools for America’s next generation is rapidly accelerating. Besides the introduction of Pre-K programs and improvements to special ed, the sheer number of students needing education in appropriate class sizes keeps growing. New York City, for example, has more demand than sites for new schools or expansion of existing ones. As a firm, we have eagerly been involved in school design for decades, leading us to design public, charter and private educational facilities in suburban, urban and hyper-urban environments.
For both toddlers and teachers, successful environments for early-childhood education are a fine balance between specificity and flexibility.
While the configuration of those varied sites uniquely affects the architectural approach, the design mandate is simple and clear: create a SAFE place that encourages friendship, fosters independence and curiosity, and supports personal growth. When school buildings and grounds are successful, they can be used as tools that support both teaching and learning. Smaller classes undoubtedly allow more teacher focus on the individual. However, 20-30 students per teacher is the norm in public school planning. In hyper-urban settings, we are further challenged to transform the potential chaos of a dense environmental into an orderly and yet exciting place to learn. Two fundamental design factors contribute to our success. One is creating clearly organized and efficient floor plans and building sections that improve supervision and wayfinding. The other is to give the environment a character that is conducive to both learning and enjoyment –using daylight, acoustics and color. These are simple devices that speak to human factors.
Human factors are more and more important for social development as we hurtle into the era of mobile technology. Technology has dramatically transformed the way we learn and communicate as a society. However, school is about more than curriculum and test scores, especially in the age of two-income families and single parenthood. It’s about connecting with our community and shaping our children’s formative years socially, emotionally and intellectually. Teachers support children. Well-designed school facilities support the teachers and together we build communities.
Yes, it really does take a village.