Sep 09, 2013
THEME: Learning

Room with a View: Transforming Early Education Spaces with Simple Design Solutions

When conjuring up an image of a preschool classroom, a space with bright, primary colors on every surface come to mind. But should this be the case? Studies have shown that a connection to nature through the use of natural materials, calming colors and a view to the outside prove better for an early childhood classroom environment.

The Barrington Early Learning Center provides an interesting case study. In this project, we experimented with lighting, views, color and material to provide a better environment for our smallest learners.

The school has a high population of special needs students, many of whom have autism. Autistic children can be especially sensitive to lighting. The staff at Barrington tested several fixtures in situ and chose a pendant light fixture for its minimal downlighting and overall soft light quality. In addition, the lights are on daylight sensors and are frequently turned off.

Research has indicated that contact with nature and views provides a calming effect, reducing blood pressure, cortisol and hyperactivity. This is especially important for those with attention difficulties or hyperactivity.

In this project, windows are low so a child can see directly outside.

This inverted bay window (below) in each classroom provides a cozy corner where children can connect with nature.

Students can see this wetland right outside their classroom windows, where many native species thrive, from plants to amphibians to birds.

Children are more likely to remember color than form. Primary colors in the classroom can be related to hyperactivity, agitation, and exhaustion, especially when paired with fluorescent lighting. Because so many of the items used to teach early childhood are brightly colored, the classrooms at the BELC intentionally use natural colors and materials, leaving brighter colors to the corridors to provide identity and energy.

Perkins+Will had the chance to specify the furniture in the project.  For the classrooms, we chose objects made of natural wood with neutral colors whenever possible.

On the other hand, public corridors define each ‘learning village’ with a color and season theme (yellow – summer, green – spring, orange – fall, purple – winter).

On my last visit, I was able to see the in-progress mural being painted (by local Barrington resident and artist, Susan Johanson Palumbo) at the front entry of the school. The mural expresses the four seasons and native species to Illinois, with animal parents attending to their young offspring – a fitting symbol for parents wishing the best for their children at Barrington Early Learning Center.

  1. Cary Prater
    9:08 am on September 13, 2013 | Reply

    I agree that a view to the outside environment helps to calm and soothe students. I teach in a new high school that has the wall to the open common areas made from glass. While this promotes a sense of connectedness in our students, it also makes for concern when performing our ‘Shelter in Place’ drills. It definitely increases vulnerability to outside negative forces whether intruder or tornado.

    • Aimee Eckmann Aimee Eckmann
      3:04 pm on September 16, 2013 | Reply

      Hi Cary. You make a very good point. This is, of course, an important topic of discussion with our clients. I am copying below an exerpt from a Perkins+Will document regarding the subject of safety and security in schools which, I hope, addresses your comment:
      Schools face competing challenges: design facilities that are hard for intruders to enter, while also providing a warm and open environment that nurtures student performance and health. The safety measures taken by some schools to improve security – such as bars on windows – may have pernicious effects on student and teacher morale and performance. Some suggest that the transparency achieved by open layouts and glass can offer alternative improved security methods. Glass has become a material of choice as many curriculums now recognize the importance of increased collaboration,the effects of natural light, and sustainability on students, teachers and administrators. Ultimately, the appropriate amount and placement of glass will be the product of deliberative discussions.
      • Children with regular exposure to natural light are both healthier and taller than those who spend
      most of their time in artificial light
      • Students in classrooms with lower levels of natural light are absent from school 3.2 more days
      • Natural light can improve learning through increased productivity and alertness
      • Heschong Mahone Group Study – identifies test scores 7-26 percent higher for children with
      plentiful natural light – 26 percent higher in reading and 20 percent higher in math
      • Lowers off-task behavior
      • Fluorescent lights can be particularly disruptive to children – with the hum and flickering effecting
      autistic children in particular
      • Natural light reduces energy requirements
      • Building siting and orientation
      • Window and/or skylight design
      • Top-lighting
      • Splaying walls and utilizing matte reflecting surfaces can reduce glare
      For more information – Daylighting in Schools, Grades K-12, AIA/Architectural Record Continuing Education Series

  2. Jonathan
    3:40 pm on September 13, 2013 | Reply

    Yippee Aimmee! this is excellent. I’m excited to see another post like this again. How about one on spaces that encourage creativity? Or maybe you’d like to experiment with my art classroom? Just come on in and do your magic, I won’t hold you back!
    Do you suggest any interior design books in education?
    Otherwise, there’s a cool book, Make Space by some stanford D school people that I’ve been checking out.
    Rock on Aimee!

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