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BANNER, Fall 2013: Integrating Life, Learning and Play

Over the past several months, Brookwood parents, faculty and staff have excitedly watched the construction milestones of the new Lower School – foundation poured, blue board put in place, weathervane raised. But the meat of the project – the educational meaning and curricular purpose behind the architectural decisions – is something the eye can’t see. A months-long process combining the intellect, talent, and training of Brookwood’s Lower School teachers, Head of Lower School Nancy Evans, two gifted architects, and construction team leaders, created not just a structure but a unique learning space that at every turn serves, nurtures and teaches our youngest students.

“The physical environment sets the stage and creates the context for everything that happens in any [educational] setting—a classroom, a play yard, a multipurpose room. Ultimately, the physical environment must convey values and messages about what is important, and what the beliefs are about how children learn.” So write Sharon Ritchie & Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

Lower School Head Nancy Evans couldn’t agree more. When planning began on the learning spaces within the Lower School she relished the opportunity to help design a building to support the division’s forward-leaning curriculum. “I knew first and foremost that it was important to have spaces respond to our strong, research based program. And we kept in mind that design details and the conscious use of color and light can act as the third teacher in a classroom,” says Nancy. “Physical space is the ‘silent curriculum’ and a building’s design can support how teachers teach and how students learn. It integrates life, learning and play.”

During the design phase each Lower School teacher met with architects Thad Siemasko and Jen Hocherman of Siemasko + Verbridge. Nancy sent them off with a singular guiding charge: “Think of how a space can support your work.”

The architects in turn were ready to listen. "Every conversation I've had with Thad and Jen has felt limitless,” said Grade 2 Teacher Elise Koretz. “They heard our practical concerns and responded to them with choices.  At the same time, they have asked what would be the ideal if there were no limits.  Thinking ‘big’ and practically at the same time has led to a really dynamic space.”

Kindergarten teacher Katie Alexander adds, “I had a great conversation with Jen Hocherman when we sat down to plan the furniture.  She listened to the changes I wanted to make while explaining what may or may not be feasible for various reasons.  She was open to all of my suggestions and was a quick problem-solver too.”

After months of collaboration the group arrived at designs, classrooms and shared spaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing but that also support the dynamic project-based curriculum ongoing within the Lower School.  Below are eight specific features, the story of how they came to be, and how they support and foster teaching and 21st century learning.

1. Town Hall
Having an entry to the divisional area that offered a feeling of welcome was a clear priority in Nancy Evans’ mind. “The space is organized around a main square that will serve as an interactive meeting point and a place for common activities,” says Nancy. “My dream is that as you pull around the corner in the back, you get a feeling of invitation and welcome – an entrance that aesthetically says ‘Welcome and come in here.’ Once inside the message to all is ‘we honor children here!’ Relationships are built, families are respected as part of our community and children love learning. And, with beautifully displayed paintings and projects in process, there will be a clear message that there is a lot to experience here.”

2. Flexible Spaces
Classroom and common area spaces that are flexible was featured high on everyone’s wish list, says Nancy, for several reasons.  One being that it supports teachers’ ability to differentiate instruction in a classroom. Breakout spaces, affording a quiet or interactive work spot, support teachers’ efforts to serve different working styles.

Secondly, breakout space supports all the components of project based learning, from planning to presenting. “Planning is such an important precursor to project based curriculum.  I can't wait to have a breakout space so we have places to store and display plans, projects that we can return to day after day, and dedicated space for audience presentations.”

Echoing the notion that intellectual agility needs flexible space, First Grade teacher Sarah Dawe added, “The flexibility of the new space really supports the spirit of constant change and forward movement in Lower School. We love re-examining and strengthening our curriculum to reflect best practice and better meet the learning needs of each student. Flexible space allows us to do so much more readily."

3. Easy access to the outdoors
The ability to bring the “Inside out, outside in” was also highly desired. Educators know that work in the “outdoor classroom” supports exploration and discovery in young learners.  “The ability to easily go outdoors gives kids that fluidity and independence to check on chickens, write, reflect, do all these cool things without the limits of a teacher needing to take the entire class,” says Grade 3 teacher Jen Cunningham Butler. “What sorts of things might the kids come up with once they see our classroom as both an indoor and an outdoor space? It will literally break down the artificial boundary of classroom walls.”

4. Shared communal space
As stated in Brookwood’s The New Face of Rigor, “students learn best when they feel physically healthy, personally recognized, and emotionally safe.” And so it follows that fostering connectedness and giving our students a strong sense of community is a fundamental value at our school. Shared communal space within the new Lower School is a significant feature of the new facility that will provide a place for students to meet, connect and collaborate both within grades and between grades.

5. Big open space
As one teacher says, “Bigger open space also allows for creativity to remain 'in play' for a while.  We can leave projects out for on-going construction instead of putting things away because the space is needed.” Allowing young learners to circle back or return again and again to a piece of work can only happen if there is sufficient space to keep the work out and accessible in the classroom. For this reason, the division will now feature large, open multi-use areas.

6. Nooks and small group areas
Classrooms in the new Lower School also feature cozy nooks and small group spaces, which are especially inviting for young children. As PreK teacher Karen Shorr points out, the various space options within the new facility "give students the independence to take on leadership roles.  This in turn allows teachers to float, support and check-in.”  Additionally these areas allow teachers to create “centers” with minimal distractions.

7. Display space
Many teachers also asked the architects for ample space to display items students create. Just as having large open space allows for works in progress to remain accessible, having dedicated display space will allow children’s work to remain on display as exploration, learning and project-based work continue on a particular subject.

8. Conscious use of color, light
Finally, as anyone who has endured a lecture in an old-fashioned, institutional space knows, details matter a great deal. Therefore the architects and the Lower School team devoted great attention to the conscious use of color and light within every classroom and every common space. The belief supporting this choice is that a space that is aesthetically pleasing is intrinsically inspiring.