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Children and their development as the starting point: A new way to think about the design of elementary schools

Although the active role of the environment in education has been widely accepted, only few schools render this consideration into built spaces. This is mostly due to a lack of communication between educators and designers. This paper aims to begin
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  MAGINEwalking into a building whereeverything is above eye level. With yourhead tilted back to take in your surround-ings, you travel down what feels like acavernous, never-ending tunnel. Every door you pass looks the same, the contentsbeyond each door blurring together in yourmind with no individuality and no personalcharacter. Now imagine someone said this was the place where you will be nourished,cultivated, and where you will find out who you really are. Every message the environ-ment gives is that personalisation, creativity,and excitement have no place inside thislarge and static building. This is the experi-ence of many elementary school children who attend schools designed with no regardfor their development. The environment of a school plays anactive role in children's development,including the way they learn. This position isheld by many developmental psychologists.Piaget and Vygotsky both claimed that learning and development happen throughthe interaction of children with the environ-ment and people (Hunt, 1969). Psychologist and educator, Loris Malaguzzi (1998), thefounder of the Reggio Emilia pre-schoolsystem, suggested that the environment is a ‘third teacher’, which has the power tospeak to children and stimulate them. The influence of the environment is widely recognised by architects and land-scape architects, both in its physical compo-nents (space) and its relationship tosocio-cultural meanings (place). In relationto schools, Nair and Fielding (2005) point out that the school building and groundscan be considered a three-dimensional text-book, offering curricular information, andhelping children learn about social relationsand norms (Sutton, 1996). However, most school systems do not seespace and place as actors in the learningprocess. Many school buildings across the world still reflect the traditional pattern of shoe-box classrooms along corridors. Archi-tects can play a role and propose designsbased on knowledge of child development,but the change must come from educatorsand communities (Hertzberger, 2008), thepeople who give meaning to schools.  A deeper understanding and collaborationamong school practitioners and designers isthe key to going beyond traditional educa-tional facilities. This paper helps bridge the gap betweeneducational psychology and architecture by 64  Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 28 No. 1© The British Psychological Society, 2011 Children and their development as thestarting point: A new way to think aboutthe design of elementary schools Alessandro Rigolon & Maxine Alloway Although the active role of the environment in education has been widely accepted, only few schools render this consideration into built spaces. This is mostly due to a lack of communication between educators and designers. This paper aims to begin to bridge the gap between pedagogy and architecture by exploring aspects of child development and implications for designing developmentally appropriate environments. Five aspects of child development are considered: physical; ego; cognitive; social; and ethical. What is known about child development in each of these areas has significant implications for designing schools in new and innovative ways to better foster student learning. This analysis of child development highlights common themes of how schools should be designed including a variety of scale, exposure to nature, and interactivity of spaces. This interdisciplinary approach to design has significant implications for the development of school buildings. I  giving evidence for the need for a moredevelopmentally appropriate design. Fivemain aspects of child development (physical,ego, cognitive, social, and ethical) and theirimplications for design are discussed.Common themes among the aspects arethen highlighted and related to concepts of space and place. The goal of this paper is tointroduce a new approach that integratesaspects of child development into designinsights for elementary schools. Knowledge about child development  Childhood is a time of rapid development.This development occurs in all aspects of achild’s life. For the purposes of analysis, wediscuss five aspects of development sepa-rately, despite the overlapping and inte-grated nature of actual development.Knowledge about development in the phys-ical, ego, cognitive, social, and ethical realmseach have implications for the design of elementary schools. Physical development  Physical development refers to changes inthe body and one’s control over one’s body.This involves muscular control, co-ordina-tion, and an increase in strength. Duringelementary school years, children learn toco-ordinate their bodies in relation to otherpeople and space. They also further developa sense of balance. Children do this throughexploration, movement, and adventure.There is a natural desire for children to test themselves physically, much to the chagrin of caretakers who nervously standby as childrenclimb, swing, and engage in other risk-takingbehaviours. These behaviours serve animportant purpose for a child’s physicaldevelopment. In addition, good mastery of movement and co-ordination is suggested tobe fundamental for intellectual develop-ment (Olds, 2001). When children takephysical risks, they are working on devel-oping physically. Children in elementary school are many different shapes and sizes. This is becausephysical development is different for different children. This is particularly true in thecurrent educational environment, with afocus on including all children in generaleducation classrooms, including those withphysical disabilities. Elementary age childrenare learning how to control and manage theirbodies as their bodies transform and grow. Physical development has several implica-tions for the design of the space and place where children spend more than 1000 hourseach year. First, schools need to provideplaces for children to develop physical skills(Olds, 2001). Spatial elements shouldencourage different interpretative ways of getting around, from rolling and crawling torunning and skipping. Large areas wherechildren can jump, swing, climb, etc., areessential to overall child development, they are more than simply places for children to‘let off steam’. This includes playgroundsand gymnasiums, which are often subpar intoday’s schools (Malone & Tranter, 2003;Moore & Wong, 1997; McKendrick et al.,2000). Playgrounds are intended toencourage good health, allow free move-ment in a contained space, and provideopportunities to breathe fresh air (De Viss-cher & Bouverne-De Bie, 2008), all of whichare important for development. Schools should support development  with ways for children to challenge them-selves physically. The school environment should provide opportunities to developphysical prowess through such activities as walking on small objects, climbing trees,swinging high or cycling fast; additionally,schools should provide elements that chal-lenge balance, such as tree trunks or low  walls (Day, 2007). Research shows that although schools provide an area for phys-ical activity, the design of most of these areasleave children bored and uninterested inengaging in anything other than a breakfrom academics (Moore & Wong, 1997).Children are not, in fact, challenging them-selves and enhancing their development,due to the few affordances provided to them. In addition, spaces for physical activity must offer numerous and varied opportuni-  Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 28 No. 1 65 Children and their development as the starting point   ties. Chawla (2006) writes about the impor-tance of thinking about the relationshipbetween the environment and the organismsinteracting with that environment, oftenreferred to as affordances. For children tomeaningfully interact with their environ-ment there must be affordances. However,affordances lie not in a particular object, but in the relationship between the object andperson interacting with it. Based on theknowledge that children develop at different rates, what is an affordance for one child ona particular day may be meaningless to that same child on a different day or to anotherchild. In order to provide all children withina school opportunity for further develop-ment, there must be many different objects,all of which will offer different affordances at different moments in time. Finally, the knowledge that children aredifferent sizes from each other (and fromadults) implies that space should bedesigned from a lower point of view. Severalscholars (Hertzberger, 2009; Lippmann,2004; Nair & Fielding, 2005) suggest that children like smaller places, more fit to theirdimensions. Schools designed with childdevelopment as their starting point wouldinclude nooks and crannies of different shapes and sizes appropriate for children of different shapes and sizes. Spaces for children must allow for phys-ical exploration, risk taking, and personalchallenges in various ways, but must also besafe. Norris and Smith (2008) list safety asthe most important consideration whendesigning spaces and products for children.Safety is a challenge for designers, consid-ering that children’s behaviour is unpre-dictable, due to a natural creativity that leadschildren to interpret the environment inmultiple ways (Day, 2007). This involvespaying attention to details and designingspaces that allow for errors. For example,furniture in schools must not only allow forchildren of different shapes and sizes but must also take into consideration safety issues related to children at various levels of motor co-ordination negotiating their way around the space. In addition, soft materials,such as rubber or wood chips in exteriorsettings, reduce the chance of injury due tofalling. Trees and other play structuresshould not be too tall (five to eight feet) forthe same reason (Day, 2007). While a certaindegree of risk is always present (Hart, 2002),especially when dealing with activitiesrelated to physical exploration, the design of both indoor and outdoor objects can play animportant role in reducing those risks, thusallowing for the variety of adventures neces-sary for physical development. Children develop physically, at different rates, during elementary school. Thus,schools must be designed with varied spaces where children can challenge themselves insafe ways. Ego development  During the years a child is in elementary school, that child is developing his/hersense of self. It is the time of life wherechildren begin to understand and speakabout the world outside of themselves, inrelationship to themselves (Piaget, 1932).Montessori (1967) claims that childrenabsorb all the characteristics of the environ-ment, which influences who they willbecome.In addition to developing a sense of self,children at this age are developing imagina-tion. Common is the image of a young childimmersed in an imaginary world that doesnot reflect reality. Fantasy becomes a bridgebetween the real world and the development inside the child. Nair and Fielding (2005)claim the importance of both imaginationand creativity in today’s and tomorrow’s world. Nurturing the development of imagi-nation and creativity is an important aspect of schooling for elementary children. Related to this development of self is theneed to feel safe in order to learn(Salzberger-Wittenberg et al., 1983; Watt,1994). Research shows that children who feelanxious or unsafe are less motivated to learn(Entwistle, 1987). Three major aspects of design influence the perception of safety: the66  Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 28 No. 1Alessandro Rigolon & Maxine Alloway   feeling of crowding, the opportunity to know one’s location, and physical anchoring. When children perceive crowding, they behave in a more aggressive and less interac-tive manner (Moore & Lackney, 1994), thusmaking it difficult for them to effectively learn in a classroom full of other students. It has been found that disorientation bringsabout a lack of security in people (Hall,1976). Building on this, one can see how spatial clarity would bring a sense of reassur-ance to children. If they know where they areand can find their way, they feel more secureand at ease, and are more likely to focus onacademic learning. Finally, a secure and solidphysical anchor, enhancing the feeling of ‘refuge’, helps foster a feeling of security inchildren (Alexander et al., 1977; Day, 2007).In order to support ego development and nurture a sense of self, schools must bedesigned with this knowledge. For example,the environment should avoid ‘telling’ toomuch or expressing a too clear symbolicmeaning through mediums such as largemurals with explicit subjects (Pairman &Terreni, 2001) or stereotypical images, forchildren can appreciate more complex signsrepresenting nuances of real life objects(Tarr, 2001). With less overt messageschildren are able to build meanings anddevelop stories (Gable, 2000). For instance,artwork does not need to be simplified forchildren, for with guidance, children willmake meaning of any piece of art. Theseopportunities turn the environment into ateacher, involving creativity and activethinking. The design of schools should allow forcreativity in other ways. Besides the obviousspaces for creative activities such as craftworkand art (Ceppi & Zini, 1998), there can alsobe other forms of sensory stimulation built into the school’s design, such as different forms light and a variety of materials. Theschool environment can activate a series of sensory activities, particularly through theuse of natural elements, helping childrendevelop their personalities in relation to theenvironment. The circulation space 1 can also bedesigned with child development in mind.Long hallways may be frightening to many  young children because they are not able tosee the endpoint of where they are going(Alexander et al., 1977). For this reason,some points of control along hallways, likenarrowing or turning points, would beappropriate (Barret & Zhang, 2009). Also, Alexander et al. (1977) claim that circula-tion spaces should look more like a roomthan a corridor: independent zones withthree or four classrooms help children iden-tify the location, distinguish their room(Nair & Fielding, 2005), thus make them feelsafer. Other ways to enhance the sense of safety is to create space scaled to children’s dimen-sions, like ‘baskets’ or niches (Dudek, 2000),or create a ‘ homelike’ environment (Hertz-berger, 2008). Those intimate settings, iden-tified as ‘home bases’ with personalisedmeanings, can be present even in largerschools (Hertzberger, 2008).The development of self, coupled withthe importance of imagination and creativity means that children need schools that provide opportunities for them to determinethe meaning of the environment and tolearn through the creative use of materials, while feeling safe and secure. Cognitive development  Cognitive development deals with an indi- vidual’s construction of knowledge. Whilethere are many theories about the construc-tion of knowledge, it is generally acceptedthat children need opportunities to explore,reflect upon, and talk about new ideas.Children need to explore the world aroundthem in order to learn. As John Dewey (1916) stated, ‘The development within the young…takes place through the inter-  Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 28 No. 1 67 Children and their development as the starting point  1  Areas dedicated to the movement among classes, like hallways or atria, which can also be used forcomplementary learning activities.  mediary of the environment’ (p.22).However, experiences alone are not enoughto learn (Adams, 1991), for children need toreflect upon the stimuli coming from experi-ences and compare them to each other(Bruner, 1973, as cited in Adams, 1991).Cognitive development requires makingconnections between and among experi-ences (Adams, 1991). The repetition of experiences can help children conceptualisemeanings through reflection (Adams, 1991).In addition to exploration and reflection,children need opportunities to talk about ideas with others. Learning is an inherently social phenomenon (Vygotsky, 1978; Wenger, 1998). The cognitive processincludes a variety of steps, including experi-ence, followed by reflection, conceptualisa-tion, and social interaction; however, this isnot a linear progression. One theory in cognitive development isthe concept of multiple intelligences(Gardner, 1983). Gardner suggests there aremany different ways individuals can be‘smart’ and each way is found to varyingdegrees within an individual. There is not one continuum of intelligence. This theory has had significant effects on education(Bransford et al., 2000). Using Gardner’s(1983) premise, Nair and Fielding (2005),suggest that children learn in different ways,in different times, in different places, andfrom different people or places. Increasingthe number of learning modalitiesaddressed in a classroom has been found tosignificantly improve learning outcomes(Baumgartner et al., 2003; Ku & Sullivan,2002). Gardner’s theory furthers the ideathat learning is complex and should bedifferentiated. Hence, the designed environment should provide spaces for hands-on experi-ences, reflection, and social learning whileproviding teachers access to support each of the ways in which students may be intelli-gent. Schools should be designed to accom-modate the variety of intelligences andindividual needs of students (Barrett &Zhang, 2009; Nair & Fielding, 2005). Facili-ties built in the traditional way, with rectan-gular classrooms and corridors, do not do so.Changing the spatial features of classroomsand extending the learning settings beyondbasic cells are two effective strategies tosupport all learners. For example, L-shapedclassrooms allow various activities to takeplace at the same time (Lippmann, 2004).There must be space for both collaborative work and quiet individual study (Baglione,2006). Spaces out of the classrooms, if designed with certain features (wideness, variety and natural lighting), can become‘learning streets’ (Nair, 2005) where interac-tions with other people are positive events. One of Gardner’s (1983) intelligencesmost relevant to this discussion is spatialintelligence. Spatial intelligence deals withthe ability to visualise space, understand how it is organised, and find one’s way. Regard-less of a child’s natural intelligence in thisregard, all children are developing theirspatial competence during elementary school years. Four spatial features can help childrenfind their way in school buildings: landmarks,spatial sequences, functions and colours.Research shows that children use specialpoints, considered landmarks, to organisetheir mental map and make decisions about their routes (Biel, 1982; Golledge et al.,1992), and that such devices are easier tomemorise when they are placed at nodes(Golledge et al., 1992). Second, childrentend to organise their usual routes indifferent parts, creating a sort of sequence toremember the location of settings along thepath (Allen, 1981). Third, children tend touse the function of the destination as a way toorientate themselves (Christensen, 2003;Heft & Wohlwill, 1987). Finally, Olds (1987)suggests that colour is the most effective way to visually recognise space. For example,colour and other markers used to differen-tiate the various areas of the school, high-lighting the functions or pointing out thepresence of landmarks. The combination of these elements can be an effective way tofacilitate way finding in school facilities. 68  Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 28 No. 1Alessandro Rigolon & Maxine Alloway 

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