by Tim Witzig
The form of the Early Childhood, Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten classroom has certainly evolved since Susan Blow set up her classroom and new Kindergarten Teacher Training School 30 years before the 20th century began. However, many of the characteristics of those first classrooms for young children are still visible in the spaces we teach in today. Blow and other pioneering educators and researchers of early childhood education established the basic design principles for educational spaces that we continue to expand upon today.
These historic images from the archives of Missouri History Museum (St Louis Mo.) show large rectangular spaces, high ceilings, tables and chairs sized for young children, art work placed on the walls in playful arrangements, different areas for different types of learning. One can see the play table furniture, and the reading table areas, the plant area, the castle set on its own little stage, the music area, the class pet area. There are even lines painted on the floor to create set ups for games, or perhaps alternate furniture and space arrangements.
Susan Blow was a pioneering United States educator who opened the first successful public Kindergarten in the United States. In recognition of that achievement, she is known as the "Mother of Kindergarten.” Following the theories of Friedrich Froebel and others who came before, Susan established a model for the early childhood classroom layout and physical appearance in the United States. As early as 1873 she and her contemporaries believed the greatest educational concern of the time was the amount of young children who dropped out of school.Blow and those who influenced her, believed a kindergarten system would improve the dropoutrate, because children would be starting school at an earlier age. They also believed "learning through-play" in conjunction with cognitive development was the type of environment that was necessary in these types of classroom.
Today, educators, architects, furniture system designers, floor finish manufacturers’, educational casework manufacturers, play-system designers all strive to enrich the goals of those early educational pioneers. They strive to produce designs, spaces and furniture that enhance the early childhood classroom, assisting teachers in creating discrete areas for different types of learning. To create spaces that foster learning in an organized and structured way. At the same time Architects and Interior designers strive to enliven, lighten, enrich and engage the imaginations of children and adult users. This sometimes comes in the form of well-built organized and coordinated furniture and finish systems as one sees in the classroom of Montessori School . Or the wonderfully playful and light circular classroom of the Atelier designed International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo Japan. It can also come in the form of spaces that display an Inspiring Architectural character such as the Harris Family Children’s Center classroom. In this space the floor and ceiling change dramatically to create distinct areas for learning both in plan and volumetrically. These spaces not only inspire the students, but inspire the teachers. They fire the imaginations of educators helping them to find ways to engage children as not just occupiers but creators of their environment and school.
PKSB has always embraced the importance of creating meaningful spaces within the educational environment, whether that space is for formal learning, social leaning, or physical learning. Creating spaces that foster and support both targeted learning, and learning beyond the formal classroom lesson has been of great interest to our staff and to our educational clients it turns out. Meaningful, useful, and surprising spaces for learning can be created in so many ways and the tools to visualize and develop these spaces are becoming more sophisticated every day. They allow designers to enrich the early childhood classroom in ways that Susan Blow would be proud of. It can be as simple as creating a space for quiet storytelling within a library, to developing new flexible and stable modular furniture systems that allow educators create as many as 7 discrete areas for play and learning in one rectilinear space. It is an exciting time for early education and the time is right for designers to look back at the original goals, reinforce those original goals, and with the visualization tools we have today, bring new meaning to these important educational spaces.