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Approaches to Early Childhood Learning by Context

Kindergarten, nursery school, preschool, daycare, child-care centres or early learning centres...each embody specific meanings in its context.

Notes are taken from Kindergarten Architecture (2005) by Mark Dudek, Sarah Scott's Churchill Report: Design For Children's Services (2008) and from website Imagine: Inspirational School Design. (See Reading List for more information).


The Japanese early childhood education system is supported by a mixed range of state, religious and privately funded facilities which provide services for 85% of children over the age of three. The competitiveness of Japanese society means that early learning is considered an important step on the education ladder. (Dudek, 2000: 3)

Relating to the small scale and playfulness are not just for children's centres in Japan, these qualities pervade their whole culture so they excel at creating space for the young. They are adventurous, using interactive components to add creatively to the architecture, not inhibited by over restrictive codes. We can learn a lot from the Japanese about providing enrichment: through attention to detail and cultural relevance, providing a hierarchy of scale, inventive use of materials, texture and colour. (Scott, 2008)

Socially, early childhood centres are very much a part of the school system, not just for care, bu ti viewed as an important transition from family to school, and family involvement is encouraged. Inevitable in such a large structured society (the uniform is everywhere, polite rituals dominate all exchanges) the idea of children having privacy or a voice is not high on the agenda. But Japanese culture cherishes children and provides them with a context that is nurturing. (Scott, 2008)

The outdoor play areas are not conceived as gardens but rather as utilitarian areas, often quite stark with minimal facilities. Japanese centres are quite densely populated with a small space to child ratio. (Scott, 2008)

Fuji Kindergarten, Tokyo: Tezuka Architects

Context: A privately run centre, it accommodates for local (middle-class) children as well as some commuters, it also runs a bus service with specified pickup points.

Pedagogy: Is not based on any European models such as Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Froebel or Steiner (considered "old"). There is however, an emphasis on learning through play. It's programme also includes reading, writing, English lessons, an adventure playground, outdoor lesson space, and a real Shetland pony! Plus it includes organised trips to nearby farms. All learning happens in one classroom for each year group.

Space: The open play space is large for lots of running around. It is, however, very exposed, offering no spaces for quiet retreat.

Child-scale: The architecture has considered the scale of the child, with everything designed for children to manoeuver about.

The Architecture: Scott in her analysis says: "The idea of bringing everything back to first principles pervades everything, from the uniform wooden furniture and plain white walls to the open air exposed steel and concrete stairs."  (Scott, S, 2008: 9)

Playful elements include the slides from the landscaped roof and the trees that permeate the building, enabling the children to climb. The circular layout of the centre I feel is fairly controlling and perhaps is used for monitoring behaviour...The centre also appears to be fairly hidden, and shut off from the wider community.


The Sure Start programme started in 1997 as a Government initiative, resulting in a number of new centres being built across the UK. These have focused on how to combine child and community services.

From Scott's analysis of the UK's approach to early childhood centres: "The British love individuality, clutter and complexity, it is a product of their heritage and these qualities dominate their children's centres.

Cowgate Under 5's Centre, Edinburgh: Alan Murray Architects

Context: Edinburgh is a grand and picturesque town with a rich history. The centre is located in the old part of town just below the castle. The area is steeped in history back to the 14th history. Narrow cobble stoned streets twist and turn up a steep hill with a castle atop a rock. Many small paths wind up the hill with archways, cafes, pubs and shops opening onto the pathways, creating many interesting nooks and crannies. The centre is nestled in behind a row of old terraces. It is accessed through an archway, down some steps. The centre is housed under a protective metal clad curved vault in two stories, with staff and service areas upstairs and playrooms downstairs. The outdoor play area is not visible from the close and steps down the remainder of the site with a large ramp, which is integrated into the play area.

Pedagogy: The centre is based on Froebel's philosophy - providing a beautiful natural environment and meaningful activities discovered through play (cooking, gardening, looking after animals, recycling, and creative expression). Scented candles, ambient music, harmonious colours in the interiors, the child is seen as an autonomous individual able to take risks and responsibilities. There is a separate pet in each room and a working kitchen where the 3's and 5's make bread each morning. There is also a compost and worm farm for the garden where they grow vegetables and a high scope outdoors play area with climbing frames.

Child-factors: The fluid arrangement of playrooms in relation to the outside and the service areas gives the children real freedom to be autonomous and feel cnnected. the feature partition wall between play areas and the corridor are thoughtful with different sized and coloured openings at all different levels. It is child-scaled and full of playful interest. The rooms are big enough to have climbing equipment inside and the high skylights lets in light.

United States of America

In the USA, early learning are usually classes associated with the main school. There are also 'nursery schools' which are privately run, often funded by corporations and located close to parents' workplace, as well as some 'play group' facilities. Child development centres support children from poor communities and are organised under the well known Head Start programme - which seeks to engage the whole community in the life of the institution with parents expected to offer their time. (Dudek, 2000: 3)


The Children's School, Stamford, USA: Maryanne Thompson Architects

Context: Situated an hour out of New York, the area is also the wealthiest residential area in America. Most children who attend are locals, but some come from afar. The only way to get to the school is by car. Set in manicured floral gardens amongst beautiful natural forest of birches and other European trees. The site offers an ideal setting.

Pedagogy: Montessori based, but they also acknowledge Piaget, Dewey, and Hiemgenacht and put a particular emphasis on the triangular relationship between the environment, teacher and child. Some of the principles they adhere to are:
- Work at the child's level on the floor, there are very few chairs
- Art for process not for product. Art can be taken home or stored away but for the most part it is not displayed. Rather look at nature.
- Keep it simple: black, white, grey, order, space, light. The storage is extraordinarily organised and out of site, hidden behind white doors. Each area is minimally furnished with geometrically defined minimalist pieces and then any objects put on the table are carefully arranged. Everything is highly ordered. The Montessori tools are arranged like artwork.

Space: The open plan area is loosely divided into home bases which are defined by the fragmented roof form. In addition, they have a gym/dining area, an art house, and two separate residences plus the old school building, which are used for parent and staff areas. There is a large open outdoor play space with two big sandpits.

Child-factors: The children love the high skylights, interesting roof volumes, and tall tree windows. The recessed pits and soft square climbing boxes.

Encounter or enclosure? The light modulated roof form, big picture tree wondprs, the external bridges and verandahs connect the centre to the natural surroudnings, yet still feels cosy and protected. The fluid open plan is conducive to the interplay between staff and children, working as a team.

The Architecture: Elegant, simple, contemporary - the building is literally cut into by the natural environment and the lighting and views throughout to the trees beyond. It is naturally lit, ventilated and uses natural materials as much as possible. Water is collected to be reused in the garden and recycling was considered throughout the project.

Photo's from Imagine - Inspirational School Design


In France, state-run early schools are usually called ecoles maternelles, while privately run schools are called jardins d'enfants. The state sector now serves over 95% of children aged 3-5. France also operates other day care provision, such as creches, which cater for under 3's and some centres de petit enfance (children's centres) which deliver combined age-integrated services. (Dudek, 2000: 3)

Ecole Maternelle, Marmoutier: Dominique Coulon 

Context: Located about half an hour out of Strasbourg in a small wealthy village dominated by a beautiful 10th century stone Abbey. The view in all directions is of well manicured farmland, often bordered by a row of tall plane trees with the mountains far off in the distance, and old traditional cottages nearby. It is very picturesque and quiet. The school is below the street line, down a gentle grass slope. So as you approach it, you first see a dried twig fence, then the folding roof line, the dark materials making it fairly discreet and inconspicuous. Preschool from the ages of 3-6 is free, and at Marmoutier the hours are from 8am-11.30am, then home for lunch and then 1pm-3.30pm.

Pedagogy:The classroom set up is very formal with tables and chairs, a front teachers desk and blackboard. The school also included a library and computer room, it appears that the school is seen as an extension to primary school.

Space: In France, all government buildings are put to open competition, each architect is paid for their submission and then a relevant jury selects one. There was no involvement with the teachers or children in the early design stage. The client asked for five classrooms an, one library and one gymnasium. The architects suggested the gymnasium be central and open to eliminate corridors and provide and open plan fluidity.

Child-factors: There is little outdoor connection, and play space. Yet there is a rich use of materials and lighting, and a varying roof plane.

The Architecture: The architecture statement is one of multi-layered complexity - the colour and materials and lighting work with the roofs planes making for beautiful compositions, with each room being different.

Sustainability: Massive walls retain temperature internally, whilst a lighter outer skin allows heat to be lost in summer. The building faces south-west, and underfloor heating and cooling from water pipes is utilised. There are also sensors in the roof that turn on mechanical vented fans when the air rises is too warm. Roof water is collected in an internal, visible water basin.



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