How do children learn? This must be one of the most important questions of our age. At school they learn stuff which is currently viewed in somewhat sterile terms, normally emphasising the future well-being of the nations’ economy, instead of that of the child. This is reflected in a primary school curriculum which is narrowly framed; priority is given to literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training, often to the exclusion of more creative subjects such as art, music and drama. Time, it seems, is too precious to waste on such ephemera. But how do children learn about more nuanced life qualities, such as friendship and collaboration, peace and environmental consciousness, creativity and reasoning, the things that will make them truly human?
This dichotomy is often described simplistically as ‘learning and schooling’. Learning is what goes-on in the classroom, schooling takes place in the hallways, the dining spaces and the playgrounds, on the sports-fields and beyond, as though they were two autonomous areas of study. One has a value which can be readily quantified and takes precedence over the other which is harder to measure. In reality they are part of the same over-lapping spectrum which constitutes childhood’s progress in all of its rich kaleidoscopic breadth. But the intricate geometries of learning are not just confined to the school; inevitably architecture and the wider environment have a significant role to play in how and what children learn.
However there is a problem. Over the past 25 years unaccompanied groups of children have disappeared from the urban and sub-urban environments between school and the home. They are no-longer there. Fear of strangers, traffic and distrust of what children themselves might get up to if left to their own devises, has fuelled a need for ever tighter control, the public realm as it once was, is diminished as a result. This thinking provides a limiting idea of what childhood is for, and what it could aspire to be. For many, their most formative years have become a form of elongated incarceration.
Meanwhile, the state values children as if they were merely future units of production, their value is defined by a simple equation, cost per square-metre of the school buildings they occupy, together with the salaries paid to their teachers, set against the school’s SATS examination results. This it seems is the sole metric of worth. Therefore in the current political climate of austerity, cheap as chips school buildings are just one exemplar of this reductive spirit. The high stakes testing regime sends 36% of our children off to secondary school aged 11, officially categorised as failures.
This presentation challenges that thinking, arguing that architecture and its contents are of fundamental importance to the learning project. However, when permitted the world beyond the school gates is where children learn the most, leastways the 36% who are less academically inclined, and approach learning in a more sensory way, with the application of their natural curiosity, experiencing architecture and the various environments to which they are exposed, as a continuous realm of rich, vibrant discovery.
With the benefit of hindsight, this was certainly the case when I grew-up during the 1960s and ‘70s, where the countryside beyond my back-garden lay open to me like an extended play-ground of natural discovery. Some of the most formative personal experiences in my education, and moments of broader understanding, emerged outside school. Today many people bemoan the constraints placed on the current generation of children. Combine this with a new ‘digital playground’, with social media and gaming of the most addictive kind, all appealing strongly to children. Understandably, the modern world of childhood is viewed by many parents with great anxiety.
However, I argue that we must be much more optimistic about children’s lives. In my view there is something very interesting which has occurred over the past 25 years, transforming the ways in which we should value education in all of its forms; a cultural effect which has the potential to transform learning and improve lives in the future. It has to do with the way in which architecture and space reflects the child’s individualistic ways, their cultural leanings, and thereby has the scope to correlate a cognitive web which enables and sustains learning. It’s partly the benign connectivity which has developed between commercialism and the everyday life of the modern child. It’s a delicate and complex balance which needs to be held in check, however there is great value in playing one against the other. I will illustrate this anecdotally, by way of my own children’s mini-story.
How do my two young teenage children learn to dance, and more importantly how are they motivated to stick with it, attending classes two evenings a week after school, year after year? Initially there is an element of pop-culture in play; they regularly check the Instagram account of social media stars Maddie and Mackenzie, they have attended their mass dance event, (a Christmas treat), joining with thousands of other young girls at the highly architectural Copper Box building on the Olympic Park. They are now imbued with the spirit of these cartoon like people, who provide an immersive three-dimensional inner image which is very powerful. This turns them onto the creative possibilities of dance, suddenly it is cool. Now the architecture takes-over at a more local level.
There is a dance class at the gym attached to the school which has a number of purpose designed performance spaces. They can join-in with an age appropriate class of modern dance moves, led by an adult dance teacher. It is important that they can relate emotionally and stylistically to the space, (and the teacher). Together with a group of their own peers, they all dance together in their stylish blue leotards. They are using the school’s facilities which are publicly accessible after hours. The image and the space must resonate. It is a collaborative event, faintly tribal but in a positive way. It is unlikely that they will be able do it alone, unless they are unusually self-motivated. Most importantly, they are modifying the space by the way they use it, individually and as a group. It is similar to my own experience 40 years previously when I was inspired by Jackson Pollock at work on his drip paintings, splattering paint in dance like movements across a huge canvas laid flat on the floor. Although I viewed it on a flickering black and white TV set, it turned me onto art and poetry, interests which have lasted a lifetime. As Einstein said, ‘Learning is experience. Everything else is just information’.
In How Architecture Learns from Children, I describe the most important historical moments since the invention of mass education, where education and architecture converged, including the London Board Schools from 1870 and the modernistic glass and steel structures which encapsulated the ‘community school idea’ during the post-war years. This is brought up-to-date with an analysis of the BSF Schools built between 1987 and 2012, which marked a change from paternalistic views – ‘they will have what they’re given’- to the more child orientated philosophies which brought a new generation of advanced school building design to the fore. Suddenly, architects were expected to observe and understand how children use space, not just in the school, and to embrace their research as an integral part of their design processes. As a consequence, many of them learnt from children, and children in turn loved their schools.
Thus evolved a natural form of learning, more in tune with the modern world, with architecture, and its varied layers, an essential part of that story. But what are these theoretical layers? Key prototypes will be illustrated by way of 16 case studies: for example, recent ‘state of the art’ schools will be featured including Hellerup School in Copenhagen and the Westminster Academy which show how design can fit more varied forms of group and individualistic activities outside the traditional classroom which create an appropriate image to which children can relate.
Also the very shape of the age-old classroom will be challenged as a form which can be more fluid and flexible, with a number of recent examples in use; they reflect the ways in which younger children use space, with body and mind more fully immersed within the architecture, always emphasising the importance of contemporary style within this equation. Each will be explained partly in educational terms, but also with rich architectural language and imagery.
In addition, learning spaces outside the school will be described and illustrated to show how sensory learning can aid cognition particularly in younger children. For example the watery wonders of the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in use, will be delightfully illustrated and explained in terms of the child’s youthful body and her developing brain, functioning harmoniously, at the very extremes of her capabilities. The space challenges her to take risks, the outcome is learning.
Corporate spaces will also be featured, such as shopping malls, urban zones where both adults and children hang-out. For example Xavier Lopez Arcona’s ‘Kidzania’, children’s museums such as the recently opened example in Mumbai and other state of the art children’s play spaces such as Discovering Kids and others with innovative children’s features, which extend the realm of learning way beyond the nursery. Total urban environments like the Italian Reggio Emilia, home of Ferrari, with a town design which is focussed on the needs of the child, rather than the car, will be illustrated to show not only how architects learn from children, but how town planners learn too. If we design our public spaces through the eyes of the child, the result helps to form happy, functional citizens.