Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Story Still Being Told

The Woodland Park Cooperative School is currently housed on the lower floor of the Fremont Baptist Church. Prior to that we occupied rooms in a different church. As much as I liked where we were and love where we are, both locations, as is the case with most preschools, are "make do" places, in that they are spaces originally intended for other purposes. In a very real sense, the quirks of those make-do spaces, the design, the architecture, invariably shaped the kind of school we were and are.

It was impossible for me to capture the full architectural impact of this school with my limited photography skills and and phone camera. For better photos, you might want to click around on the school's website.

Few of us will ever have the opportunity to start from scratch and create the preschool building of our dreams, one that perfectly accommodates all we want for the children we teach, that removes hazards while encouraging "just right" risky play, that serves their emotional, psychological, and physical needs, that has the flexibility to be used for all the things about which children can dream. I've often, in idle moments, wondered what my ideal school would look like. Not long ago, I even took a crack at writing some of it down, but reality for most of us is that we must more or less take our physical space for what it is, shaping it as we can, but allowing it to shape us as well.

These stairways represent the branches of a tree, connecting the general use areas with the upstairs homerooms.

While in Iceland last week as part of the Play Iceland conference, we had the opportunity to spend a day at a school called Krikaskóli (where I had my magical encounter with Icelandic fairies) that was indeed purpose-built for a specific school community. It was a project that began before the financial crisis of 2007 under the guidance of Principal Þrúður Hjelm. It was a time of great financial strain and it nearly sank the project, but such is the commitment of Icelanders to education that the resources were found and the building completed some three years ago.

Built in a flat suburban setting, the entire job site was dug down so that the two story building didn't block the views of current residents, which also creating a playground with grassy hills.

Viewed from this perspective the outdoor space may appear a bit sterile, and yes, those trees still have some growing to do, but when I got down in it, I found it far more "dirty," "used," and natural.

The school still feels brand new, sparkling. As Ms. Hjelm explained to us, the entire "house," as she warmly called it, was inspired by the metaphor of a tree, a school with roots in a play-based preschool model, with branches growing all the way up to what we in the States would call third grade. It is a mixture of homerooms created for the specific developmental needs of the various ages and open spaces designed to encourage them to mix together. 

This wall becomes a waterfall in the rain.

There are rooms for specific purposes, like physical fitness and music and carpentry, in which every detail has been thought through, right down to acoustics, storage, and "what else" the space could be used for. The three dressing areas, where children don their rain and cold weather gear, were each designed for the specific age groups they served, with drains in the floors and special cabinets for drying out wet clothing. The outdoor space was inspired by the mountain views and features a mixture of "traditional" and natural play elements. And like all Icelandic schools there was relatively little stuff.

This structure was designed to match perfectly with the large unit building blocks so that the children can built it out to suit their play purposes.

We were given free run of the place and I found myself in love with, and slightly envious of, the architecture of Krikaskóli. It was fascinating to be in the middle of a school community's vision for itself, but the longer we were there, the more aware I became that this was a project still in its infancy, that the advent of this building, this house, was only a marker on the journey that Ms. Hjelm and her community are on. It's a story still being told.

This space was created for music, with much thought given to acoustics, but is also used for block play.

While looking at the school's magnificent and well-equipped wood working space, I was struck by the lack of saw marks on the workbenches or paint splattered on the walls. On the playground I went searching for evidence of children having been there, and found it -- worn places in the grass, some small muddy holes where potions had been mixed, branches broken from the saplings that stood in for a forest -- but they were faint markings compared to the ones found, for instance, in our make-do space. Perhaps it's just that this is what I'm used to, preschools in need of a fresh coat of paint or new carpeting or a drop of oil on the squeaky door hinges, but I found myself wishing I could read the next chapter of the Krikaskóli story.

The dressing areas were reminiscent of something you would find a ski lodge. Those children waving at me were some of my Icelandic fairies.

Ms. Hjelm sat with us for a long lunch that featured an Icelandic dish that a Scottish Play Iceland colleague told me was "haggis," a dish I've long feared. (Again, like everywhere in Iceland, the children of all ages ate it without complaint. ) As we spoke over our long lunch together, she told the story leading up to this point, but it became clear that from her perspective the Krikaskóli story was still at its very beginning, confirming my feelings, and she was only just getting started. As she shared her vision with us, I found myself inspired, even if I didn't yet see all of it unfolding on the day we visited. Creating a great school is a long game, as this school's story is here to attest.   

Fire pits are common at Icelandic schools.

I've never had the opportunity to build a "house" from scratch, but our community recently found ourselves the beneficiary of one of our smaller dreams coming true: our community greenhouse, where we hope to be able to grow food with our children year-round. Architecturally, it's everything we wanted, but here we are a month an a half into the new school year and we've barely used it. Oh sure, adults are in and out all the time, and we have plants flourishing in there, and yes, there are still some outdoor things we've needed to complete, including a few safety additions, but there is a definite tentativeness as well. It's as if we're afraid to get metaphorical paint on the walls. There is no doubt that getting everything one wants comes with the pressure of now making it work.

It's normal, of course. In a very real sense, as posited by the Reggio Emilia pedagogy, our environment is a colleague, the "third teacher," and there needs to be a feeling out period in the beginning, just as there would be with a flesh and blood colleague. This is where I think we found the Krikaskóli community. And as wonderful as the school is today, I told Ms. Hjelm I hoped to revisit the school in five years time, when there would be "some paint on the walls." She laughed and invited me to do just that.

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