Following a year of remote learning, education design has an opportunity to take a more radical approach. Simon Reid, Managing Director of public sector design specialist Lungfish Architects, explores how we can use the environment around us to inform good school design and improve pupil wellbeing post-COVID.
Over the past 12 months, it has become abundantly clear that we all crave and value a connection with nature. Through the course of the pandemic, walking has become hugely popular as it’s allowed us to fulfil that connection and breathe in fresh air. The positive effect it’s had on people’s lives is due to the known impact that green open spaces and fresh air have on our cognition.
The same can be said for education. Schools with good access to the outdoors have been in a better position to support key worker children and provide a safer environment for teachers throughout lockdown. It follows, then, that there will be a natural increase in appetite for classrooms and our children’s education to include better access to the outdoors post-COVID.
As architects, it’s our job to create spaces that positively affect how people live and, in educational settings, learn. It’s why, even before COVID, we were exploring the positive effects forest schools and outdoor learning have on children.
Originating in Scandinavia, forest schools have existed in the UK since the early ‘90s and champion the outdoor environment as a place to nurture creativity through self-activity and investigation. While it’s been a bolt-on to the mainstream curriculum since its introduction, forest schools may well provide a more viable option for school leaders to explore post-COVID.
These types of learning environments benefit our children’s mental health because of the nature of their design. Or, even, because their design is focused on nature. The philosophy of forest schools and how they interact with the environment forces us to quite literally go beyond the building to consider what will be most beneficial for those using it.
The benefits of balancing indoor and outdoor learning, and the landscaped facilities that support it, are achieved by careful consideration of the long-term outcomes and the happiness of pupils and their teachers. At a time when the Government is placing a significant onus on public sector construction projects to ‘build back better’, it’s this ‘beyond the building’ view of school design that could shape a new generation of schools that create an even better learning environment.
In early 2019, we celebrated the completion of Cotton End Forest School in Bedfordshire. Cotton End Lower School was originally a small Victorian village school. Now, it’s a three-form, 686-place school nestled amidst cherished community woodland.
At Cotton End, 60% of the teaching now takes place outside, no matter what the weather. This inversion of teaching environments meant that we had to approach the design of the school in a totally different way. This started with speaking to the teachers themselves.
Knowledge is a prized asset when it comes to design, and the collaborative engagement sessions that we held with staff were essential to informing the plans for the school. Crucially, these sessions forced us to focus on the practicalities of the school and how the building could best serve the children’s learning experience.
We began by removing the corridors. They take up significant amounts of space – 25% of most schools, in fact – but moving the inside outside for this school meant we didn’t need to think about the linear designs needed to link classrooms. School design is very rule-driven, but challenging the rules allowed us to arrive at a solution that serves the school better.
By removing the corridors, we had created a campus of four teaching pavilions, each housing their own section of the school. Now standalone spaces, each classroom had direct access to the real classroom: the forest itself.
This direct connection to the environment offers pupils plenty of opportunity to mix classroom-based lessons with outdoor spaces; a pond with a dipping platform, an amphitheatre, meadows, forests, outdoor classrooms, a market garden and market square.
Once we embraced this relationship with the outdoors, other design features were created. For example, every pavilion has a ‘tack room’ and breakout space, where the children could don their waterproofs and wellies on the rainy days, becoming part of their every day.
Naturally, being a forest school, trees played an influential role in its design. As we had removed the corridors and separated the pavilions, we turned to thinking about what connects the space in a forest. This, of course, is the tree canopy itself.
All across the site, we installed teaching canopies – sheltered outdoor classrooms – that provide a shared learning space. But truly unifying the design is the ‘forest gateway’ at the entrance to the school – a vast sloping roof that joins the canteen and hall with administration areas, lined by an avenue of trees and creating a cohesive and welcoming entrance.
Beyond the building
The Government has already stated that construction will be key to the UK’s post-pandemic recovery, particularly through the public sector. That’s the ‘what’. The ‘how’ depends on us, as designers and builders, and also as educators.
This means further challenging the design of a building, as well as its usage. We must continue to ask ourselves how a space is really used, what don’t we need and what we can use from what we already have.
For a school, on a design level, this means removing extraneous space and finding innovative solutions. On a usage level, we must consider how children learn and feel when they’re at school.
Following the pandemic, this is where the true change in approach must lie, and it’s where a ‘beyond the building’ outlook creates a school that supports the development of happy children.