Facility Planning

My Day as a Kindergartner

A few years ago, when the Mukilteo School District, in Washington, hired DLR Group to design a new, 600-student kindergarten center, I was excited and—honestly—a little terrified. Recognizing the growing needs for early learners, Mukilteo School District decided on the idea of the kindergarten center in tandem with the passage of new state laws for all-day kindergarten. In lieu of adding additional classrooms to each elementary school in the district, the district opted for a central, kindergarten-only school as the most efficient solution to their capacity challenges.

Naturally, this idea of a kindergarten-only school presented a unique opportunity to design a facility for a single age group. What does a school look like if it is designed specifically for them? We knew that a successful facility for these learners required us to “forget” what we thought we knew about traditional elementary school design. We needed to fundamentally challenge everything.

So, we began a process that attempted to reshape our existing paradigms.

In order to do this, the design team went through several empathetic exercises with the client. We asked people to genuinely connect with the specific needs of a kindergarten student. For instance, in our initial workshop together, everyone was asked to share pictures of themselves as a kindergartener and to introduce themselves as they were then. We also completed day-in-the-life exercises that asked participants to imagine a young learner of the future, considering their family, their unique needs, and learning styles. Immediately following, the teams introduced and shared details about their students. It was then that we got our first glimpse of our future students.

Lesson Learned: Empathy is a critical element in the process of solving complex challenges.

Using DLR Group’s intranet platform, I surveyed our entire firm of approximately 1,200 people to share their first memories of kindergarten. The design team then categorized their responses. A high percentage of responses reflected on play and creativity, but surprisingly, equally as many were related to fear, anxiety, and rules. Personally, I hadn’t thought about kindergarten that way, as much of my personal recollection centered around play. By asking this simple question, the team began to really consider how we could alleviate some of this childhood anxiety.

Lesson Learned: Ask the question, even if you think you know the answer.

To expand upon those reflections of childhood, I decided that it had been way too long since I had been in kindergarten. As a result, the director of Facilities for Mukilteo School District and I sat through two, half-day sessions of kindergarten to see what else would strike us about the daily activities of this unique age of learners.

First and foremost, we recognized that although necessary, transitions take valuable time away from learning. As you can imagine, moving a large group of kindergarten students can be both difficult and time consuming. In particular, shuttling students to work with specialists consumes a large amount of time during the school day. I watched as students were gathered from a variety of classes, dressed in outer gear for the trek, and were guided to a small portable classroom across the campus where multiple specialists worked with small groups. The space was poorly designed, too noisy, and too small for effective intervention. After the sessions, students re-dressed in their outer gear and traveled single file back to their respective classrooms.

Knowing that this specific group of students could gain the most from uninterrupted learning time, I asked myself, “How does this situation help students?” I knew immediately that design could mitigate this scenario.

To reduce transition time, we introduced two concepts: push-in specialists and decentralization of services. Push-in specialists travel to the student to work inside the classroom or an immediate adjacent space, and utilize cubbies and cupboards in the classroom to hold materials or supplies needed for each lesson. Each learning house includes an eating zone to minimize travel time for meals and snacks. Plus, an indoor and outdoor play space shared by two houses is located immediately adjacent to each house. Every aspect of the school day—education, nutrition, and play—is within reach. This child-centric approach would reduce daily transition time for students up to 30 minutes in a six-hour day. When extrapolated across a full school year, that results in 90 hours, or 15 full days of learning recaptured. A lot of learning can take place over 15 days.

Reflecting on how this project has affected my view of educational design, and its unique design shaped by the synergy of age-specific students brings me pride. We must remember not to overlook the smallest of users, as they have the most to gain from an unconventional planning process that focuses solely on them and their needs.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Todd Ferking, who practices from the firm's Seattle office, leads design for DLR Group's K-12 Education Studio. He lives for school design and has become recognized as an expert in forming spaces that enable student-focused learning and take advantage of new and emerging technologies in the learning process. Passionate about collaborating with educators and students in thinking critically about educational practices, Todd is adept at identifying what's working at a school, what could be working better, and how spaces and architecture can better support current practices.

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